Connecting rural women leaders

Three women chatting outside.

The importance of connecting and empowering women leaders across Greater Minnesota has perhaps never been so evident as it is today.

“Women’s leadership is not just a ‘nice-to-have,’ we are finding it’s a matter of survival for our small towns,” says Kate Stower, a recent graduate from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Stower has been working to strengthen capacity among rural women leaders with the nonprofit 100 Rural Women, the University of Minnesota Extension Northwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership, and the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs.

Today, fewer than 18 percent of all city council, county board, and mayoral positions in Minnesota are held by women.

“When we think of revitalizing small communities with dwindling and aging populations, it will rely on having more women in leadership … who can represent the changing needs of their communities,” Stower says.

Stower, who grew up in rural Wisconsin, recognized early on that her heart is in rural America. She enrolled in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs graduate program with the goal of supporting the vitality and resilience of small towns.

“After taking the only rural policy class currently available, I carved out my own path in my graduate program to get into rural communities,” she says.

For the past two semesters, Stower helped 100 Rural Women’s mission to serve rural women through relationships, models of networking, leadership, mentorship, and civic engagement.

Activities included reviewing existing literature on women’s leadership and networks, administering a survey of 180 women, and organizing a series of four virtual workshops this spring to connect rural women across counties in Northwest Minnesota. 

Over 200 women across the region shared their experiences during the project. Participants cited barriers including a lack of resources, broadband access, education, self-confidence, and social support and networks. Stower says that many women expressed frustration with competing demands of family care and inadequate childcare options in rural areas.

“While we expected a number of these limitations to be raised, especially given the COVID-19 pandemic, many of these women in rural areas actually talked about the opportunities,” she says. Opportunities to connect virtually have reduced barriers such as transportation or finding childcare that may limit or prevent rural women’s engagement in leadership activities.

Drawing on lessons learned from the initial series of workshops this spring, 100 Rural Women will continue its efforts as it expands with a goal of hosting 100 meetings to connect rural women and develop their leadership capacity across the state.

“I’m excited to see how 100 Rural Women is able to scale up and grow this program in the future,” Stower says.

“This project has truly been such a gift,” she adds. “There is something so magical working in community-university partnerships. I’ve learned so much from community leaders and their local expertise and wisdom.”