Rise to the Challenge

A Memoir of Politics, Leadership, and Love

2024
Author:

Marlene M. Johnson

The inspiring life story of Minnesota’s first woman lieutenant governor: breaking political ground, navigating patriarchal tradition, and persevering through great personal loss

Marking a milestone for women in state government, Marlene M. Johnson became Minnesota’s first woman lieutenant governor under Rudy Perpich’s gubernatorial administration in January 1983. Rise to the Challenge weaves together the story of her professional life with her personal one in a courageous portrait of dedication, leadership, and unwavering faith in the public good.

Marlene M. Johnson wasn’t just the first woman to be Minnesota’s Lieutenant Governor. She was also the first Lieutenant Governor to have a specific policy portfolio. She had access and influence in ways that laid the groundwork for me and others to follow. Marlene is of a class of women who made important strides in DFL politics, and I'm grateful for her place in Minnesota's history and for this book that tells that story.

Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan

Marking a milestone for women in state government, Marlene M. Johnson became Minnesota’s first woman lieutenant governor under Rudy Perpich’s gubernatorial administration in January 1983. That same year, she met her husband, Peter, and their deeply loving relationship profoundly sustained her for twenty-seven years. Rise to the Challenge weaves these personal and professional stories together in a courageous portrait of dedication and leadership.

Growing up in rural Minnesota, Johnson began organizing and advocating for change early, beginning with a campaign to introduce foreign languages into her high school curriculum. Pursuing a deeply felt commitment to improving the lives of others, she continued to sharpen her leadership skills throughout her life, participating in activist work in college, cofounding organizations to support women entrepreneurs and politicians, and eventually running an international education nonprofit.

A stalwart supporter, her husband gave Marlene strength and encouragement to face the challenges of the political landscape and its gender biases. Then, in 2010, he suffered a traumatic brain injury that would change both of their lives. Learning how to be a medical advocate and, eventually, facing the sorrow of Peter’s death, Marlene relied on the hard-fought resilience and belief in herself that Peter had helped her to develop.

A story of learning and leadership in politics, business, and public service, Rise to the Challenge is a moving portrayal of spirit, perseverance, and grace in the face of daunting personal challenges, supported by unwavering faith in the public good.

Marlene M. Johnson was Minnesota’s first woman lieutenant governor, serving in Governor Rudy Perpich’s administration from 1983 until 1991. She is cofounder of the Minnesota Chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners and the Minnesota Women’s Campaign Fund and was executive director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators for nearly two decades. She is now on the advisory board of Kakenya’s Dream, a board member of the Washington Office on Latin America, and a trustee of The Alexandria Trust. In 1988, she was awarded the Royal Order of the Polar Star by the Kingdom of Sweden. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Marlene M. Johnson wasn’t just the first woman to be Minnesota’s Lieutenant Governor. She was also the first Lieutenant Governor to have a specific policy portfolio. She had access and influence in ways that laid the groundwork for me and others to follow. Marlene is of a class of women who made important strides in DFL politics, and I'm grateful for her place in Minnesota's history and for this book that tells that story.

Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan

An essential document of the mid-century rise of women into American politics. In this memoir of a remarkable public life, Marlene M. Johnson braids a love story tragically turned into caregiving and the domestic devotion of guardian and advocate. She proves that faithfulness in love and commitment to the betterment of the world are not opposites after all.

Patricia Hampl, author of The Art of the Wasted Day

It may be a challenge for bookstores to shelve this book: under memoir/biography, women’s history, business leadership, comparative health systems, politics, journal writing, romance, or suspense. In any category, it’s a page-turner, from start-up to statehouse to international CEO. Rise to the Challenge evokes admiration and empathy for Marlene M. Johnson, a woman ‘composing her life’ thoughtfully and courageously, with good humor and resilience.

Elisabeth Griffith, PhD, author of Formidable: American Women and the Fight for Equality: 1920–2020

Marlene M. Johnson's story is one of fortitude, service, and great achievement, all told with humility in this highly readable volume. This is a compelling personal account of a woman who climbed the precarious political ladder in her home state and became an international leader in the field of higher education. Her leadership created a strong network of individuals and institutions that reinforced the values of democratic institutions and academic freedom based on critical thinking and objectivity. This fascinating success story is an important read for aspiring public servants, male or female.

In the dynamic mid-twentieth-century women’s movement, Marlene M. Johnson stood out and stood up with clarity of vision and purpose. Her multiple public service initiatives propelled her to a national presence and then into international education leadership. This memoir of that leadership, together with the challenges of life-changing events, is told with the same refreshing candor and compelling courage with which she has led her path-breaking life. And it raises the spirits.

Judge Harriet Lansing, retired, Minnesota Court of Appeals

Contents

Prologue

1. Minnesota’s First Woman Lieutenant Governor

2. From Private Citizen to Public Servant

3. Becoming an Entrepreneur

4. Organizing for Political and Community Change

5. Campaigning at the Local, State, and National Levels

6. Engaging with Entrepreneurs

7. The Potential of New Opportunities

8. Traveling with the Governor

9. Defining the Role of Lieutenant Governor

10. Learning to Punt

11. Serendipity

12. A Transatlantic Life Together

13. Peter

14. New Ways to Engage

15. Ending My Time in State Government

16. New Challenges

17. Losing an Election, Leaving Politics, and Landing in Washington

18. A Time for Reflection

19. Leading NAFSA

20. Learning from the Unexpected

21. Life Changes in a Flash

22. A New Chapter in Lund

23. We Are Optimistic

24. Another Turn

25. Managing from Two Continents

26. The Final Move to Ribbingska

27. The Support of Family and Friends

28. Establishing My Life in Sweden

29. Adjustments and Routines in Peter’s Care

30. Sustaining Traditions

31. Letting Go and Making New Plans

32. Sweden’s System of Care

33. Our Final Days

34. Leaving Sweden

Epilogue

Acknowledgments