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Women will change the Range

The new large swath of red on the political map overlooks a lot, especially how divided women are on the future of mining.

Photo by Shanai Matteson
The Minnesota 8th Congressional District’s flip from DFL to Republican hands last week has been the talk of the country, with more than $13 million spent on this race by outside groups. The conversation has been dominated by male voices: the candidates, Pete Stauber and Joe Radinovich themselves, President Trump’s victory lap, and perhaps more generally a win for the rhetorical Iron Range man whose economic vulnerability has shaped the narrative that mining is the future of the region.

It is striking that while the nation celebrates the political advance of young, diverse women, the 8th District victory has been about white men holding down the status quo. The new large swath of red on the political map overlooks a lot, especially how divided women are on the future of mining.

As Twin Cities-based scholars and activists, we have found ourselves deeply conflicted on what role mining should play in Minnesota’s future. We began a collaboration years ago to better understand the controversies around mining by spending time on the Iron Range meeting and listening to those whose lives and landscapes are at stake.

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Just weeks before the election, we drew together a group of women who live on the Iron Range, many for multiple generations, for an evening of storytelling in Virginia, Minnesota. We asked them to help us better understand how mining matters for them personally. They were invited to bring objects that represented their history and hopes for the future.

photo of article author
Roopali Phadke
This wasn’t the first conversation like this we’ve had with Range residents. Over the last three years, we’ve performed a series of listening sessions across the region. We’ve met staunch supporters and opponents of mining. One thing has become abundantly clear to us: There are many more people wading through the murky middle than the media or campaigns let on.

Below we reflect on three themes we heard from our recent women’s gathering.

“Are you from here?” / “Where (or who) are you from?”

Women told us that a person’s family history and identity as a Ranger remains fundamental to being heard and noticed. Even those who have lived on the Range for 20-plus years were quick to say, “I’m not from here.”

What does it mean to belong or dis-belong to the Range? Does belonging require going along with the narrative constructed by others about the future of the region? What’s the cost for speaking out?

Women we met told us that they or their family members might pay a high price for outspokenness. To complicate this further, we also heard a defensiveness and desire to protect the Range from those who misunderstand what it means to make a life here. This is especially directed at urbanites like us who have a lot to say about how the land should be used and protected but little lived experience with the realities.

photo of artilce author
Shanai Matteson
One woman shared with us a quote from John Paul Lederach’s “The Little Book of Conflict Transformation,” where he writes, “At the deepest level, identity is lodged in the narratives of how people see themselves, who they are, where they have come from, and what they fear they will become or lose.”

Belonging matters for whose voices get counted and whose ideas about change resonate. We’ve heard that it is difficult to attract new people to live and invest in the Range. Yet it may be that those new people, and the ideas they bring as visitors and/or residents, can spark a more diversified economic future.

Women have always mattered, but are seldom remembered, on the Range.

Talking about mining’s place in the economy means talking simultaneously about the past, present and future. Yet, it seems easier to talk about the past than the future, even though we are clearly all concerned about the future, both in terms of impending unwanted change and yearning for a change that heals and reconnects. One woman shared with us that “mining is about layers and layers of history and family.”

The women we met shared objects with us that symbolized how women have been forgotten, even though they played a really important role in life on the Range. One image that struck us was an old photograph of a Finnish great grandmother, who was the person everyone turned to in her community for advice. In 1912, her community appointed her an election clerk and resolved that she receive the “same pay as others” given her stature. We also held a dusty, old cookbook cherished by a granddaughter who remembered the sense of love she felt in that kitchen.

The women we met talked about the creative, resilient women who made the Range. These were the grandmothers, laborers, and caregivers who kept families intact despite the booms and busts of mining. We also heard stories about heartbreak — the heartbreak of limited choice, sacrifices going unnoticed, and promises for pensions, education and freedoms not kept.

Women fix things.

Women’s stories of their mothers and grandmothers were often about rehabilitation and repair — care for others and their places. All of this fixing, mending and tending are part of the overlooked labor of sustaining the Range.

Women’s work today is this and more. We heard stories of compromise. Women are wrestling with complexities and smoothing tensions. They look for the spaces in between the embattled camps to express their hopes for the future. As one woman said, “Only 10% of the jobs here are in mining; the rest of us do something else.” We heard a vision for food sufficiency for the Range where new farms and markets might help keep economic power in the community.

Our women’s meeting left us wondering: What if women were the ones imagining and creating the future Iron Range? Would it be different? Women highlight and frame things differently. They often speak in more nuanced, complicated, conflicted terms about mining and the future. And they carry lots of stories about things that often don’t make it into the mainstream narratives of pro- or anti-mining campaigns. 

Above all else, we heard a sense of incompleteness in the “mining supports us” narrative. While mining is undeniably important, there is more to the story. The women we met sense that changes are coming. They see climate change, economic change, and cultural change on the horizon. They desire to recognize this change, which is not the story you always hear on the outside, about those who live on the Iron Range. As one woman told us, “Gaping wounds in the land that can still be beautiful. Pits are beautiful.” Acknowledging damage, repair and recovery seems a vital step in shaping the future.

Our work collecting stories continues. If you would like to contribute your personal experiences from the murky middle of mining, please reach out to either one of us. Our longer-term goal is to curate an exhibit to be shared across the state about the voices and stories overlooked in our current debates over mining’s future in Minnesota.

Roopali Phadke is a professor of environmental studies at Macalester College. Her teaching and research focus on water, energy and mining policies. You can reach her at or @roopaliphadke. Shanai Matteson is a writer and public artist based in Minneapolis. She grew up in northern Aitkin County, and still spends much of her time in northeastern Minnesota. You can reach her at or through her work at Water Bar & Public Studio.


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