In this episode, Amelia travels to Sioux Falls, South Dakota to speak with two local women running for political office for the first time.
In this episode, we hear from Toni Miller and Rachel Willson, two South Dakota women currently running for offices in South Dakota’s state legislature. Hear what inspired them to run and why they’re hopeful for their campaigns and the future of South Dakota.
- Why Toni decided to run for office [2:30 – 3:50]
- Why Rachel decided to run for office [5:45 – 8:15]
- LGBT representation in South Dakota [8:25 – 10:25]
- Support Fifty Feminist States with a donation or buy a t-shirt!
- “In South Dakota, Women Lagging in Elected Office”
- The letter Rachel read: “What Keeps Me Away from SD”
- South Dakota’s State Integrity ranking
- LEAD South Dakota
Toni Miller’s campaign on Facebook
Rachel Willson’s campaign on Facebook
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Amelia: This is Fifty Feminist States a roadtripping, storytelling podcast visiting all fifty US states to interview feminist activists and artists about their work for gender justice.
I’m Amelia Hruby, and this week we’re in South Dakota.
Rachel: It doesn’t sit right with me to think about leaving the state that I love. We should want to help South Dakota change rather than just waiting for it to change on our own and leaving and going somewhere more comfortable. Not to mention the fact that there are so many people here that don’t have the means to leave and they deserve to be represented.
Amelia: Hi everyone, Amelia here, your tour-guide, host, wanderer, listener guiding us on this Fifty Feminist States journey. I am so thankful for all of you who have listened to the first episodes of season one of Fifty Feminist States, and I wanted to let know you that I’m actually back out on the road doing interview for season two. Over 100 amazing Kickstarter backers helped fund season one, but I could use more listener support to help cover expenses as I’m traveling and producing for season two, so if you have anything to share, you can do that at fiftyfeministstates.com/support. I also have some kickass t-shirts and totebags available. You can find those at fiftyfeministstates.com/shop and those purchases help me stay on the road and keep doing this work as well. Thank you so much for listening. This week, we are in South Dakota, and we’re gonna get back on the road!
In 1938, South Dakota elected Gladys Pyle to the US Senate, making her the first woman in the nation to be elected to the senate without a previous appointment. Since then, however, South Dakota women’s representation in political office has fallen steeply, and in 2016, the South Dakota newspaper Rapid City Journal, published a feature called “In South Dakota, women lagging in elected offices.”
Looking at local offices, the piece reported that among South Dakota’s 20 most populous cities, there was not a single city council or commission with a majority of women serving. Twenty-five percent of those councils or commissions didn’t have a single female representative at all. On the state legislature level, since 1975, South Dakota has bounced between a low of 8.6 percent of women in the legislature in 1977 to a high of 24.4 percent in 1991. As of this year, only 19% of South Dakota legislators are women. There are three democrat women and 13 republican women in the house and just three republican women in the senate. This year, however, all of that might change, as South Dakota is seeing its highest number of female candidates running in decades and more of those women are Democrats than ever before.
In this episode, we’ll hear from two South Dakota women from Sioux Falls who are running for office for the first time. Toni Miller is running for House District 9, and Rachel Willson is running for Senate District 10. We’ll hear from Toni first.
Toni: My name is Toni Miller, and I’m running for district nine house of Representatives. I’ve lived in this area my whole life. I like to tell people that I never even left the zip code except for when I went to college at SDSU in Brookings, actually I’ve been volunteering for other people’s campaigns since I was 19. The first one I ever volunteered on was Tom … in 1999. Uh, and you know, 20 years later I just figured I could probably do that for myself. But what really it was after the 2016 election of course. Um, and I know a lot of other candidates have said the same thing. It was the attacks on healthcare and then of course just the, you know, the devastating election results nationally. Um, but specifically here in South Dakota when I found out who the representative was, who my representative was, um, the first time that I met him, I couldn’t believe it. I mean, I just, I took one look at him and I said, “well, he doesn’t represent me.” So it was February of 2017, that was the second time that I met him and then I decided I was going to run specifically to unseat him. And I didn’t understand how he got the job and, and I thought, you know, after I decided to run I thought well it was kind of sad that a guy like that had to win in order for somebody like me to decide to run, you know. But it turns out that I wasn’t wrong because in June, uh, June 5th or so, he put a statement on Facebook that he believes that businesses should be able to discriminate against people of color. So not only did I. So I guess I wasn’t wrong in my assumption he wasn’t representing me.
Amelia: This experience was one that I heard echoed in the second candidate I spoke to, Rachel Willson. Let’s hear more about her decision to run for office.
Rachel: I’m Rachel Wilson. I’m running for the South Dakota Senate to represent district 10, which is northeast Sioux Fall, Brandon, and Renner. I moved to South Dakota in 2012. I ended up coming up to South Dakota to go to South Dakota state because it was cheap. I remember the first day going into like the financial aid office there and back home, like at my first university, the day that you had to go to the financial aid office you had to like mentally prepare for, for like a week ahead of time because they were rude and it would take forever and I just remember going into the financial aid office at SDSU, and I was so surprised because they were so nice and I was like, what is this? And then it just kept happening like that. The people here are very kind and like not in a fake, nice kind of way. Like they genuinely, like if you run into someone on the sidewalk or something, they’re going to be extremely sorry about it and they’re going to apologize a whole bunch. And uh, they’re hard working, so hard working. Like I’ve never been around a group of people more hardworking, but yeah. So there are genuine, kind, hardworking, trustworthy. and just good. Good people. So whenever I graduated Undergrad, most of my classmates moved elsewhere to start working, but I didn’t want to. And part of that was because I had really fallen in love with the type of people here in South Dakota. They were what made me want to stay. There is of course you know a lot wrong with some of the stuff going on in South Dakota, but the people here are very genuine and hardworking and, and I really value that.
Amelia: It’s one thing to love the state you’re living in, but it’s another thing to decide to run for office to represent it. Hear more about why Rachel decided to run for office.
Rachel: There was actually a letter written into our local newspaper by a woman who graduated from the University of South Dakota law school. And then her and her family moved out to Colorado to live and practice law and all that kind of stuff. And so she wrote in a letter because she realized that a lot of millennials and younger people were moving out of state to work and raise their families rather than staying here. Her words are a little bit, they explain it pretty well.
Amelia: Here’s Rachel quoting directly from the letter, which I’ll link to in the shownotes.
Rachel (quoting): I talked about how when people ask me what I miss most about South Dakota, the answer’s easy: the people. The harder part to explain is that many of those people are people that support these types of hateful legislation. The people who taught me the value of hard work, the people who taught me to give and love unconditionally, the people who ask if I’ll ever move back to South Dakota and what keeps me away. As the likes and the comments on that post came in,I realized that people that most spoke to were similarly situated. Those with South Dakota connections, who all had things to give back to the state we hold so dear, yet chose to live somewhere else. Chose to use their talents to benefit the another populous, chose to support different economies. Chose to send their kids to out of state. Bottom line: We left because it’s easier to come back and relish in the things we love and return to the comfort of other places we now call home — places that don’t use twisted ideas of religion, religious freedom and conservative values to perpetuate discrimination and hate of things they don’t understand. South Dakota, we love you and we miss you and you’re right: We’ve changed. But we’re not coming back until you do.
Rachel: So that really. I remember when, when that first came out, a lot of my friends were sharing that on facebook and they were like, yes, this, this is why I left her, you know, this is why I need to leave like ASAP. And I realized how many people in my age group that, that really resonated with. But when I read that article, I didn’t feel that because I had fallen in love with the state. And if you like all these things that clearly me and you know the person who wrote that letter, we love South Dakota for a lot of the same reasons, but she left and I can’t. It doesn’t sit right with me to think about leaving the state that I love because we should, we should want to help South Dakota change rather than just waiting for it to change on our own and leaving and going somewhere more comfortable. Not to mention the fact that there are so many people here that don’t have the means to leave and they deserve to be represented so much. And, and so I decided to stay and work towards making South Dakota a state that we can really be proud of a state where I’m young, progressive millennials want to stay.
Amelia: And Rachel’s campaign is particularly special, because she’s a member of the LGBTQ community that has historically been persecuted particularly harshly in South Dakota, and if she wins her race, she’ll be the first openly lesbian legislator in the state.
Rachel: When I first moved here, I remember making friends in college and then being like, wow, you’re the first gay person I’ve ever met. And I’m like, “well, probably not, but okay.” Um, and now you know, I definitely don’t get that anymore. And it’s, it’s comforting I guess to know that so many more people are coming around to it. Um, and so I really don’t think we’ll see a very many openly like homophobic bills in the near future. That’s not to say that we won’t see a lot of openly transphobic ones and most of the bills. That we see now are targeted towards like, you know, through hidden language basically making it so that, you know, like, same sex parents can’t adopt and, or make it more difficult I guess for them. Um, but being from Texas and then moving to South Dakota, I’ve never really been in a place where my interests have been in the majority, I guess, at all. So I’m kind of used to it, I guess at this point. Uh, it’s just that it’s been so nice to receive the amount of support that I’ve gotten from people. Um, so yeah, it’s, it’s scary going into this knowing that at some point I know my, I know my sexuality will be brought up and it will be a point of focus in the campaign that I’ll have to talk about. But I mean, I’m ready for that. And I think that South Dakota’s to the point where they could vote for someone who they thought would help South Dakota, even if they have a sexuality that’s different, different than their own. And we technically have had an LGBT legislator. Um, her name was Angie … O’Donnell, and she, during her run for her second term, she came out as bisexual. But if elected, I would be the first lesbian a legislator, which would be pretty cool. And I think that that sort of thing resonates with, with some of the people here, at least it has for me so far. They want someone who’s going to be like new and bringing a fresh perspective. Because I mean everyone who kinda has taken any sort of interest in local politics knows that our legislature is extremely old and white and a male and that should probably change.
Amelia: One of the reasons that people are so eager for political change in South Dakota, is that the state has a historically corrupt government with a number of high profile scandals. In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity ranked South Dakota 47th out of 50 states in state integrity, making it the third most corrupt government in the country. One of the reasons for this ranking was that South Dakota lacks a non-partisan ethics board to arbitrate corruption issues, so it is most often Republican lawmakers overseeing corruption scandals. In 2017, voters passed a referendum to establish an independent ethics commission and other government transparency measures in South Dakota, but GOP lawmakers quickly repealed it, under an “emergency” clause that allowed for an immediate reversal and prevented voters from proposing a new referendum. And in the face of all of this, young activists in South Dakota are still optimistic for its feminist future. Hear Toni tell us what she’s most excited about if she is elected to office.
Toni: Well, I suppose just learning the ropes, you know, just, you know, understanding how things work in there. And just trying to bring a balance, you know, not having to fight. I just feel that Democrats and other activists have just been on the defense for so long. We haven’t had a chance to really push through any good bills that will benefit all South Dakotans. We’re just constantly trying to fight off bad ones. You know, like the anti choice bills, anti Muslim bills, the bathroom bills, you know, and it’s hard to make any progress in the state when you’re just on the defense. So I’m hoping we can get enough responsible progressive leaders in there that we can start pushing through some, some good laws that’s going to help all South Dakotans.
Amelia: If you’re interested in Toni or Rachel’s campaigns, I’ll link to their websites in the shownotes which you can find at fiftyfeministstates.com/podcast. I’ll also link to South Dakota organization LEAD which has helped both of these candidates and many others with their campaigns.
Next episode we’ll travel east to Minnesota to wrap up season one. Until then, I’ll see you on the road!
Thanks for tuning in to this episode of Fifty Feminist States. You can follow Fifty Feminist States to stay updated on episodes and roadtrip happenings on Instagram at @fiftyfeministstates that’s @f-i-f-t-y-feministstates.
Our opening music is by Lobo Loco and this wonderfully sexist song that you’re listening to on our way out is a recording by Billy Murray from 1916.
Special thanks go out to Toni and Rachel for meeting with me and sharing their insights into South Dakota’s feminist landscape. I also have to thank the hundred or so Kickstarter backers who made funding this season possible.
Until next time, wild ones! We’ll see you on the road.