Phyllis Kahn was examining a DNA sample through a microscope in a University of Minnesota genetics lab when she was summoned by the dean. It was 1972, and Kahn had filed a discrimination suit against the school for not granting her tenure on the same track as her male colleagues. When she marched into the dean's office, she was told that her research contract had been cut in half. She was sure the move was retribution. "That was the moment I just decided, 'I'm not doing this anymore. I'm going to face these guys across a legislative table.'" She ran for a seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives and won.
Kahn has been a force in Minnesota government ever since. Among the 45 laws she's succeeded in passing are milestones such as the state's first computer-crime law and the 1975 Clean Indoor Air Act, the nation's first law to mandate nonsmoking sections in public places such as restaurants. But she's best known as a champion of women's rights issues. She won landmark victories cracking down on anti-female violence, creating gender-equity for sports funding, and establishing a woman's right to keep her own name after marriage.
Kahn is as well known at the state fair as she is in the legislature — her "industrial strength" chocolate pies routinely pick up awards. She's also an avid hockey player, bicyclist and runner. This year, at age 71, she's finished two marathons — and, she adds, she holds the best marathon time in the legislature. Passing laws, of course, is a marathon of its own. But Kahn finds that it's her scientific background that serves her best as a legislator. Whether the issue is privacy in genetic testing or legality of same-sex marriage, she seeks to appeal to logic when other lawmakers are swayed by emotion or anecdotes. Although sometimes, she admits, looking at lawmaking as a scientist "can make you feel like a hard-hearted nerd."
— Zach Patton
Photo by Bill Alkofer