In 1970, Karen Ricklefs attended her first meeting of the Rochester School Board as the lone woman member. Being new to the board, she had intended to be quiet. She wanted to listen and learn.

But a topic arose that Ricklefs was well versed in, so she spoke up. After the meeting, two male board members took her aside. They told her that women had occasionally served on the board, but "we've always considered her to be a decorative member," Ricklefs recalled them saying.

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Ricklefs didn't bat an eye.

"I don't think anyone who voted for me expected me to be a decorative member," she told the men.

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Today, in our grievance-filled, digitally connected age, comments like that would ignite howls of indignation on social media. But looking back on the incident 50 years later, Ricklefs, 84, doesn't betray the slightest hint of umbrage.

"Maybe that's how I disarmed some of the guys who would make inappropriate comments," she said. "I'd laugh. And that's not what they expected."

Karen Rickfels and her husband Merlin in their Rochester home April 13, 2021. Karen Ricklefs of Rochester was a trailblazer, challenging expectations in a male-dominated world becoming the first woman school board president in decades in Rochester. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)
Karen Rickfels and her husband Merlin in their Rochester home April 13, 2021. Karen Ricklefs of Rochester was a trailblazer, challenging expectations in a male-dominated world becoming the first woman school board president in decades in Rochester. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)

In fact, after serving on the board for six months, the same two male board members again approached her and complimented her on her "great questions."

"We learn a lot," they told her. "You are just like one of the boys."

Such conversations might seem inconceivable today, but for women entering the job market and attempting to forge identities outside the home in the 1960s and '70s, such experiences were commonplace.

Olmsted County Commissioner and former state Sen. Sheila Kiscaden notes that around the time that Ricklefs left the School Board in the mid-1970s, Sen. Nancy Brataas, of Rochester, was elected as the first woman to the state Senate in her own right. And when she got there, there were no restrooms for women.

Ricklefs' election to the School Board occurred when the women's rights movement was just gathering steam. She was a little ahead of the movement, Kiscaden said.

"Generally, women or anybody who's in the minority have to figure out what the dominant culture will accept and won't accept. The dominant culture was white male, and she was breaking into that culture," she said.

A framed photograph of Karen Ricklefs in 1970 when she served as Rochester school board president. Rickfels was a trailblazer, challenging expectations in a male-dominated world becoming the first woman school board president in decades in Rochester. April 13, 2021. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)
A framed photograph of Karen Ricklefs in 1970 when she served as Rochester school board president. Rickfels was a trailblazer, challenging expectations in a male-dominated world becoming the first woman school board president in decades in Rochester. April 13, 2021. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)

Listening to Ricklefs' stories today is to be reminded how different the culture was not that long ago. She belonged to a group of women in Rochester in the '70s, '80s and '90s who were insisting on their right to carve career paths and forge identities independent of their husbands.

At Iowa State University, Ricklefs was the only woman in a math class of 42 guys. The head of the math department, a tall, intimidating man by the name of Dr. Hinrichson, had questioned her decision to become a math major. Math was Ricklefs' favorite subject.

"What makes you think you are smart enough to be a math major?" he asked her.

Hinrichson picked on her every day in class. One day, he gave the class a complex math assignment that included two problems. It took Ricklefs all weekend and both sides of seven pages to complete. In class, the professor asked if anyone had completed the problems. Ricklefs said she had.

"Oh, you didn't, either," he said in disbelief.

The professor asked her to put her answers on the board. Ricklefs began writing on blackboards that encircled the room. As she worked, she began erasing work when she ran out of space. Finally, the professor demanded the answers. She gave them, and she was right.

Weeks later, the professor hired her to work in the math office.

'Madam president'

Her instinct for bucking convention flared when she and her husband, Merlin, reviewed their wedding vows with the pastor. Back then, women were supposed to pledge to "love, honor and obey" their husbands. But when the pastor got to the "obey" part, Ricklefs said the vows would have to change.

"I'm not going to obey anyone," she recalled telling the pastor.

Ricklefs said her marriage to Merlin has worked over the decades because it's a partnership, each supporting the other in their endeavors.

"People don't realize that they really should marry their best friend," she said. "That's what lasts. We still have fun together."

Ricklefs decided to run for School Board on her way to the hospital to induce labor. A Post Bulletin reporter learned about the circumstance, and the story ran under a five-column headline. It was invaluable publicity for a first-time candidate running against three men.

Ricklefs won by one vote. Later, she became the first female board president since Amelia Witherstine from 1915 to 1921.

It was such a novel situation that board members researched the proper title to call her. The board settled on "madam president."

In 1973, Ricklefs again found herself the only woman in the room at an organizational meeting. Representatives from large and small school districts, townships, counties and cities were present. One of the men in the room, seeing her, declared one position filled.

"Oh, we have a woman, so at least we can have a secretary," he said.

Ricklefs declined the invitation. She told the group that she had a policy of never being the secretary in an all-male organization, "because I give men credit to be able to read and write and take notes." She was later elected vice president.

Ricklefs was appointed to boards by both Gov. Wendell Anderson, a Democrat, and Gov. Al Quie, a Republican. But even as an elected official, she had to fight for her own identity. The Rochester Post Bulletin of the '70s followed a convention of referring to women by their husbands' names. In news articles, she was "Mrs. Merlin Ricklefs." She asked the paper to use her first name.

The paper declined to change its policy, but made an exception for Ricklefs and a handful of other female community leaders.

"It wasn't just for her to get the credit," her husband said. "She didn't want me to get the blame."