In 2015, Mayor Emily Larson became the first woman elected Mayor of Duluth, Minnesota. On election night 2015, she said: “I think together, as a community, we have changed the face of leadership in a way that’s going to really benefit girls and women for generations to come.”
During her first term, Mayor Larson has championed reproductive health care, pay equity, paid family leave, earned sick time, and developing and promoting women’s leadership. Mayor Larson kicked off her re-election campaign in March 2019 and Women Winning was proud to be the first organization to endorse her. We spoke with Mayor Larson about what inspired her to run for public office, what she tells girls who visit the mayor’s office, and how she pushes back when she encounters biases about women’s executive leadership.
Women Winning: Though you had long been an active member of your community, serving on boards and working with local nonprofits, you got your start in politics when you ran for Duluth City Council in 2011. What motivated you to take that step, put your name out there, and run for public office?
Mayor Emily Larson: I didn’t feel that any of the members of the council truly represented me. Initially, I was seeking to be a campaign manager for another candidate. I was working to recruit other people to run.
I told my husband, “Gosh, I can’t find anybody to run for this seat. I’m looking for a woman who’s in her 30s, who has kids in the public schools, who knows about running a business, but also has nonprofit experience…” Very clearly he pointed out, “wow, you’ve just described yourself.” That was the turning point. Though I had been approached to run for office previously, it was that conversation with someone so close to me that made me think I could do it.
Running for office is not like working on a campaign. It’s much more vulnerable and there’s much greater risk. The transition from being a campaigner to a candidate was challenging. Women Winning was truly a critical part of me finding my voice, figuring out who I wanted to be in that public space, and getting elected.
WW: And indeed you were elected to the City Council! In fact, you became Council President right off the bat. Then, four years later, you decided to run for mayor and won that race with 72% of the vote to become Duluth’s first woman mayor. How have you seen your position as the first woman mayor impact women and girls, as well as the City of Duluth?
Mayor Larson: With time, I have learned the significance of achieving that milestone as a community. I hadn’t fully realized the importance of electing someone who demonstrated qualities that were not entirely white and male. There is something a little fragile about how it feels when you are the “first” — and exposing, and thrilling, and exciting. There’s a sense of responsibility to be a good steward, to ensure that you are truly just the first and that you are part of blazing a trail.
I’ve heard girls say things like, “I didn’t know there were girl mayors.” When a young girl visits my office, I will invite her to sit down in my chair and say to her, “You know, there’s nothing special about this chair. It’s the person who sits in it that matters. I’m in it now, but I’m not going to be sitting here forever. We’re going to need someone else and we need you to be ready.
WW: That’s reminiscent of what Elizabeth Warren has said recently about meeting young girls on the campaign trail and telling them “I’m running for President because that’s what girls do.” How important it is to name that for young women and to have those examples?
Mayor Larson: That’s a really important message — and it takes a lot of people to make it happen. It takes organizations like Women Winning, and groups of people who emotionally, logistically, and financially support women candidates. We know that women are still catching up in those informal business and civic circles — circles through which men have created their own opportunities. Generational financial power and organizational capacity has long been handed from man to man. It’s important to call it out and say “yep, this is what girls do” and to recognize that women are still building those important networks that men have had access to for years. I’m proud that I get to be a part of strengthening those networks of women and allies who are making change.
WW: According to the Center for American Women and Politics, as of February 2019 of the 1,412 U.S. cities that have populations larger than 30,000, only 295 have women mayors — about 20%.
Mayor Larson: That’s in the United States? Oh my gosh, that’s crazy.
WW: Yes! As one of those 295 mayors, what do you think we need to do to improve that statistic and elect more women to mayor’s offices?
Mayor Larson: As a network of women, we can be bold and courageous. When a leadership opportunity arises, instead of saying, “I’m not sure if you’re ready for it,” we must be asking, “how can I help you get ready for it?”
Often we hear hesitation around things like electability and likeability. Very different and very gendered questions are asked of women. We must be clear about the source of those questions and we must call each other out: “That is not a question you would ask a male candidate. You would never ask if he’s ‘likable’ enough.”
WW: We know the red flags at Women Winning — it’s comments like “I don’t like her voice” or “I like her, but I don’t think she can beat XYZ candidate.” These comments come up more frequently for women running for an executive office — Mayor, Governor, President. How do you challenge those biases?
Mayor Larson: I have many times faced others’ doubts about whether or not I’m tough enough or strong enough. I am underestimated on a fairly regular basis. People will turn to a man in the room, or a man sitting next to me, and speak to him. I know what I’m capable of and I’m comfortable showing that. When I have been challenged on whether I’m tough enough to make a decision, my first reaction is “try me.” I can do my own hard work. I can do my own heavy lifting. I am the steady resilient leader that my community needs me to be.
WW: What advice would you give to a woman considering running for office — especially executive office?
Mayor Larson: When a woman tells me she’s thinking about running for office, I will meet with her every single time. It’s important to give space to another woman to explore her leadership because I know there aren’t a lot of rooms where women can do that.
Running for office is not about proving that you don’t have gaps. It’s about knowing yourself and how you’re going to lead. Instead of asking “why?” ask yourself “why not?”