HELENA – Montanans are tough, but Montana women are arguably tougher.
If you’ve lived in Montana for any amount of time, it's not hard to see why: Our winters are rough, our highways are long and when a neighbor is in need, you’d better be equipped with a kind heart to help.
When you look back at the decades, women living in a rural western state like Montana were forced to be tough. It's why more than half of the people who make up Gov. Greg Gianforte’s executive office are women.
“You are expected to be tough. You are expected to be brave, and you are expected to shovel your own snow,” said Chris Heggem, who serves as Gianforte’s chief of staff.
Often when decisions are made at a state level, it’s the governor himself who is placed in the spotlight. After all, it’s a public position that’s decided by vote.
In reality, a team of professionals sometimes stands in the shadows, helping to keep the wheels moving.
It's not every day you get to sit down with five of the most influential people keeping Montana running. And all of them are women.
Along with Heggem, Misty Ann Giles serves as Gianforte’s chief operations officer, a new position now held by a woman. Along with her, Anita Milanovich serves as general counsel, and Misty Kuhl, is the director of Indian Affairs.
Each position was appointed by Gianforte, a Republican, and looking back at the vast history of Montana, they're jobs seldom held by women.
Each position is critical.
“I advise the governor daily,” said Heggem.
“I am the first chief operating officer, which is proud to be a woman in this position,” said Giles.
“We are all rooting for each other,” said Kuhl.
“I have two other JDs (juris doctor degree) here with me, lieutenant governor and Misty Ann, but I get to play one on TV,” said Milanovich.
And at the center of the conversation is Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras, whose path to public office as a woman seemed possible from a young age.
“I had an aunt who was a legislator, I had another aunt who was the first county attorney for the state,” said Juras.
Montana is prime for placing women in leadership roles. Montana elected the nation’s first female member of Congress, Jeanette Rankin, in 1916.
Something Juras says is no surprise, considering the work ethic and caliber of Montana women.
“It is a different world. Women do have more opportunities to get into fields than men used to,” said Juras.
This captivating conversation comes at a time when gender equality plays a critical role in the national political landscape.
Heggem even addresses the hot-button issue of the wage gap, where on average Montana women working a full-time, year-round position earn 74% of a man’s salary, according to the Women’s Foundation of Montana.
“I had to break through a little bit. I remember one time I found out that a male coworker was making more, and we started at the same time,” she said. “But I just went to my manager, and we figured it out and it changed the way I managed, but also how I mentor young women.”
Milanovich often uses perseverance coupled with perspective to walk through doors of opportunity as a woman.
“Approach it maybe as the glass is half full like rather than something that sort of has to be, you know, I am at a deficit and I have to overcome it. No, I am armed with what I need,” she said.
“Think bigger and broader and not be afraid to take some risks and see where it goes,” said Giles.
But in Montana, those opportunities do exist in Gianforte’s appointed executive office, where 16 positions are held by women while just 10 are held by men.
“I am very proud to work in an administration with so much strong female leadership, and everybody has been incredibly supportive. And we are all rooting for each other,” said Kuhl.
Each woman also reflected on those women in their lives who have paved the way for them throughout history.
“There are so many barrier breakers that I look up to,” said Kuhl. “But I would say my mom is the epitome of resilience.”
And in a heartwarming moment, Heggem highlighted Juras as a woman she respects.
“I thought about this, this morning, because there are so many women throughout history,” said Heggem. “I thought well, who is changing my life and honestly it’s the hugest honor to work alongside Lt. Gov. Juras every day.”
Heggem says Juras is changing the way the lieutenant governor operates in the position.
“She’s a force of nature,” she said.
The camaraderie among this specific group of women is also a force.
“In order to survive in Montana, we have to be partners,” said Kuhl.
Each working with their male counterparts, finding strengths and weaknesses, and through it all lifting each other up and guiding a path for the next generation of women.
“Everyone does really need to find somebody that they look up to and they want to imitate, and they see their strengths and they want to have that,” said Juras.