A few minutes into Monday night's West St. Paul City Council meeting, Mayor Jenny Halverson announced she would not seek reelection this year.
Halverson, a council member before she was elected mayor in 2016, explicitly encouraged women in that city to run for her office, and others.
"I'm calling on all the women in West St. Paul to step up this year," she told the audience, noting that she had been "the only woman at this table for the last six years."
If the mayor's words didn't convince everyone that representation is important, and that West St. Paul is still run by an old boys' network, perhaps the next few minutes did.
At issue were appointments to the city's planning commission. As mayor, Halverson has authority to appoint city residents to the planning board; her selections are subject to confirmation by a city council vote.
Halverson's first appointment, Maria Franzmeier, was approved without incident. When she went to make her second appointment, of resident Samantha Green, council member John Bellows asked for discussion.
"As the father of daughters," Bellows began, inducing an involuntary eyeroll from anyone with a mansplainer in their life, "I'm not going to take a backseat to anyone in terms of women being involved with the city, or other activities."
Bellows did not name which "other activities" he felt women ought to pursue. He did say that his wife is on the city's parks and recreation board, and "the information I receive from her is of great value to me."
That said, Bellows continued, Mayor Halverson was appointing Green to replace a "perfectly qualified individual" (John Ramsay) already on the planning commission, whom Bellows said was being "discounted apparently on the basis of gender." Bellows observed that all three of Halverson's planning appointees under consideration were women.
He added that these women did not have any background "in design and planning... that's not interior design." One wonders if John Bellows' wife has ever encouraged him to keep his sexist dad jokes to himself; this "information" would be of "great value" to him.
As it happens, Samantha Green is not an interior designer. She's a property manager, and also has experience consulting with utilities companies, giving her knowledge of construction and zoning laws.
Bellows went on to say that he was not trying to "suggest that the individuals involved are not perfectly qualified." Sure, John.
Halverson replied that the three appointees' gender was not why she'd wanted them on the planning commission, though she said it was a welcome change to see women applying for city positions at all. (As one blog post about Monday's dust-up noted, all four commission members not up for reappointment are men.)
But the main thrust of Halverson's response was this: When the previous mayor, a man, put forth commission members, council members argued they should follow his decisions, as it was his prerogative to make appointments. One of those council members was John Bellows.
So what changed?
Bellows -- pausing first to remind everyone he has daughters, and so has a "good deal of experience dealing with the kind of obstacles" women have -- came back to his point about qualifications, alleging without stating it that Halverson's appointees weren't good enough.
"It isn't taken lightly," Halverson said, "that when there was someone else in this chair, we were lobbying for his ability and privilege to appoint, and that that should be his prerogative. But now that it's me here, that's not the position."
Council member Dick Vitelli, a Halverson ally, put a finer point on the matter: "Why is it different now that we have a female mayor?"
No one could say, or wanted to. And yet, Green's appointment was rejected, four votes to two. As Vitelli grumbled audibly about a "good old boys' network," Halverson said simply: "This will not be forgotten, folks."
Now it was Bellows' turn to be offended, saying the mayor's comment was "inappropriate."
An audience member called out, "No, yours is inappropriate!" Bellows addressed the citizen by name, telling him to "shut up."
After the outburst, Bellows again stated that his position was based only on appointees' qualifications. This cracked Vitelli up, to which Bellows said, "I appreciate Council Member Vitelli thinks that's incredibly humorous, because apparently he knows what's in my heart."
Vitelli said simply: "There's a double standard here."
After the meeting, proof that Jenny Halverson is treated differently than a male mayor arrived on her doorstep. Literally. In a Facebook post, Halverson posted photos of a box of tampons that had been left outside her family's home, which she says arrived after someone "creeping" around "under the cover of night." She also says someone, or more than one person, has been ringing the doorbell and running off.
In a defiant reply to the harassment, Halverson wrote:
"We will not be intimidated. We will not be shamed for speaking the truth. We will not be silenced. Your petty acts and continued commitment to archaic societal norms will no longer be tolerated. We know we are not alone. Our hometown is full of good people who have shown us their support and who will stand with us now and into the future."
It's a big moment for a small city. Faced with direct challenges to her authority, and gendered harassment, Jenny Halverson is saying to women and progressives in West St. Paul: Don't run for the hills. Run for office.
UPDATE: This story has been updated to reflect that a box of Kleenex was left not at Mayor Jenny Halverson's house, but at the home of another person involved. And, in response to the incident comes a call to feminist action: a "pad drive," encouraging people to bring their "voices... tampons... and pads" to the next West St. Paul City Council meeting. The donations will be given to women in need; those who can't make the meeting can give directly to this fundraising page.
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