Southwest woman gets other young women politically involved

As one women's political group ages, Courtney Cushing Kiernat helps bring in new blood.

East Calhoun resident Courtney Cushing Kiernat said she's worried that politicians may not preserve existing female reproductive rights.

But instead of playing the armchair quarterback, this 34-year-old mother of two joined Minnesota Women's Campaign Fund (MWCF) to help the group recruit other young, like-minded women to support women in the political arenas.

The statewide group funds and supports female pro-choice political candidates from any party -- although pro-choice Republican candidates have been hard to come by in recent years.

The 22-year-old MWCF has also found young members hard to come by. Most members are now in their 60s.

That intersects with another troubling trend for the group: only 26 percent of the state's legislative members are women and just half of those are pro-choice -- a decline in recent years, organization officials say. Politically, women who are ascendant are pro-life Republicans holding statewide office, such as State Auditor Patricia Anderson and Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer.

MWCF representatives said they must draw new members such as Cushing Kiernat, not only to keep the organization going, but to make sure pro-choice women vote and run for office in the future.

MWCF currently has 1,500 members and Executive Director Sara Fenlason says that in the past year, 16 to 20 percent of new members are younger than 30. She hopes that by recruiting young women and working statewide, the group can reach 5,000 members by 2007.

Young blood

Cushing Kiernat has the politically active background some might expect: a former student council kid and class president. However, she said living in Pakistan made her politically active, and her two children more recently reinforced her interest.

Cushing Kiernat grew up in Lowry Hill and Kenwood but lived for four years in Pakistan, where her father worked temporarily as a hospital administrator.

She said the experience changed her outlook about her rights as an American. In Pakistan, Cushing Kiernat said she saw more people living in extreme poverty, but no one could criticize the government.

"There were so many people that didn't have a say. Women didn't have a lot of rights, either," she said.

American women her age have always had rights -- from voting to obtaining contraception or abortions -- but these rights can be taken for granted and "can be taken away," Cushing Kiernat said.

That fear, coupled with recent legislation such as a "partial birth" abortion ban that would limit patient and doctor choice, makes it essential for younger women to get involved and protect existing rights for the next generation, she said.

"We can't sit on our laurels and expect things to stay the same," Cushing Kiernat said. "I have two kids… I hope it doesn't come to this, but if my daughter needs these kinds of services, I want her to have the choice."

Because of these issues, she said, she joined MWCF a year and a half ago, after a friend's mother brought her to the group.

At first, the stay-at-home mom said she was apprehensive about joining older and extremely business savvy women.

Cushing Kiernat noted that many members are former politicians with law degrees. However, she found that her previous work as an event planner and lobbyist for local charities helped her find a place in the organization.

About the Minnesota Women's Campaign Fund

Fenlason said 25 women created the Minneapolis-based group in 1982, when only 14 percent of Minnesota legislators were women.

Current board member and Kenwood resident Susanne Hutcheson said her mother got her involved four years ago. Hutcheson's mom, Perrin Lilly, is one of the group's founders. "I'm hoping to follow in her footsteps," Hutcheson said.

Hutcheson also chairs the Planned Parenthood board of directors, overseeing Minnesota and North and South Dakota offices. She said the two boards work closely together.

Hutcheson said MWCF focuses on electing more women. She said that female candidates need help finding campaign money in a male-dominated political world. "The idea is to have an ever-growing group of women becoming a political force," Hutcheson said.

In the organization's first years, each member put in $1,000, and they used that money to help fund candidates such as former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton.

Due to changing campaign finance laws, Fenlason said the group couldn't give as much money directly to state and local candidates, so they must be more strategic about how they offer their support. MWCF now gives female candidates advice about how to run for office and provides campaign volunteers.

Group leaders said their pro-choice requirement doesn't keep them from recruiting candidates in all parties, but it's been harder recently. They said sometimes their Republican candidates closet their pro-choice views to retain support from GOP party leaders.

Reaching the next generation

Since campaign finance laws changed, so has the organization's appeal to younger women. Fenlason said instead of a $1,000 contribution, the group only requires $35, making membership more accessible to younger women with less money.

Now former MWCF Associate Director Erin Ghere, 26, said members hope more young and politically active women such as Cushing Kiernat will get involved. She said they not only energize the group but will get more women elected to higher-ranking offices.

"Younger women are more open to women in higher offices," Ghere said. "The more young women we can get involved, the better the chance we have of the people we're funding getting elected."

Fenlason said Cushing Kiernat has helped MWCF appeal to younger women through its annual events. Cushing Kiernat ran an event last October and brought in young female speakers who work on the Fringe Festival. The festival is an annual theatrical roundup held in Minneapolis.

MWCF speakers talked about political history such as the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote but also about women's issues such as eating disorders.

Cushing Kiernat said young women don't want to hear a political stump speech, so speakers highlighted, in a less political way, how important it is to get involved in women's rights issues.