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"We can make a difference and we can make a difference as a Wyoming solution versus someone else's." - Jennie Gordon

Jennie Gordon currently serves as First Lady of Wyoming.

She was born in Omaha, Nebraska but vacationed in Wyoming in her childhood because her father was stationed there in the 1950s.

When her father moved back to Wyoming, she agreed to stay for one summer to help him build his house. That was 39 years ago.

Listen to today's episode to learn how she reaches her audience, how it feels to be a public figure, and why child hunger is so important to her.

"The big thing I wanted to do with this initiative was not to reinvent the wheel, but to really highlight those people already doing this great work." - Jennie Gordon

Show Notes:

  • What Jennie finds most intriguing about living in Wyoming
  • What drives the First Lady of Wyoming
  • Why is child hunger important
  • How does the First Lady reach her audience
  • How does it feel to be a public figure
  • How to mentor young women in your life

Emy diGrappa: Welcome to First, but Last, brought to you by Wyoming Humanities. I am your host, Emy diGrappa. Wyoming is called the equality state because we were the first to give women the right to vote. 150 years later, we wonder what Wyoming women think about the progress toward equality now. Let's find out, and thank you for listening.

Emy diGrappa: Today we are talking to first lady Jennie Gordon. Welcome, Jennie.

Jennie Gordon: Thank you for having me. I appreciate the opportunity.

Emy diGrappa: Well, it was so fun to meet you when you were here doing your project and spreading the word about the program that you're very passionate about, and I just love how easygoing you are, and approachable, and really appreciate that side of you. So thank you

Jennie Gordon: Oh, well thank you. I had a wonderful time at Jackson.

Emy diGrappa: Were you born in Wyoming?

Jennie Gordon: I was not. I was born in Omaha. My dad was a career Air Force Master Sergeant, and so I was born in Omaha, but my dad had been stationed in Wyoming in the 50s, and so we vacation every year in Wyoming in the summer.

Emy diGrappa: Oh. And that's how you ... So was that kind of your journey to Wyoming, is just coming here during the summers? And then how did you really end up living here?

Jennie Gordon: Well, so I have nine brothers and sisters, and when I graduated from high school, my dad wanted to move back to Wyoming, and so he moved, and I told him I would stay for one summer and help them build this house, and that was about 39 years ago.

Emy diGrappa: And then you never left.

Jennie Gordon: I never left.

Emy diGrappa: What do you find most intriguing about living in Wyoming?

Jennie Gordon: Well, I love the outdoors, the wide open spaces. When we would come to Wyoming, I have nine brothers and sisters, and so when you want to take your family on vacation and you don't have a lot of money, you can come for a month and hike in the Big Horn Mountains and camp, which is what we did. So I really have a love of the outdoors, camping, hiking. I found hunting a few years ago, so I love that. Just really the outdoor opportunities we have.

Emy diGrappa: You know, Jennie, it's so unusual to come from such a large family in this day and age, don't you think?

Jennie Gordon: Yes. You know, there are larger families, but I think it's really hard if you want to be able to afford and be able to provide for your family. I think it's very difficult when you have a bigger family.

Emy diGrappa: And were you all really close in age or were there big age gaps? What was it like to grow up in a big family?

Jennie Gordon: Well, there is 14 years difference between the oldest and the youngest, so we were pretty much, "Boom, boom, boom." It was a lot of fun. If you were mad at one sibling you could go play with another. Our house was always-

Emy diGrappa: Good idea.

Jennie Gordon: And it still stands today, but our house was always busy. My dad worked so much because there were so many of us, but Mom was usually home, so we were always outside playing with neighbors, and just kind of enjoying the simple things in life back in those days.

Emy diGrappa: Well, and your mom staying at home, what do you think about women who have to work, and the wage gap? And it's not just in Wyoming, but across the country in general, that women make less money than men.

Jennie Gordon: Right. So my mom was a stay at home mom until we all went to school, and then she worked at a daycare center, which was just the perfect job for her. But she had been raised in Austria during the war, and didn't move to the States until 1950, and she always encouraged ... I have six sisters. She encouraged all of us, but she really encouraged the girls that we needed to be able to go to college, have an education, and be able to provide for ourselves regardless if we were married or single. She just really thought the education leveled the playing field, and so I always had that backdrop in my mind. And after having my own children, I was a single mom for a period of time, and so I really had to provide for my kids the same way as a man would for his. So I really think that having the wage gap that we do, it's a shame, and I think it is something that really needs to be worked on by this entire country.

Emy diGrappa: Well, now that you are the First Lady of Wyoming, what are the things that you're passionate about? Whether it's concerning issues with women, or what is the thing that is driving you? Because I know every First Lady has a project that they like to work on. What is yours?

Jennie Gordon: Mine is addressing hunger in Wyoming, and specifically childhood hunger in Wyoming. I think part of that is because my mother was raised very food insecure. My dad was also raised during the Depression in a family of 10, whose father was ill and lost their family home. So he left home quite at an early age. So I was always told as a child to be grateful for what you had, to never waste anything, and to always share if you had extra. So when I became the First Lady, after traveling around the state and hearing so many stories about people who were food insecure here in Wyoming, I was really shocked. So I wanted to make sure that ... It just clicked. It was just the right initiative for me, and that's what passion is.

Emy diGrappa: And so what do you think are the missing links? How does your message reach people and how can you make a difference?

Jennie Gordon: Well, I think number one, people all over the state are already addressing it, and that's what I learned when I was up in Jackson. There were so many folks already working on it. So the big thing I wanted to do with this initiative is not to reinvent the wheel and not to come in with a new and improved plan for everyone, but to really highlight those people that are already doing this great work, and so awareness is number one, and then also encouraging people to share, not just their time, which is wonderful, or their dollars, but also just share these stories that they hear about people, because that makes those people real, and it makes other people aware and maybe more willing to also share.

Emy diGrappa: Well, I guess from what I've learned about food insecurity is there's a big stigma, that people don't want to just ask for help, that they feel like they don't want people to know that they can't afford food. And then I also learned that it's not just about making food available, but it's how we get it to people and how they maybe are not educated about, "What is healthy eating?"

Jennie Gordon: Right. Well, I think the stigma and the barriers are huge. When I was up in Sheridan at The Food Group, one of the Friday food bag recipients came in to visit with me and she was late, so I think she was embarrassed about telling her story, number one, but she also had to leave her job without pay to tell me her story, and she worked three part-time jobs and was not able to make ends meet. So I think just really the barriers that are in place and the stigma is really important that we can somehow dispel that by telling these people's stories. You know, this woman was probably working harder than a lot of people do per week, so I think that's important for people to understand that they're hard workers.

Jennie Gordon: And then just, how do we provide these services. I think just letting people know that there are these organizations that are doing Friday food bags, that there's little food pantries in Gillette at some of the parks, so if you don't want to go into some sort of office where people can identify that you're in need, you can go to these little free food pantries, open the door, and there's things in there, there's food, there's diapers, just all sorts of resources for folks. I think just letting people know that there are other places that they can go where they won't be identified as in need.

Emy diGrappa: Now that you're a public figure, how does that feel? What have you learned about yourself?

Jennie Gordon: I usually like to fly under the radar, so when I'm at home and in the corral, I'm usually in the back of the corral, not standing out. I usually leave that to the folks that like that. But I'm very passionate about this part of the First Lady's Office, so that is something I really want to promote, so it's a little easier for me to get out in front of people. But I think just if you are yourself, people see that, and I think they're very respectful of who you are. Actually, I don't find it to be really hugely difficult.

Emy diGrappa: Do you feel like your privacy is invaded and that you can't go anywhere by yourself?

Jennie Gordon: No, I do not feel that way at all. I try not to go to the grocery store with my husband, because it'll take me several hours to get through if I'm with him. But if I go by myself, someone might recognize me, but oftentimes ... I usually, unless something's on a public calendar, I usually take myself, and yeah, it's not a huge change.

Emy diGrappa: Oh, that's good. I bet that's kind of a relief to you. What was your expectation when this was all said and done and Mark Gordon became our Governor? Were you nervous about what was going to happen in your life?

Jennie Gordon: I think I was a little bit, but I always knew that I had my priorities. We have a family, we have four grown children, but I also have a grandson that lives here in Cheyenne, and I tend him once a week, so I still have him every week. And then I have the ranch, so I knew I'd be doing that. I usually go up about twice a month. So really the balance helps to not feel like you're right there in the fishbowl.

Emy diGrappa: And that's really good that you don't feel like you're in a fish bowl and you can't go to the grocery store and be yourself, basically. And I think sometimes, when I think about it, I think, "How would I feel if people watched my every word or wrote down everything I said?"

Jennie Gordon: Well, I guess I must be in denial, because I'm assuming they're not. But no, it is interesting. I did go to a National Governors Association meeting and I sat next to the First Lady of Hawaii, and she asked me kind of the same questions. I said, "Well, I really haven't had a huge change," but she lost her car keys when she became the First Lady. She's not allowed to drive anywhere, and so there are some bigger states where I think it is quite different. But I think Wyoming, I think we're just a little more a smaller population, and I think people just want you to be yourself. And I think people are mostly respectful.

Emy diGrappa: And isn't it great that, and I hear this all the time, but I really feel it now that I've been doing these First, but Last interviews, is that it is such a small population in a big state, and it feels so good that we have a small population.

Jennie Gordon: Yeah. I think everyone, if we're all in that small population boat, and we all get pulling in the same direction, I think Wyoming can do so many things that other big states with a lot of bureaucracy can't do. So that is what is exciting about it, is that we can make a difference and we can make it a difference as a Wyoming solution, versus someone else's solution.

Emy diGrappa: So as a mom with four kids all grown up, how have you mentored your young women in your life to succeed and maybe overcome some of the barriers that have been holding women back?

Jennie Gordon: I think I model myself on my mom, who was a quiet mentor. She just did the things that she thought was right, and that she was passionate about, and always did the right thing. And so I always try to instill that in all of my kids, both the boys and the girls. I have two boys and two girls. It's just, "Always do the right thing. Be honest." Because if you are honest about who you are and what you're doing, I think that's half the battle. People will respect what you're doing.

Jennie Gordon: I have a friend who, she's much younger than I am. I went through the LEAD program, which is the agricultural leadership program, a year ago, and so everyone in the class could have been my child, but they became friends. And she recently had a baby, and she had on her Instagram a little meme that says, "We expect women to work like they don't have children and raise children as if they don't work."

Emy diGrappa: Wow.

Jennie Gordon: Yeah. It really hit me, because I think we, as a society, tend to actually think that. We want women to work hard, and those kids better have every birthday party covered, and have the moms be at school reading to the other kids. And so I think it's really important that we, and I try to tell my kids that, "Give yourself a break. Do the best you can, and always try your hardest, but you don't have to be Superwoman. You have to be there and care," and I think that is huge.

Emy diGrappa: So true that we put that expectation. That's what I've learned also as I've been doing a lot of interviews and talking to women, is that it's not that women don't want to be in the legislature, but women tend to be the caretakers. They care not just of their children, but of the elderly, and so they put a lot of time into doing that, and so you can't just pick up and leave and go to Cheyenne for months at a time or whatever it takes. I think we carry our load differently, and I think that that's what we want men and people in general to appreciate.

Jennie Gordon: Absolutely. And I think that, I see my grandson, it's my son's son, and I see him doing a lot more of the caregiving then my father did. And so I think there are some changes that it's more accepted. You see commercials where men are actually using the cleaning products. I remember when I was a kid, you never saw a man cleaning a kitchen except, for maybe Mr. Clean with that big gold earring in his ear. So I do think some of that is a little bit of a shift, and I am grateful for that, and hopefully it will be a societal shift.

Emy diGrappa: Well, it's been really great talking to you, and I really appreciate your time, Jennie.

Jennie Gordon: Oh, well thank you. I really appreciate your time and all that you do to help bring this to people, the word out to folks.

Emy diGrappa: Thanks Jennie, and have a great day. Have a great afternoon.

Jennie Gordon: All right. You too. Thank you.

Emy diGrappa: Bye.

Jennie Gordon: Bye bye.

Emy diGrappa: Thank you for listening to First, but Last, brought to you by The Wyoming Humanities. Please join us again next week as we continue our conversations with women from around the state. You can also find us at thinkwy.org where we continue the conversation on our blog about the history journey and the challenges of Wyoming's intrepid women living in the equality state. And if you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to the show and leave us a review on iTunes. Thank you for listening.

"Wyoming can do so many things that other big states with a lot of bureaucracy can't do." - Jennie Gordon

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