From parents who were raised in poverty to her position as first lady of Wyoming, Jennie Gordon is uniquely positioned to tackle childhood hunger.
“We never had a lot extra, but we always had enough,” said Gordon, who was raised in a family of 10 children. “My parents both were raised in abject poverty, though, so they instilled in us that you shared when you could.”
As she traveled the state in her first months as first lady, Gordon said it wasn’t hard to see that shining a spotlight on childhood hunger could help children across Wyoming.
One in six kids in the state struggle with food insecurity, and so in October, she launched the Wyoming Hunger Initiative.
Gordon grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, and worked as medical technician before marrying Gov. Mark Gordon in 2000. It was on the Merlin Ranch, located in the red scoria hills outside of Buffalo, that the first lady also came to ranching.
“I call myself the accidental rancher, because I worked in a hospital in a very sterile environment. When I married Mark, I started working on the ranch,” Gordon said. “And when he was appointed Wyoming state treasurer, I took it on full speed.”
There’s a link between the first lady’s hunger initiative and her connection to Wyoming’s agricultural industry, according to Jessica Crowder, policy director for Western Landowners Alliance.
“The health of the land and the health of the people who live on the land really are tied to the values that we appreciate in Wyoming,” Crowder said.
“Healthy families and healthy rural communities are so tied to the land, and taking care of the animals, and the first lady pulls all of that together,” she added.
In the early 2000s, Gordon was the owner-manager of the ranch, but she also headed up marketing, record keeping and the vaccination program on the ranch, according to the Wyoming Beef Council. Gordon also cooked for the ranch hands, helped care for the animals and would mend fences when necessary.
“I have a very unique perspective,” Gordon laughed.
“People say I didn’t have a lot of bad habits to break — because I didn’t have any habits.”
Coming to ranching late and as a female, Gordon brought a different perspective to the job. She focused on low-stress livestock handling and believes it’s important to treat livestock as well as possible.
“They are raised for food, but animal husbandry is really important to me,” Gordon said.
She often felt like she had a lot to learn, so she took classes through University of Wyoming Extension offices. That meant she was up-to-date on new technologies, and as a naturally hard worker, was willing to try them out. She began to utilize no-till farming practices, so rather than plowing a field, the crew would drill a seed into the ground.
“We want all that biology to be in the soil, rather than plowing it out and trying to replant it,” she said. And while this was new, she was hardworking, and the people around her accepted her ideas. “We would try things like seed planting, and it is amazing how people will drive by, and they will say, ‘What are you doing over there?’ And pretty soon, they are saying, ‘Hey, can we borrow your seed drill?’ It’s really encouraging,” Gordon said.
Dedication to the land was all that mattered. Gordon was welcome, regardless of being a new rancher or female. Agriculture in Wyoming is still a male-dominated field, but Gordon said it’s changing.
“I’ve heard that 50 percent of the new producers in ag are women,” she said. “And in the Clear Creek Drainage, ranchers help each other. As long as you are willing to do whatever is necessary, if you don’t mind being in the back of a crowd, rather than being front and center, you will find where you fit.”
According to her longtime friend Deb Wendtland of Sheridan, Gordon is as genuine in her role as first lady as she is on the ranch.
“She’s confident enough in her abilities and her position that she really does see herself a help to (Gov. Mark Gordon),” Wendtland said. “She is very supportive. She did everything and more that was asked of her on the campaign trail, even though she doesn’t really like being on the stage.
“But she thought Mark was good for Wyoming, and she loves Mark, so she was willing to do it,” Wendtland said. Her friend is delightful and extraordinarily genuine, she said.
“In addition to being very bright, she’s a businesswoman in her own right,” she said. “She’s uniquely qualified to be first lady, and we need women like her.”
One of her most treasured roles, Wendtland added, is that of mother and grandmother. Gordon and her husband have a blended family of four children, and Wendtland said Gordon always makes time for them.
“Despite all the busy things she does, and that she is very good at, her favorite job is being a grandma,” Wendtland said. “We’re talking about the first lady of Wyoming, who has a very busy schedule, but helping her kids with child care for her grandchild is a priority. That is a very cool thing.”
That love extends to all Wyoming children, according to friend and Sheridan-based The Food Group board President Arin Waddell. In the early days of The Food Group, Waddell once ran into Gordon at the grocery store. Her cart was stacked with cans — she was buying food for weekend meals. Gordon asked Waddell what she could possibly be doing with so much of one item. After explaining, the Gordons became early and avid supporters of The Food Group.
Keri McMeans, executive director of The Food Group, said the first lady brings an element of awareness to childhood hunger.
“Public awareness that we truly do have some challenges, and what do we do as a community — she can help with that,” McMeans said.
Gordon is doing her work with grace, kindness and intentionality, Waddell said.
“She doesn’t want to build in redundancies, and she wants us to collaborate,” she said. “She is very brilliant in the fact that she doesn’t need to start a new nonprofit. It’s a Wyoming value that we don’t need built-in redundancies, but it is hard to work across the state. There are so few of us in such a big state, and she is shining a light more collectively on the issue.”
Gordon said hers will not be a top-down approach, as she will spotlight organizations across the state already doing important work. There is no simple solution to childhood hunger, she said, and the repercussions are widespread.
“If you don’t have food, sometimes you have to repeat grades or you have anxiety and depression, and perhaps the parents do as well,” Gordon said. “There are also health and wellness issues like diabetes. We need to care. It affects our whole communities, and our whole society.”
And though she learned it in childhood, her holistic approach was reinforced on the ranch, Crowder said.
“I see in the first lady the recognition of what it takes to produce food and fiber and to be a livestock producer, but it goes a little bit deeper than that,” Crowder said. “There is a clear recognition of how to take care of the land and its people.
“That stewardship value is important, and that very practical knowledge in the state capital — that she is able to bring forth those cultural values through her hunger initiative — that is an opportunity to really see that we are all interconnected,” Crowder said.
For Gordon, it simply comes down to a lesson her father taught her.
“We need to understand and accept that people are in need, and if we can help them, we should,” she said.
Year of Wyoming Women
On Dec. 10, 1869, Wyoming territory passed the first law in United States history recognizing women’s right to vote and hold public office.
At The Sheridan Press, we counted down to the 150th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the Equality State with a special series inspired by the Wyoming Office of Tourism’s “Year of Wyoming Women.” Highlighting a different inspiring Wyoming woman, the features were published on the 10th of every month. Explore the full series here!
Press hosts women’s suffrage anniversary event
The Press will host a celebration of the 150th anniversary of women’s suffrage in Wyoming at The Brinton Museum Tuesday evening. Tickets are sold out to the event, which is sponsored by Jacomien Mars.
The evening will center around the northern Wyoming premiere of “State of Equality,” a Wyoming PBS documentary that explores how the territory passed the first law in U.S. history recognizing women’s right to vote and hold office Dec. 10, 1869.
“Colorful frontier characters, a volatile mix of motives and the caprice of history drive this story of a neglected chapter in America’s past,” promises Wyoming PBS. The documentary will be simulcast with the screening in Cheyenne.
Following the screening, a panel will discuss the past, present and future of women in the state. Panelists will include Rosie Berger of Big Horn, Kristin Wilkerson of Sheridan and Janine Pease of Crow Agency, Montana.
The festivities will feature a living history performance, written and directed by Sheridan High School fall drama coach Grace Cannon. SHS actors Myra Fuhrman, Braylin Keller, Lilliana Kerns, Grace Smith and Libby Smith will portray historic women of the Equality State, such as Louisa Swain, Nellie Tayloe Ross and Esther Hobart Morris.
Additional guests of honor will include several of the women featured in The Press’ “Year of Wyoming Women,” as well as the writer behind the series, Carrie Haderlie.
Early-bird registration to FAB Women’s Conference 2020, which will be April 3 at Sheridan College, will be available for purchase at the event for $85. Learn more.