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Rep. Kahn threatens her legacy with sexist rhetoric

MinnPost file photo by James Nord
As a lifelong Minnesota feminist, born one year before Kahn gained office, I was shocked to see one of our foremost public feminists blunder into tired stereotypes in a misguided attempt to curry favor with supporters.

“[She] is younger than me,” the candidate told the local news. “She is prettier than me. She appears nicer than me. She agrees with anything that anyone says to her. So, it was tough competition.”

Shannon Drury

Imagine, for a moment, that you have been transported to the early ’70s, a time when few women held public office, at the state and national level. The feminist movement of the late ’60s is bearing fruit in the emergence of smart, civic-minded women running for office across the country. Even with the momentum of feminism behind them, they still had to confront entrenched systems of misogyny and bigotry. In that milieu, it would not surprise you one bit to hear a male office holder say of his female opponent, running her first campaign:

“She is younger than me.” Young women are nothing if not flighty.

“She is prettier than me.” A woman’s appearance is relevant to the campaign, and since she is pretty, she must be vain, not serious.

“She appears nicer than me.” She is not, in fact, nicer than me, and no one likes an obnoxious woman.

“She agrees with anything that anyone says to her.” The pretty little thing doesn’t even know her own mind!

Even casual students of American history (including fans of “Mad Men”) can recognize the sexism embedded in this language. Now, I ask you to imagine that these words being said on the record about a young woman candidate, but that the words were spoken by a trailblazing feminist legislator who must have heard them uttered about her 40 years ago?

In a KARE 11 news segment that aired on Sunday, April 10, Rep. Phyllis Kahn made the above comments about her rival, Ilhan Omar, a policy analyst and nonprofit leader running her first campaign.

As a lifelong Minnesota feminist, born one year before Kahn gained office, I was shocked to see one of our foremost public feminists blunder into tired stereotypes in a misguided attempt to curry favor with supporters. Has her shortsighted desire to win an additional term in office distorted her long-term goal of social and legal parity for Minnesota women and girls?

Kahn is on record as a supporter of Hillary Clinton for President. Like Kahn, Clinton is a woman with a long and distinguished record of public service — and is a lightning rod for faux controversies over outdated standards of appearance and decorum. If Clinton were to appear in public with one hair out of place, let alone the mop that crowns the head of her opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders, she would be pilloried in the press for appearing unpresidential. Why is Kahn employing these same outdated tactics against her opponent?

Before Kahn’s election, only 17 women had ever served in the Minnesota Legislature since statehood in 1858. Since then, the doors of the Capitol have opened to 67 women, comprising one-third of the Legislature. We have not achieved parity, but Kahn’s leadership puts the dream within reach for others, including her rival, Omar.

I admire Kahn’s intelligence, her tenacity, and her work on behalf of Minnesota women like me and my 10-year-old daughter. We owe her a debt of gratitude for her years of service, but we also owe her the truth: This rhetoric tarnishes her legacy. It reeks of desperation, of unwillingness to yield power to the new generation of activists who seek to build on and expand her body of work. It’s time for Kahn to think deeply about what she hopes to achieve by running another divisive campaign that threatens to discourage the electoral participation of women, particularly young women of color.

After all, to keep a torch burning, it must be passed.

Shannon Drury is a columnist for the Minnesota Women’s Press and the author of the upcoming essay collection “Diary of a Rad Housewife: Ten Years of Tirades and True Tales.”


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Comments (35)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 04/15/2016 - 03:21 pm.

    Doth protest too much

    Compared to the nasty political rhetoric these days, Kahn’s comments – while dumb – are completely innocuous. I honestly can’t believe anyone was upset enough about them to write something like this. Tarnishes her legacy? Reeks of desperation? Please.

    Reading the news and the twitter coverage of this race (which was full of similiar pearl clutching) it seems the real problem is that Kahn has the temerity to want to keep her job. The same thing went on 2 years ago when she beat this year’s third-place finisher. Looking at the caucus results, he was the spoiler and the person Omar should be mad it.

  2. Submitted by Jim Million on 04/15/2016 - 07:07 pm.


    Phyllis Kahn IS of the late 60’s. She was there.

    Like many of us, she’s just old now. So what? If she retains her faculties and is doing her job with respect to her constituents…so what?

    I’m surprised “age discrimination” hasn’t been mentioned: toward the older, the younger, whomever.

    Old Phyllis may be, well, “old,” but she has kept the flame burning for decades and did manage to win a squeaker last time, as noted. Her rhetoric does not “tarnish” her legacy. She is a straight talker, one of the remaining few, and is being criticized here for that long-admired attribute. This piece seems to say more about modern feminism that it does about essential feminism. Let’s give Phyllis (and everyone else) a break, OK?

    May I add? “After all, to keep a torch burning, it must be passed” to another who can maintain that torch.

    So, here I am, an old man defending an old woman in these pages. So much for relevance, I guess.

    Will someone more suited to that task please continue………..?

  3. Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 04/15/2016 - 08:04 pm.

    Doth insult too much

    Kahn’s comments were sexist, but perhaps true. You’d have to ask the voters. Either way, Kahn is sounding a lot like Trump when he loses.

    I noticed the author assuming that Mrs. Clinton would be lambasted if she had a hair out of place. Such blanket statements are all too common when women attempt to be the victim. Then the author insults Mr. Sander’s hair, exactly what she doth protest too much about.

    Truth be told, the candidate most debased over looks has been Mr. Cruz, who’s face has been the butt of joke after joke. Since he is male, those jokes remain acceptable.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/18/2016 - 05:25 pm.

      Please share

      “Truth be told, the candidate most debased over looks has been Mr. Cruz, who’s face has been the butt of joke after joke.” I have never heard a joke about Senator Cruz’s face. I’ve heard many about his birthplace, his name, even his ridiculous politics, but nothing about his face. Can you share what you’ve heard, that we may evaluate them properly?

      PS You left out all the remarks about Donald Trump’s hair from your measure of who has been debased most about his/her looks.

  4. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 04/16/2016 - 06:38 am.


    I have worked for candidates who are women, let’s say, of a certain age. Something they are aware of as women, and this is not the case so much with older men, is that there is a certain tendency for the public to want to turn them in for younger models. Whether or not that’s true, I would really hate to think those all to human concerns, which many of us share in many other contexts, rise to the level of “tarnishing our legacies”. Vote for her or not, Phyllis Kahn has a great, and I am very comfortable in arguing, untarnishable legacy.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 04/16/2016 - 08:30 am.

      Younger Models

      Yes, I have heard this from some women I have known.
      It is an irony of business as well: the young eating their old.

  5. Submitted by Peggy Reinhardt on 04/16/2016 - 08:16 am.

    But does she represent her constituents?

    In the early ’90s, I lived in Kahn’s district and remember attending another contentious nominating event for her seat. As I recall, it took numerous ballots then for Kahn to defeat a young woman challenger. Even more memorable was Kahn’s later remark, “I don’t do humble” as if humility was a sign of weakness and not something a true feminist does.
    Forgive me for suggesting that some feminists are now being giving a pass by voters – as if that label gives blanket acceptance of a “feminist” candidate. This appears to be the case of some supporters of Kahn.
    To me, citizens in her district are looking beyond that label and feeling un-represented by Kahn. No matter that she opposed the Vikings stadium and promoted the blueberry muffin.

    The real question remains: What has she done for her constituents lately? A feminist cannot and should not rest on her laurels lest she be humiliated by her thinking electorate.

    • Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 04/16/2016 - 03:16 pm.

      Actually, most of those of us who have lived in Kahn’s district since 1972, and still live in it, are quite pleased with the way she represents us. We keep re-electing her. She’s accessible, she reaches out to ALL her constituents (there is no identity politics with Phyllis), and she fights for our interests quite effectively. That’s harder to do, since the House is controlled by the far right; many of us wonder if Omar even understands what that means for legislation.

      Any suggestion that Phyllis Kahn be “humble’ about her accomplishments is as absurdly insulting as it would be to ask the same of Hillary Clinton. She has nothing to be humble about, in my mind. BTW: Try asking a man to be humble about his legislative accomplishments? Please. How did humility even get into this conversation?

  6. Submitted by Bill Kahn on 04/16/2016 - 09:22 am.

    The torch metaphor used here really stinks; I guess it has to do with keeping some eternal flame of something or other burning, like for the Olympics I guess, but passing it in a relay is the point where you could extinguish the flame. Anyways, the passing of the Olympic torch is not a way to keep a flame burning, but to move it from place to place; the passing of a torch lit from the fires of Hell burning in the MN House, seems a little different.

    A bucket brigade is what is called for here, I think, and Phyllis Kahn has thrown so many metaphorical buckets of water on folks trying to burn down the House that I guess she has lots of enemies, likely the right ones.

    Leave it to a writer to come up with all this BS about a few words spoken of a political opponent. Trying to pivot on this stuff to no place in particular doesn’t make much sense. The writer’s all wet. No buckets or torches needed.

  7. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 04/16/2016 - 10:32 am.

    It’s amazing how this 2016 erstwhile “feminist” writer is unaware of how anti-female it is to attack an accomplished and vibrant public figure solely for her advancing age! That’s been the ONLY reason advanced by Omar’s campaign for replacing Phyllis Kahn: that she’s been there for a long time, and is “old.” They claim that it’s time for somebody “new” [read: “young”].

    When Kahn uses her forthright manner to counter that “old” epithet (and its euphemisms, rampant in the Omar campaign) with clear use of “young,” and “pretty,” and “agrees with everything” anyone says to her–all of which are descriptors of Omar contrasted by Kahn herself with her own “old” and “not pretty” and “tough talking,” suddenly she is the non-feminist here? I don’t think so.

    I am of the generation that was old enough to actively campaign for Phyllis Kahn in her first run for the Legislature. And since. She is highly effective in St. Paul, she knows the ropes, she can handle the job. We all know that, from her accomplishments. There is no reason to replace her.

    Except that she’s “old.” The Omar campaign is waging ageism against Phyllis Kahn, and nobody can claim to be a feminist while ignoring how frequently women get attacked for . . . living a long time! Phyllis is simply pointing out that ageism, by stating it outright.

  8. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 04/16/2016 - 01:10 pm.

    Campaign rhetoric

    Wisdom vs. energy. Age vs. youth. Pretty routine stuff. Compared to the level of character assassination of most campaign, this is mild stuff. When someone suggests this as some horrible attack, it is pretty clear that they need more seasoning and perspective.

  9. Submitted by James McCorkell on 04/16/2016 - 02:12 pm.

    Get real

    Let’s get real. Young, attractive nice people are pretty popular in our society. Certainly more than the opposite, right?

    Must we label everything an –ism? Our hyper liberal world wants to slap down anyone who ever comments on someone’s appearance. Appearance has always mattered and it always will. If I could snap my fingers and be young and beautiful I certainly would.

    I’d don’t know if Rep Kahn should keep running or not, but her comments strike me as the ultimate in common sense.

  10. Submitted by Michael Hess on 04/16/2016 - 10:12 pm.

    Commentary is off the mark

    Kahn pointed out differences between herself and her opponent she thought make a difference to the voters. if a senior mail legislator said equvalent things about a younger challenger, who was male, no one would bat an eye.

    It’s frustrating when authors such as this one take a phrase or comment or word and ascribe excessive unwarranted attention to it and couch it in terms of “what if” and “this could have been”. It was what it was, a veteran pol commenting on her new rival.

    And for what it’s worth, I don’t know Kahn, not my district, nor the challenger, but I don’t like poorly formed arguments on topics like this.

  11. Submitted by Matt Haas on 04/16/2016 - 10:32 pm.

    Being Liberal

    Is easy when no one questions your motivations. When you’re electing a lady whose biggest credential is being liberal for a long time… We’ve missed the forest for the trees. Rep. Kahn, you’ve done well, you no longer represent your district well, that’s life, move on and let someone who does ascend. Change is a part of life, we liberals would do well to remember this truth.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/18/2016 - 05:28 pm.

      A Part of Life

      ” Change is a part of life, we liberals would do well to remember this truth.” Is change for the sake of change always a good thing? Shouldn’t there be a reason beyond “it’s time?”

      • Submitted by Matt Haas on 04/18/2016 - 09:38 pm.

        How about

        Reflecting the changing demographics of one’s district? Sometimes we need to walk the talk too, lest our ideals become empty slogans.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/19/2016 - 03:44 pm.

          How about

          Electing the best person for the job, and not paying attention to demographics? We can support the rights and aspirations of all races without racial/ethnic/religious/age qualifications.

          The Republicans will promote any person of color as a candidate if that person is willing to say a few of the right things, regardless of their qualifications or abilities . Is that what we want elections to turn into?

  12. Submitted by Barbara Camm on 04/17/2016 - 12:33 am.

    Rep. Kahn threatens her legacy with sexist rhetoric

    The author’s interpretation in the article is incorrect. What Phyllis actually said was that Ilhan and she had the same objectives for the district but that Ilhan was younger, prettier and had a nicer personality. It is true that our culture is oriented toward youth and beauty and Minneapolis in particular exhibits ageism. Ilhan’s public experience is very good, and Phyllis was not in any way referring to Ilhan as flighty or lacking in seriousness.

    On the other hand, Ilhan and her supporters continue to say that Ilhan has the energy needed for the position as house representative and state that Phyllis not only lacks energy but that she is complacent. Ilhan disparages Phyllis’s accomplishments. It was not urgent for the district that Ilhan run this year. Interestingly, neither she nor her supporters seem to realize that she will not have the seniority to become a committee chair and that she will be starting at the bottom of the legislative pack.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 04/17/2016 - 08:45 am.

      Thank You

      Reality is most helpful.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 04/17/2016 - 01:02 pm.

      Nor will she ever, apparently,

      Until Rep. Kahn, and the “old guard” decide they’ve had their fun and deign to abdicate the throne. Have any of you any idea how imperiously you come across, how short sightedly hypocritical? How many times as liberals have we looked on in wondrous amazement as the “other guys” utterly disregard demographics to play to their base, shooting themselves in the proverbial foot while doing so. There are plenty of old white liberals in Minnesota, your interests are represented quite thoroughly, perhaps a different viewpoint might be helpful?

      • Submitted by Jim Million on 04/17/2016 - 06:02 pm.

        “abdicate the throne”

        So much for elections, I guess. Seems her constituents make that decision.

        As for clutching thrones……….

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 04/17/2016 - 07:10 pm.


        There is an election for this seat every two years. If the voters in this district decide to re-elect her – as they have every two years for decades, I’m not sure what the problem is exactly. That’s democracy. The voters will decide when she’s held on too long.

        What seems “imperious”to me is when a minority of people decide that that the long time office holder should just give up her seat to someone else instead of letting voters decide.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/18/2016 - 05:31 pm.

        “They’ve had their fun”

        Is that really how you regard service in the Legislature?

        “There are plenty of old white liberals in Minnesota, your interests are represented quite thoroughly” Are you saying we “old white liberals:” are represented only by one of “our own?” I’m also male–does that mean my Latina state senator does not represent me, or my viewpoints?

        I’ve heard of identity politics, but this takes it to a whole new level.

        • Submitted by Matt Haas on 04/18/2016 - 09:49 pm.


          I could rail on about lots of identity politics far more damaging than this, the DFL’s Minneapolis bias in decision making would be the foremost, but seriously, if this was North Minneapolis, do you think this debate would be happening? I have no personal qualm with Rep. Kahn, she’s done much good for us all, but she hasn’t done a good job with outreach to what has become a very important demographic in her district, one which should be an important area of outreach for the DFL as a whole. Old and white is the calling card of another political entity, one which we deride as fading into the dustbin of history, it should be incumbent upon us to ensure that our decisions don’t condemn us to the same fate. Its not enough to say, “Who else will they vote for?”, even in districts as safe as this, but rather “Why should they vote with us?”.

  13. Submitted by Abdiaziz Dhoore on 04/17/2016 - 10:24 am.

    Ilhan is a woman, smart, competent

    I agree with Ms Kahn and the reporter that Ilhan Omar is young, pretty and nice. I would ask the veteran legislator if she was flighty when she was nearly the age of Ilhan and run for this office in 1973. If she means what she said, we will ask Ilhan to look carefully into all the bills she sponsored all those years. Ilhan is smart and competent. She will do better. She is nice and Minnesota needs more of these nice people who can get along with everybody. The district mighty geographically be the same one Ms Kahn have represented decades, but it changed so fast. Ilhan is winning, is not because of gender or age, she can relate to the people she wants to represent, she knows their daily challenges better than Kahn or any other candidate.

    • Submitted by Michael Hess on 04/17/2016 - 06:33 pm.


      Remember at least per this article Kahn never suggested her opponent was flighty. That was an invention of the author that assumed young women are flighty.

      Considering how likely it is that various DFL factions are going to be parsing their opponents words for hidden meanings (like this one) it’s important to keep straight what they say vs what someone thinks what they said may have meant when said by a man in 1973.

  14. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 04/18/2016 - 08:26 am.

    Enough already…

    While I have never been a constituent of Ms. Kahn, my first vote goes to that same 1972 election. For years I admired her efforts; but of late she is the best example of what happens with entrenched and privileged incumbency: a sweetheart housing deal on public land, tearing down opponents campaign materials, NIMBY-ing the DeLaSalle football field and costing the school over a million dollars in extra costs so she would not have to listen to a marching band 4 blocks away 4 nights a year. Say good night Phyllis….

  15. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 04/18/2016 - 10:17 am.

    De La Salle supporters from wherever in the Twin Cities they live just will not forgive Phyllis Kahn for fighting to protect the federally-designated park area on Nicollet Island from that school’s desire to have a soccer stadium on park land.

    Luckily, those of us who live within House District 60B will decide who represents us in the Legislature. Not De La Salle families or alums.

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 04/18/2016 - 03:19 pm.

      You may live there; but you are wrong…

      The Minneapolis Park Board authorized the offering of Nicollet Island houses on park board land to interested parties and at the same time offered DeLaSalle the opportunity to build an athletic field. Fortunately for Ms. Kahn and the other DFL insiders who curiously got the sweet deals all they had to do was make a nominal deposit and agree to pay property taxes about 10% of what their neighbors across the river pay. Unfortunately, for DeLaSalle, they did not have the funds needed to build the field, as providing scholarships and great educations and future opportunities to kids of all races, religions (YES) and economic status consumed all available funds at that time. When funds became available thirty years later Ms. Kahn and her NIMBY allies flexed all the muscle they had to keep their island their own: ignoring the same agreement that allowed them to occupy houses on park board land. So over a million dollars was not used to provide scholarships and great educations and future opportunities to kids of all races, religions (YES) and economic status and instead was applied to beating Ms. Kahn and her allies in court.

      I remember a time when DFL activists supported things like providing scholarships and great educations and future opportunities to kids of all races, religions (YES) and economic status. Not so with Ms. Kahn when it interrupts her peace and tranquility 4 night a year with cheering and band music.

  16. Submitted by Pat Terry on 04/18/2016 - 12:43 pm.

    Same old story

    I came across this Minnpost article from two years ago. Same issues, same arguments, and a lot of the same commenters. If she hangs on for another term, I’m sure we’ll see this again in 2018.

    Although Noor did poorly at the caucus (which really means absolutely nothing given how undemocratic the caucus system is) he nearly won against Kahn last time and is a serious candidate. Rather than trying to get Kahn to just quit instead of leaving it to the voters, Omar should be trying to get Noor to quit. Or should drop out herself and support Noor. But if both go into the primary, there will be a split of the non-Kahn vote and Kahn will probably win.

    • Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 04/19/2016 - 11:07 am.

      That 2014 MinnPost article included this detail:

      “But House District 60B is different. Unlike Ward 6, its boundaries stretch far beyond Somali communities, and include areas like Nicollet Island, Prospect Park, Marcy Holmes and the University of Minnesota.”

      There are many more people, and voters, in 60B than just Somali immigrants; the demographic is more diverse than many non-60B people imagine. And, Phyllis Kahn keeps getting elected from that diverse population, including many Somali-American voters (in 2014, for example). She is a consummate politician in that regard, always reaching out to that demographic mix as it changes.

      One thing our district doesn’t seem to buy into? Identity politics. We prefer issues, and policy debates, thank you. Phyllis Kahn is solid on the issues that matter to her constituents.

  17. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 04/18/2016 - 04:47 pm.


    At least we are consistent.

    I have always been amazed at the politician owned, fully developed adult brain that some how morphs from a Democrat/Republican to a Republican/Democrat.

    It’s always “the party left me”, not “Here’s what’s best for me!!!!”.

    Norm Coleman as Exhibit 1.

  18. Submitted by ELIZABETH Hatle on 04/19/2016 - 03:51 pm.

    Phyllis Kahn

    Next, for Shannon Drury-Karen Clark’s historical legacy? The Radical Housewife-21st century ‘feminist,’ mean “girl” 40 something want to be hipster-just ugh on so, so many different levels…

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