The feel of a hardhat. Against the sound of once moving bulldozers. And the equally moving parts of injustice. The stiffness of flaccid muscles suddenly and wholly rigid. A form-defining frame that changes and is charged with errant electrical signals. …And pain.
Besides sharing membership in the St. Paul community, the common denominator for the people represented by these life experiences is simply this: These extremely gifted people faced copious challenges as individuals born with double X chromosomes. Though neither of them ever hesitated to ask the Y’s. Why? About the status quo for women? People of color? People with disabilities? People…at all?
Women trailblazers’ atypical paths are typically characterized by adventure in unchartered territories. Often ending in uncommon victory but always fraught with disproportionate opposition and apparent failure. Their pursuits, their definitions of success and the paths they take to reach them are often like the dynamic women themselves; so far beyond the norm they are not understood or embraced for how courageous and avant garde they truly are. Until later.
The pluck germane to getting back up to re-engage after being pushed out of efforts towards betterment (or to begin the efforts in the first place) is a little something of which a woman named Angela Duckworth, not of St. Paul, made a big deal. In a read-worthy tome called Grit (2016). Perseverance may have been the subject of Duckworth’s book; but for two very special (and countless other) women of St. Paul, perseverance became the subject of their lives.
In 1964, Katie McWatt lost her race for city council; but won the respect of her own kind of constituency, initially as an activist and later as an educator. What McWatt lacked in political jurisdiction as the first African American ever to campaign for a seat on the St. Paul City Council, she more than made up for in social authority, demands for justice and the progressive power of influence.
The lost city council seat was no stop sign or detour for her. Four years after not gaining it, she set her course on a place in the Minnesota State Legislature. That seat would elude the eventual DFL Women’s Hall of Fame inductee as well. But McWatt kept on running, necessarily for office, but for inclusion in justice for people of color, women, the economically disempowered and, yes, even men.
Whether in the arena of education, fair hiring, public transport or gang relations, McWatt stood up, often low places, like ditches to halt a construction project, which was built on racist politics and economics. McWatt refused to stand down in high places, like the big business corporation onto whose lawn she (and those she organized) spilled cereal boxes; to acknowledge the food producer’s readiness to accept green dollars from the Black consumers it did not demonstrate the same readiness to employ.
McWatt’s stance and her voice are easily described as unwavering. Hers was a voice hailed for simultaneously lighting sparks of revolution and inspiring the warmth of hope and peace in those who heard it and listened.
That kind of edifying boldness typifies another visionary St. Paul woman representative of a different historically marginalized group. Rachel Wobschall survived symptoms such as muscle stiffness and weakness along with surviving the coursework of not one, not two, but three degree programs. She eventually earned her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees.
She, too, achieved an admirable list of firsts. Wobschall was the first in her family to attend not just the University of St. Thomas but any university. While there, she was the first woman All-College Council President. She was celebrated as the first female Tommie Award recipient; an award granted on consensus from students, faculty and staff. The award lauds St. Thomas students who embody leadership, service, and campus community involvement. Wobschall accomplished all these groundbreaking feats while remaining undefeated by the effects of cerebral palsy, a lifelong disease affecting muscular function.
According to an interview with fox9.com, Wobschall “was at the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act over 30 years ago,” proving that Wobschall has been a history maker in her own family life as well as for the benefit of the lives of others. As a woman undaunted, Wobschall acquainted herself with the president of her university at orientation, professional positions on political playing fields, and issues of people living with disabilities. The eventual winner of the Monsignor James Lavin Award, another St. Thomas prize, also directed a program that focused on technology-disability matters. Her involvement in championing those living, and succeeding, with disabilities even extends to her inclusion in a book, Pure Grit, 2021.
With a steadfastness located somewhere between deeply compassionate motivations and passionate maneuvers, these women navigated struggles on diverse platforms, with impact in dynamic and fruitful wayssuch that the city of St. Paul and its citizenry have never been, well…quite the same.
Located between Lexington and Dale, a portion of road bears witness to the life and life-giving aspect of a woman-turned-demonstrator-turned-educator. This is a portion of road that re-routes progress and history. Where motor inactivity or overactivity due to her illness could have detoured her journey, sure strength of character turned a young patient into a seasoned doctor of education.
After Women’s History Month and history itself, one of the best ways to honor these pioneers of our St. Paul past is to ensure their unparalleled contributions inform our present as well as our future. As we look back on our history in the rearview mirror, let us remain mindful of these voices and all the undaunted steps of women, people of color and people succeeding with disabilities, as we drive our fair and complex city forward. Let us respect, as apropos and abundant encouragement, the guiding wisdom these ladies have gifted us in order to unapologetically and authentically live our present; to boldly and bountifully shape our future; and to, in these precarious times on the world stage, respect those who have historically helped make us who we are. Let’s remember to appreciate the good in each other today.
Droù is a once-upon-a-time educator, an erstwhile entrepreneur, and currently an unapologetic enjoyer of life and fine chocolates.