Girls today may never know what it used to be like.
They may never know that, at one time in America, a woman in public service was as uncommon as a man at a quilting bee.
Wait a minute, there are a lot of men starting to quilt! And women in the early 21st century are just about as likely as men in this same time period to enter a life of public service.
Or are they?
Iowa is one of only five states that has never elected a woman to the U.S. Congress. Keeping company with Iowa are Delaware, North Dakota, Mississippi and Vermont.
At the state level, some 35 women serve in the Iowa Statehouse, while the office of Lt. Governor has blossomed into practically a pink collar profession. There hasn’t been a man in the office since Robert T. Anderson in 1987.
But does it really matter? And isn’t that the goal — that it doesn’t matter?
Here in Clear Lake, we asked women in prominent public positions to talk about their work and the satisfaction they derive from public service.
A native of the Eagle Grove area, Jennifer Larsen married a hometown Clear Lake man and moved to the community more than 20 years ago. She took a job with the city of Clear Lake 12 years ago and was appointed city clerk by the Clear Lake City Council in 2007, a post she continues to hold today.
“I enjoy working with the people of the community,” Larsen says.
She seldom thinks about the number of women or men active in civic and community activities — she simply wants more people to get involved, whether they be men or women.
Larsen takes an active community role and sees the flexibility in her job as one of its best perks.
She’s a member of the Clear Lake Lions Pride Club, the Clear Lake Chamber’s First Mates and volunteers for a number of special events through the Chamber. Most recently, the Chamber named Larsen the “First Mate of the Year” for her outstanding volunteer work in 2013.
“I was surprised. You don’t volunteer to get that pat on the back, but it is nice to be recognized when you go above and beyond,” Larsen says of the award.
Larsen also believes that much of her volunteer work is due to her role in public service. As city clerk, she meets a variety of people and sees the benefits that such work brings.
“Being in this position has allowed me to put myself out there a little more,” Larsen explains. “I probably wouldn’t have done a lot of these things otherwise.”
In many towns across Iowa, the code position of city clerk has long been a male-dominated role. But in Clear Lake, there have more often been women in the position, Larsen notes. As clerk, she is custodian of the city’s history and shares tidbits of it regularly in the “Tales from the Vault” portion of the city newsletter.
“That’s always fun, and I get a lot of compliments on it,” she says.
Looking back into the records of the vault, it become apparent that very few women have sought to serve on the Clear Lake City Council. In her tenure as clerk, Larsen has seen only one woman on the council, that being former Councilwoman Julie Steinberg. Steinberg later left the council when she relocated outside the city.
Larsen understands that it’s difficult for anyone — man or woman — to make the commitment that serving on the council brings. Two meetings a month are only the beginning, as council members also face an abundance of special meetings, particularly at budget time.
Council members are also on call 100 percent of the time in their private lives and can be stopped for questions everywhere from the grocery store to leaving church on Sunday morning.
“It’ s a big commitment,” Larsen says. “It’s hard to find people who are willing to make that commitment.”
Even filling boards that are now state-mandated to be gender-balanced can be a challenge, she notes.
“We are abiding by that with our library board, parks and recreation, and planning and zoning, but a lot of your really small communities just can’t make that happen,” she notes.
As for the current Clear Lake City Council, Larsen notes that while it lacks a female perspective, it is nicely balanced among the generations.
“We have a couple retired individuals, and then we have a couple with younger families, and some more middle age with kids who are grown,” she notes. “It’s a good balance as far as age, and it just brings different perspectives to the topics at hand.”
Most of all, Larsen says, she’s enjoyed working with the different council members and mayors and would like to see more people get involved in their community.
“I definitely think women would bring a different perspective to the council,” she adds.
Deb Ryg is another woman in a high profile law enforcement position in Clear Lake. Lt. Ryg is not only the first female lieutenant for the department, she is the first female to serve as a law enforcement officer in Clear Lake and, at least to date, the only woman police officer.
“My dream was to be the first female police officer in Clear Lake, and it happened — my dream happened,” she says. “I just never thought I would be the only female officer for 16 years,” and counting, she says.
Ryg started an internship with the Clear Lake Police Department while still completing her two-year degree in Criminal Justice from NIACC and was hired full-time shortly thereafter.
After being hired by the local department in 1998, she went to the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy in Des Moines in 1999. Ryg was one of only four women in her Academy class. Law enforcement is a stressful career for anyone, and for women it can be very difficult to juggle the demands of the job and demands of life.
“I think two of the women I went to the Academy with are not in law enforcement anymore. I think one of them still is, but I’m not even sure where they are,” she notes.
While her Iowa Academy training is long behind her, the ratio of men to women in the profession hasn’t changed much, as was demonstrated more recently when she became the first officer from Clear Lake to attend the FBI’s National Academy.
Held over a course of 10 weeks on the Marine Corps base at Quantico, Va., the FBI National Academy focuses on management skills for experienced officers from around the world.
“Out of 219 students, there were only 13 women in my class, and we had people from 24 different countries and all over the United States,” Ryg explains.
The FBI National Academy was created in the early 1930s in an effort to increase professionalism and centralized standards among the nation’s diverse law enforcement network.
Ryg was nominated for the Academy by Clear Lake Police Chief Greg Peterson. She was to be accepted much quicker than normal.
“I got pushed through a little faster because our department had never sent anyone. I was accepted within two years, but a lot of people wait 10 years to get accepted,” she says.
Not only was Ryg, 37, one of few females, she was also one of the younger members of the class in the spring of 2013.
Her age, and her year-round emphasis on physical fitness, came in handy when it came to the FBI’s famed “Yellow Brick Road.” Constructed by Marines, the Yellow Brick Road is a grueling course through hills, timber, water challenges and rock faces.
As Ryg recalls, the road’s 3.5-mile obstacle course concludes with a three-mile run.
“I’m pretty active, so it wasn’t too hard for me, but I was one of the younger people there. I think the oldest guy was about 65 years old, and every single one of the people at the academy finished,” she says with pride.
While physical fitness is important, Ryg says the main focus of the Academy was on managerial skills. Back home in Clear Lake, she still comes across the occasional person resistant to dealing with a woman peace officer. Most people, however, are very supportive.
“Sometimes I will get somebody who comes to the desk and says they want to talk to a man,” Ryg says. She simply replies, “I’m here to talk to you, if you don’t want to talk to me, I’m sorry.”
Her advice for younger women — as well as young men — is simple: “Stay in school.”
Ryg recently completed her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Waldorf College.
“You can’t get promoted if you don’t have the four-year degree,” Ryg says.