Rep. Melissa Wintrow never had plans to run for the Idaho Legislature, just like she never had plans to ride a bicycle across the United States (during which she met her husband-to-be), compete in an Ironman (only a year-and-a-half after learning how to swim) or produce one of Idaho's most controversial theatrical productions. She did all of those things and more: Wintrow became Boise State University's first Women's Center director in 2000, headed Boise State's faculty-in-residence program and was elected in November 2014 to represent Boise's District 19 at the Statehouse.
"I'm not the kind of person who says, 'I want that thing.' I'm more open to possibility," she told Boise Weekly in a wide-ranging conversation about the cultural and political climate of American university campuses, a 2001 production of The Vagina Monologues and her decision to run for public office.
Why are you a Democrat?
I think Democrats have a more collectivistic notion, and Republicans have a more individualistic notion of responsibility. Our social-mindedness is different in how we choose to create a community.
Has that been a constant through much of your life?
If there's a theme in my life, it's advocacy. Even as a child, when I saw someone being picked on, I would step in. Unfortunately, in my early life I had a tussle or two.
Do you have a sense of where or when your actual political being began to take shape?
This is my first formal position in public office, but I've been in a political position my whole life. Being a woman is political, and I think that being the [Boise State] Women's Center director was the most political thing I've ever done. People were understandably nervous. I was the first full-time director of the center.Higher education is one of the most political organizations I have ever worked in.
Let's talk about that on-campus culture, political and otherwise. Can you speak to how common it has become for American universities to partner more and more often with corporations?
I think universities are doing everything they can to educate their students and find the resources to do just that.
But isn't that a delicate balance, if universities are following the money? It's one thing to make widgets; it's another to develop minds.
It's a fine line, and we have to be very cautious. The one thing about teacher tenure is the ability to speak freely. And I wish we had more opportunities to exchange ideas without risk.
I want to make sure I'm hearing you right. Is it fair to say that there are important voices that are not being heard because they risk being judged or, worse, losing their position?
I think inside universities, government and many of our social systems, people participate in a way where they're rewarded or punished. And if you risk punishment, you behave in a different way.
What's the riskiest thing you've ever done professionally?
Producing The Vagina Monologues at Boise State. 2000 was my first year at the Women's Center. We had a 13-member advisory board, students, faculty and staff; and that group, by a one-vote margin, said we should do it. Yes, they were concerned and didn't want our funding to be cut, but finally they said, "We need to take the risk and do it." We raised a lot of money for the Women's and Children's Alliance, and I have women, to this day, tell me that it was a life-changing moment.
Let's talk about sexual assault on American university campuses. Am I correct in assuming that our nation has an epidemic of non-reporting of assault?
We have a culture of victim-blaming. When I first came to Boise State in 2000, a student, Samantha Maher, was kidnapped, raped and murdered. Everyone's thoughts started to go toward adequate street lighting or parking lot safety. Well, Samantha was attacked in broad daylight. And then there was a notion of how women shouldn't get into that kind of trouble. A lot of that comes from victim-blaming. Then, the pendulum of the conversation swung in the opposite direction, shifting focus to catching perpetrators. And now, we're somewhere in the middle, asking people to confront, intervene or interrupt sexist comments and hold people accountable. And that's where much of this has to begin.
What would you say to those who insist many of the incidents are alcohol-fueled?
Absolutely not. I don't think alcohol is ever the cause; it's correlated, not caused, by alcohol.
Before you decided to run for the Idaho House, did you know the mechanics of the Legislature?
Had someone encouraged you to run?
A friend said, "I think Holli Woodings is going to run for secretary of state. You should run for her seat." I said, "Are you kidding me?"
Had you looked at the Legislature, like most of us, with awe, disdain or possibly both?
In recent years, like many people, I was raising an eyebrow and scratching my head.
Can you appreciate that there's a stereotype of a North End Democrat?
I have 45,000 people that I'm representing, and the most important things that came out during the campaign were education, Add the Words and disdain for the Ag-Gag law. But I want people to walk toward me, not be pulled toward me; and it's my obligation to demonstrate to others that I'm not a stereotype.
The age-old advice for a freshman legislator has been to remain quiet during your first session.
I think there's a difference between being quiet and being pensive, reflective and engaging, and that's who I am. It's important that when you enter any new culture to be respectful of the people who came before you.
But I'm presuming that doesn't mean that you'll always sit quietly and not add meaningful conversation.
I see this as a big Ironman. If I can train and discipline myself for the Ironman, I hope I can do this. :