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Arvonne Fraser, strong voice on women’s issues, dies at 92


Arvonne Fraser, a leading voice on women’s issues nationally and abroad from the early days of second-wave feminism into the 21st century, died Aug. 7 in Hudson, Wis. She was 92.

In Minnesota, Ms. Fraser was a founder of the Center on Women, Gender and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs. She ran the political campaigns of her husband, Donald M. Fraser, a former US representative and Minneapolis mayor, and was a political candidate herself, making an unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor in 1986.

Nationally, she helped found or worked with numerous women’s groups, and during the administration of President Carter she was director of the Office of Women in Development, part of the US Agency for International Development. She also traveled the world as the country’s representative to the UN Commission on the Status of Women.


“Arvonne convened meetings decades ago with women from throughout the world,” said Joe Nathan, a colleague in Minnesota, in an e-mail. “They focused both on specific policies and on strategies that could be used to help more women become policy makers themselves. She believed that policies would be far more effective if women helped create them.”

Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, said on Twitter: “Some people in politics are all heart and some are all policy and numbers. Arvonne Fraser understood both.”

Arvonne Delrae Skelton was born on Sept. 1, 1925, in Lamberton, Minn. Her father, Orland, and her mother, Phyllis (DuFrene) Skelton, were farmers.

She attended the University of Minnesota, earning a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts. Working in Hubert H. Humphrey’s campaign office during his first run for Senate in 1948, she met Don Fraser. After her brief first marriage ended in divorce, they married in 1950.

Ms. Fraser ran her husband’s campaigns for the Minnesota Senate, where he served from 1954 to 1962, and for the US House of Representatives (1963-79). During that time, she also held posts with the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, Minnesota’s affiliate of the Democratic Party, including vice chairwoman from 1956 to 1962.


Arriving in Washington in the early 1960s after having been so active in Minnesota, she found the life of the congressional wife a jarring change.

“There I sat,” she said in an interview with The New York Times for a 1971 article that carried the headline “For Some, Being a Congressional Wife Isn’t That Glamorous.” She wasn’t the only one who felt underchallenged.

“A lot are unhappy here,” she said. “They have no life of their own and wonder, Who am I? Am I just somebody’s wife? Or is there something more?”

She found something more by eschewing the white-glove teas that congressional wives of the period were expected to host and attend, instead plunging into the emerging feminism.

She helped found and held top positions in the Women’s Equity Action League, including, from 1972 to 1974, the presidency. She was active in other groups as well.

Her husband was on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, so she was often part of delegations traveling overseas. Again she spurned the traditional role, skipping the sightseeing tours and such arranged for the accompanying wives.

“Often I was the lone woman at the postdinner informal conversations between congressmen and parliamentarians,” she wrote in her memoir, “She’s No Lady: Politics, Family, and International Feminism” (2007).


In 1976 she was a regional coordinator for the Carter campaign, and in 1977, after Carter’s election, she spent three months as a sort of talent scout, recruiting women for the new administration. She then became coordinator of the Office of Women in Development, a job she held for three years.

After eight terms, her husband ran unsuccessfully for the Senate, then returned to Minnesota and was elected mayor of Minneapolis, a post he held from 1980 through 1993. Ms. Fraser remained in Washington for a time, then returned to Minnesota — agreeing to allow Washington friends to stage a farewell party for her only if it would be a fund-raiser for women’s organizations.

After her return to Minnesota, she became a senior fellow at the Humphrey School. The center she helped found there, according to the university, was “the nation’s first complete teaching, research, and outreach center devoted to women and public policy.”

Ms. Fraser dealt with hardship during her Washington years. In 1966 her daughter Anne, who was 8, was struck by a car in Chevy Chase, Md., and killed. In 1981 another daughter, Lois, committed suicide.

In addition to her husband and her son Tom, she leaves another son, John; two daughters, Mary Fraser and Jean Fraser; a sister, Bonnie Skelton; and seven grandchildren.

Tom Fraser said his mother was most proud that she “mentored numerous young women and men, encouraging them to consider public service and be politically active.” It was a sentiment echoed by Senator Tina Smith, a Minnesota Democrat.


“Arvonne Fraser inspired many of us — women and men — to go out and fight for what we believed in, no excuses,” she said on Twitter.

In a 2008 speech at an event in Wisconsin, Ms. Fraser told the crowd that activism can be as simple as a conversation.

“Don’t underestimate what talking to your friends and neighbors does,” she said. “It’s exactly how elections get won.”