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Legacy of equity, independence: A tribute to Arvonne Fraser

This year, active until the end, Arvonne applauded the dramatic increase in the number of women running for public office.

Don and Arvonne Fraser in a photo from 2010.
MinnPost file photo by Jana Freiband

“It takes a good strong man to publicly and privately support his wife’s equality and tolerate her independence,” Arvonne Fraser wrote in one of her widely read holiday letters to friends and supporters. Arvonne, who died on Tuesday at the age of 92, penned this tribute to her husband, Don, after he had been elected mayor of Minneapolis in 1979 and she remained in Washington, working in a senior position at the Agency for International Development. The tribute was a commentary on their marriage, lasting nearly 70 years at the time of her death, and a reference to her independent career as a national feminist leader.

I first got to know Arvonne when I was working in Don’s office as a congressional assistant. Back then, in the late 1960s, Arvonne was overseeing the office on a volunteer basis as she was helping organize the Women’s Equity Action League (WEAL). I experienced firsthand her commitment to women’s equity and action.

One day, when I was still new on the job, she called the staff together and announced that she was rearranging staff duties and titles.

From here on in, she told us, regardless of our responsibilities and gender, we would all be known as staff assistants. Moreover, we would all have a mix of duties that included some clerical and policy work. Momentarily, I was taken aback by this news. After all, I had called myself a legislative assistant, which was a step up in status from the lowly staff assistants who mainly performed clerical duties. In those days, legislative assistants were primarily male, while the staff assistants were virtually all female. Now, I was being downgraded. My male pride was wounded.

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But then, I started thinking about the significance of Arvonne’s action. Was my self-worth really determined by an artificial status distinction that was mainly gender-based? Was I really more important than my office mate, Claire, who was just as capable as me but who was called a staff assistant even though her duties were not all that different than mine? Although I hadn’t realized it at the time, Arvonne had raised my consciousness and set me on the path to becoming a male feminist.

During those years, Arvonne was raising five children and coping with the tragic death of her second youngest daughter, Annie, while managing Don’s congressional office and his re-election campaigns. Then, in 1978, his career and hers took a sharp turn. That year, Don lost his bid for the DFL U.S. Senate nomination and was forced to give up the House seat he had occupied for 16 years. At the same time, Arvonne had moved on from the ranks of the volunteers to a senior paid position at the Agency for International Development, where she oversaw AID’s women-in-development program. Now, she was the family breadwinner, while Don stayed at home, brooding about his future.

When Don made a last-minute decision to run for mayor of Minneapolis in 1979, she was not sure it was the right move for their family. She remembered getting a call from him at her office on a Friday afternoon.

“Should he go home to run? What did I think? It was up to me he said, but his eagerness to run was in his voice,” she wrote later in her memoir, “She’s No Lady.” “Let me think about it was all I could muster. … Jeannie (their youngest daughter) was still in high school. Who would support the family while Don was campaigning?” But Arvonne knew she could not stand in Don’s way. “It was his life at stake. Jennie and I would cope. I drove him to the airport. Kissed him goodbye and wished him luck.”

He won the race, and eventually Arvonne returned to the family home on 7th Street SE, just down the block from the house where Don had been born in 1924. After Don left office as mayor in 1993, Arvonne maintained a busy schedule as a fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, speaking and writing about the role of feminism  in the modern era. At a celebration marking her 90th birthday she delivered an insightful address about that movement’s unfinished agenda.

This year, active until the end, Arvonne applauded the dramatic increase in the number of women running for public office. While she did not live to see the 2018 midterm election, she was heartened to know that women were and are reshaping American politics during these difficult times.

We owe a debt of gratitude to Arvonne Fraser and women like her who made this transformation possible.