A Seat at the DMEA Table—Women Encouraged to Continue Historic Role in Local Cooperative

DMEA General Manager Dan MacLendon with former FORE Alliance Community Energy Coordinator Abbie Brewer in 2012. Women remain less visible than men at DMEA, but have played a historic role in energy and cooperative development. Mirror file photo.

DMEA General Manager Dan MacLendon with former FORE Alliance Community Energy Coordinator Abbie Brewer in 2012. Women remain less visible than men at DMEA, but have played a historic role in energy and cooperative development. Mirror file photo.

By Caitlin Switzer

REGIONAL—(September 17, 2013)  From the outside, it is an organization that appears almost overwhelming white, and male. And yet, the heritage of rural electric cooperatives such as Delta-Montrose Electric Association (DMEA) is actually rooted in the need for power in the West, an effort driven largely by the demands of women. According to the National Association of Rural Electrical Cooperatives, nine out of ten rural homes were without electricity as recently as the 1930’s. “The farmer milked his cows by hand in the dim light of a kerosene lantern. His wife was a slave to the wood range and washboard,” notes the NRECA website.

However, the passage of the Tennessee Valley Authority ACT in 1933 marked the beginning of change. By 1953, most US farms were supplied with electricity, and today 99 percent of the nation’s farms have electrical service. Cooperatives total more than 900 systems in 47 states, and serve 75 percent of the U.S. land mass. They own more than 82 billion in generation, transmission and distribution assets. And here in Western Colorado, the Delta-Montrose Electric Association board remains a stronghold of power, with seats mainly held by men.

It was not always that way. At this year’s annual DMEA meeting in Hotchkiss, Delta resident Dorothy Dunfelder shared memories of her mother, Kate Tracy, who served on the DMEA board from 1939 until 1957. According to   Hank Lohmeyer of the Delta County Independent, Dunfelder recalled that the first appliance the Maher ranching family acquired was a refrigerator.

“Life was so much simpler and easier on everyone,” Dunfelder told the crowd.

Nancy Hovde of Cedaredge, who is currently serving as chair of DMEA’s nine-member board of directors, took time to share her thoughts as a private citizen on the role of women in an industry where power is now highly concentrated, and in which local board elections tend to become heated battles.

“Though there are female linemen, the physical demands of a significant portion of our workforce are such that the average woman is not interested,” Hovde said, “and they tend not to do it.”

Women are well represented in other aspects if DMEA’s workforce, however, she noted, including engineering, staking, positioning and customer service.

DMEA works through the Colorado Workforce Center to hire all employees, in an effort to ensure fairness and compliance with Federal regulations.

When it comes to the board itself, Hovde said that qualifications are far more important than gender.

“We do not see many women step up the plate and actually run,” she said. “Ultimately, it boils down to the fact that you must be qualified; as an individual, I believe it is incumbent on women who have that kind of interest to get out there and do it.”

A diverse board is one of DMEA’s major strengths, she said.

“We reflect our community,” she said.

DMEA General Manager Dan MacLendon noted that while few women apply for and hold jobs as linemen, their expertise and abilities are highly valued on the cooperative’s staff.

“Of course women play an important role here,” MacLendon said. “Over the years, we have tried to maintain a good balance not only in our expenditures throughout our service territory and the investments we make in these communities, but in our employees. Women certainly bring a dimension of compassion and understanding that is essential to our front desk customer service operations, and they have served us well in financial capacities and in upper level management.

“These are the folks who, in the 1930’s, did everything by hand,” he noted. “They knew that by bringing lights and power for things like washing machines that they could relieve the burden, and improve their families’ lives.

“Today, we try to encourage women to move into the areas where they have not traditionally been.”

Virginia Allen of Delta, who as administrative service manager oversaw DMEA’s affirmative action efforts during her 29-year tenure with the cooperative, said that rural women were among those largely responsible for bringing electrical power to the region in the early days. The cooperative’s very first board in the 1930’s included two women, one of whom was Kate Tracy.

“Right now, DMEA does look very male,” Allen said. “Overall, employee numbers are down in general. But there have been quite a few women in management over the years, and both managers that I worked under were very encouraging of female employees. We always did everything we could to reach men and women.

“I think it is actually hard on the board, because so few women run.”