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Excerpt from
Profiles in Change:
1983, Alaska Commission on the Status of Women
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Fran Ulmer:

'I am a futurist'

In a previous guise, Frances Ann Ulmer was a lawyer, planner, manager and bureaucrat. As director of the state Division of Policy Development and Planning (DPDP), she was one of the most powerful figures in state government — known to many as "the conscience of the Hammond administration."

Today, she considers herself a professional futurist — a mother who primarily cares for two children and works in society to prepare for them a prosperous future.

Fran Ulmer was born in Madison, Wis. in 1947. She earned a political science degree and law degree from the University of Wisconsin. She clerked for a federal judge, worked as a legal counsel to the Alaska Legislature, acted as legislative assistant to Gov. Jay Hammond, and finally assumed leadership at DPDP. There she was one of the major architects of Hammond administration policy.

She serves on the Juneau comprehensive planning committee and the planning committee for her church. She operates her own government affairs consulting firm. At home she is wife to Juneau attorney William Counsel and mother to Frances Ann, 4, and Louis Charles, 2.

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Are you now a full-time parent?

I have many activities which are related to commissions I sit on, or volunteer work. But the main thing I do is take care of a 4-year-old daughter and a 2 1/2-year-old son.

A year ago I quit my job to do that. I had decided that it was impossible for me to do absolutely everything. I always thought I could be superwoman and do everything, anytime. I finally got tired, reached age 35 and said that as long as I had made the commitment to have children, I wanted to spend more time with them before they went into school. So that is my job, primarily.

Before making your decision to be a full-time parent, how did you balance your various roles?

The first year of Amy's life, I had a full-time woman who did everything for us; the laundry, the cooking and the child care. For that year, it was easy. When my son came along and this woman left Juneau, the strain came.

I was director of the Division of Policy Development and Planning (DPDP) and that was the kind of job that would take all you could put into it and more. I eventually reached the point of not being able to get the right balance of child care and the traveling demands of my job, and I decided it was not worth it.

Generally people can do that if they have someone they trust with the kids and a husband who is willing to pick up the balance. My husband is a very liberated person, but he was opening up his own private practice at the same time my son arrived and Marsha left town. It reached the point that I knew it was time to take a break at home.

I eased myself out of the directorship over a six-month period and avoided the trauma of a busy-to-nothing transition. I had been thinking about the change for a long time. I would advise anyone thinking of this to not do it radically. Don't do it on the spur of the moment and all of a sudden find yourself at home. Plan for it, think through how to spend your time, and think of some things to keep you involved intellectually.

You will find that in a work environment you are constantly surrounded by other adults with a lot to talk about. All of a sudden you find yourself at home with little kids and the contrast is too extreme. I think without preparation it can really raise havoc in one's marriage and one's self-image.

What are some things that you have learned about yourself as a mother?

In my opinion, most of the jobs I have had in my life, I was not adequately prepared for. That applies to mothering. Nothing in my life had prepared me to be a good mother. I never babysat as a child; I had no younger siblings; I had never been interested in babies.

All of a sudden we decided to have kids and madly began reading books. Most of the books were related to how to take care of yourself during pregnancy; there was very little on parenting until the child was around age 4. The first couple of years you are really on your own in this society.

What I have mainly learned about myself is where my limits are in terms of patience and the ability to communicate on my children's level. I was always able to dictate the level at which I communicated; all of a sudden l had to re-think how to express myself. I had dealt with abstractions all my life and all of a sudden I had to deal with very tangible things.

I also thought about how do you get a child to grow up with the values you want the child to have inside their person when he/she walks out the door at 18; the things that will sustain them in times of trouble. In the process of thinking about what you want to give to your child, you think about the things that are really important to you.

You asked who influenced me and I think it is relevant to the discussion on parenting. My parents are on top of the list.

My mother was always a professional woman and I had no doubts that I would have a profession. It never occurred to me to stay home and have babies. I always had the attitude that I would go to college, not get married early on and have a professional life in addition to a family life. She was superwoman and I had the impression that was normal.

For father, well, I was the youngest of two daughters. I was his son, so he took me fishing, hunting and hiking. I grew up in that environment: Dad taught me that what I wanted to do was fine and I could do it; it didn't matter what sex I was.

Where did you grow up?

In Wisconsin. You know thinking about it, my parents really influenced my attitude of male/female relations greatly and also my perception of myself. Their whole attitude was you can do anything you want to; anything was free game if you put your energy into it. Being in a small town, it was easy to succeed, I was positively oriented and had a good self-image. How do you tell someone looking for advice to get good parents?

The other person who influenced me greatly at the early point of defining who you are was my grandfather. He was a well-known conservationist in the Midwest who led the fight for an unpopular but wise decision about putting land away for public use. The Horicon Wildlife Refuge, outside of where I grew up, is partly state and partly federally owned. It gets about 300,000 geese every spring and fall passing through. That was Grandpa's project. From him I got the notion that you can fight and make something happen even when there are insurmountable barriers.

I went off to college and got a political science degree. One of my professors suggested I go work for Sen. McGovern's delegate reform committee in Washington D.C. for the Democratic Party. I discovered very quickly for the first time that it was not all equal between men and women. I found countless examples of overqualified women in low-paying jobs who really were making most of the important decisions. They were making things happen but were not getting any of the pay or recognition. It was that experience that convinced me to immediately go to law school.

I returned to the University of Wisconsin and got my law degree under the theory that in that world — at least the political environment — if I wanted to do what I wanted to do, I was going to have to be overly qualified. I needed to have a degree that meant something so that when I walked through the door they didn't ask me how many words I typed. In my graduating class of 200, there were only three women.

Did your self-image go through various stages in law school, being one of few women?

Well, not really. It was a shock to me when I went to D.C. and saw the male/female situation. In the beginning, the women's movement had not reached the point of being a household word. It was not like there was this awareness coming in. It was not traumatic; I had a simple solution: 'Get a degree and play by their rules. I can do it, just because there are not many women lawyers; who cares, I know I can do it.'

Alaska was more of a shock in the political sense. I had expected Alaska to be very open to women and I came here and found a very closed old boys' club in the Alaska Legislature.

Do you still advocate that a woman should try and change a system by getting the credentials, getting inside the system and going at it that way?

That is my preference. I am not sure that is the right answer. I am the product of a generation when it seemed that was the way to go. I am a firm believer that systems can be changed, but they change slowly. For any individual's lifetime, I still advise getting into the system and playing by the rules. Try and change things as you play by the rules, but don't attack the system and think you will change the system substantially in your lifetime.

'Most of the jobs I have had in my life, I was not adequately prepared for. That applies to mothering Nothing in my life had prepared me to be a good mother.'

I think you have to pick your issues. There are unquestionably some issues that you can very effectively get at from the outside just by making things uncomfortable. But there is usually a very high political price one pays for this.

What are some experiences where you have impacted change?

Well, it was indirect in nature. But the time I worked for Gov Hammond, I was to do analytical work and advise him on policy issues. Hammond would give the Division of Policy Development and Planning a question and ask what are the range of possible answers and possible consequences. I would like to think that the impact I and we had was to improve the quality of decisions.

There are so many issues that come before the governor at any one time, and there is a limited amount of time and energy; he needs people to help give him advice. Most of my impact in terms of DPDP was to be more process and analytically oriented instead of just politically oriented. Most of my job was to be devil's advocate to people who would come in with a problem and say this is the politically accepted solution.

A major part of my job was to say, 'Wait a minute, where does that take us and what are some other options? 'It developed an image of me as being a negative person, sort of a thorn in the side, the conscience of the administration. That was exactly what Jay Hammond hired me to do.

'I am a firm believer that systems can be changed, but they change slowly. For any individual's lifetime, I still advise getting into the system and playing by the rules. Try and change things as you play by the rules, but don't attack the system and think you will change the system substantially in your lifetime.'

Did you ever get the feeling that things were politically set up in advance and that your research was for naught?

Once in a while. Jay Hammond is an incredibly open-minded person. He keeps an open mind right down to the point of making a decision. That is what a lot of people don't like about him. But it did happen.

A good example of that was when the legislature passed HB60, the supplemental appropriations bill. Everyone knew it was bad. We were spending more money from the previous fiscal year's budget. The politics were absolutely overwhelming because there were a lot of trade-offs amongst legislators that would work if it went through.

It was a classic example of a stacked deck. And yet, there were people like me saying these are lousy projects, they have not been planned for, it isn't going to be a one-time deal; it will set something in motion; don't do it. No amount of reason at that point would have made a difference.

Another thing is that DPDP never had a management position. I took the job not trained as a manager and learned it after I arrived on the scene.

I realized that women make good managers. We are naturals. We understand what motivates people, how to motivate them when things are not going so well. We have a sensitivity that produces a good work environment. I think the other point related to this is that women are less likely to have their egos tied into managing. They take more creative risks, they have less personal political agendas, and therefore approach their job with a greater degree of commitment to the work at hand.

Is there any particular moral or ideological-political construct you carry with you to the job?

My parents were Republican, so I started out that way. College was liberal, so I was tempered. I guess I would call myself an environmentally conscious fiscal conservative. I am much less interested in political parties and more interested in process.

What influences the way you think about government?

I think it was in high school and law school, where I was forced to think analytically, to write clearly at an early age. Today what I have to offer is how to dissect problems, how to reduce them to their core, how to find alternative solutions, and how to summarize them. It makes me less doctrinaire and more analytical. I focus on issues, not parties.

I suppose in some way my beliefs converge. For example, you probably can link my belief that you must pay your way in life — that it is somehow immoral to take without giving — to religion. That is why I volunteer my time. I love Juneau and I believe that I owe it something. I guess I am big on personal responsibility.

Do you have any sense of where Alaska women are headed in terms of equal employment and with the ERA being defeated?

There has been a great deal of progress toward equal employment; the ERA was a last-ditch effort in that arena. With the depression, women will be the hardest hit. There is a fake notion that women are not primary breadwinners in this country.

I think the biggest battleground is not in the legal field, it is on a personal level. It is how a woman relates to a man at home. Look at wife/child abuse; look at the inequities in personal finances. It has to do with how jobs are divided in the home, how children will be raised. It is learning how to say, sometimes, 'I need me more than I need a man.'

I respect people who take courageous stands, people like Lidia Selkregg, Jay Hammond and John Rader. I want to be someone with firm stands on things even when politically, it may not be the most advantageous thing to be. There are a lot of greedy people in Alaska now and that is why it is especially important to be active in the '80s. The '80s will determine much of what happens in the future.

I am a futurist. I believe in planning for future generations. That is another thing I believe women understand well. Women care what kind of lives their children and grandchildren will live. Women are far less militaristic, less concerned with money and more concerned with the environment.

There is an intensity of bonding between mother and child that can be brought to bear on the planning process. Let us plan and save for our future, for our children's future.