In honor of Women's History Month, Northern Michigan University First Lady Kristin Tessman shares a short list of the historical and contemporary women she most admires, effective qualities possessed by female leaders she has encountered, and her deliberate efforts to demonstrate to her young daughters that they are capable of becoming or achieving anything they desire.
Tessman serves as deputy director for Montana Free Press (MTFP), an independent, nonprofit news source. She manages all business operations, from fundraising and finance to human resources. She is preparing to cycle out of her role by the end of summer to focus on opportunities for greater involvement on Northern's campus and in the community.
Given her immersion in MTFP's mission to provide in-depth, public-service reporting designed to fuel positive change, it is appropriate that two historical women Tessman has the greatest respect for made their respective marks in journalism: Katharine Graham (1917-2001), the first woman publisher of a major American newspaper; and Ida B. Wells (1862-1931), an investigative journalist who led an anti-lynching crusade in the 1890s.
Graham was a self-proclaimed “doormat wife” and stay-at-home mom with minimal reporting experience who was suddenly thrust into ownership of The Washington Post after her husband's suicide. She authorized the paper's 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers, a secret government history of the war in Vietnam, and guided it through the Watergate scandal, which led President Richard M. Nixon to resign in 1974. Her memoir, Personal History, won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1998.
“In addition to being the first woman publisher of the Post, she became the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company,” Tessman said. “Katharine was a real trailblazer, but in her memoir, she wrote poignantly about how she lacked business experience and initially was shy and insecure as the only woman in the boardroom. I admired her honesty about overcoming that lack of self-confidence and going on to build one of the most incredible newspapers and media companies in the world.”
Wells was a pivotal figure in a variety of reform movements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She challenged racially segregated schools and trains, lobbied for women's suffrage, established a settlement house for Black men, and cofounded both the National Association of Colored Women and the NAACP. She also edited the Chicago Defender, one of the country's most influential Black newspapers. In 2020, she was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize special citation for her “outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.”
“She was an absolute dynamo who accomplished so many things in her lifetime,” Tessman said of Wells. “I really admire the incredible courage she demonstrated, and her fearlessness in challenging the status quo of the Jim Crow South despite threats to her life and safety. She was very passionate about shedding light on important issues and was a gifted reporter.”
Working for a media outlet herself was not remotely on Tessman's radar as a student at the University of Georgia, where she earned both a bachelor's degree in anthropology and international affairs and a Juris Doctor law degree. She worked for the University of Georgia School of Law after graduation, progressing from student recruiter to career adviser to assistant director of judicial clerkships. Tessman remained on campus for her next role—assistant director of Discover Abroad programs—before her family moved to Montana.
Tessman stepped away from her career while daughters Frances and Leona were very young. She re-engaged professionally as executive director of American Jobs for America's Youth, collaborating with community leaders across Montana who are interested in building a strong start for youth pursuing meaningful, living-wage employment. When she was later introduced to the founder of Montana Free Press, it became clear that her program development and nonprofit management expertise, combined with his award-winning journalism experience, could foster a sustainable business model for an independent, online news source.
The woman who made the introduction was Tessman's friend and inspirational mentor, Lisa Cordingley, executive director of the Helena Education Foundation. The HEF seeks to enhance the experiences of public school students and educators in Montana's capital city by sponsoring a variety of annual events. These include Issues Institutes for students, teachers and the community; Great Ideas Grants and Spark Grants; Trading Places for learning and collaboration among school administrators and community leaders; and Great Conversations for civil discussion and life-long learning, among others.
“Lisa's influence on me has a lot to do with how deeply and passionately she understands the K-12 educational system, from being a parent and teacher to raising money to support student and teacher initiatives,” Tessman said. “People come to her not because she's the loudest proponent or has the most authority, but out of respect for how well she knows the issues and the 40 years she's been committed to the idea that excellent public schools create healthy communities. She is empowering future leaders, and I respect her greatly for that work.”
Cordingley possesses some of the qualities that Tessman finds highly effective among women in leadership roles, such as staying true to oneself rather than feeling obligated to change in order to align with the perceived expectations of others.
“Women throughout history have been pressured to act in certain ways at times, but it's empowering when you can be who you are, whether that's introverted or extroverted, more restrained or direct. A lot of women lead with compassion and empathy. That used to be seen as weakness, but now it can be a strength.
"It's important to stand your ground when you have a position you think is right based on principles and objectives, but also learn to pick your battles. Women I've known who found a way to do both are very effective. And all successful people, regardless of gender, build incredible teams that they support internally and externally, giving credit where it's due and opportunities to grow professionally.”
Tessman is beginning to explore leadership and involvement opportunities in the Marquette area. She recently joined the board of the U.P. Children's Museum, where Frances and Leona spend some of their free time outside of elementary school.
The parent-friendly culture at the Montana Free Press enabled Tessman to integrate her daughters into her work, bringing them to the office and meetings, or showing them how to manage money in a professional context. She said she is purposeful about making her daughters aware of the diverse career opportunities available to women, especially in nontraditional fields. Preparing for the return flight from a recent NMU alumni night at a Red Wings game in Detroit, the girls met a female pilot who invited them to sit in the cockpit before takeoff.
“I spend a lot of time reinforcing all that they are capable of, whether career-wise or in everyday activities, like taking them with me to purchase a vehicle,” she said. “I try to emphasize the importance of education, kindness and compassion. Motherhood has taught me that, as a working parent, you're not going to do things perfectly all the time; you're going to make mistakes. It's liberating to accept that and look at the long-term trajectory of what you're doing, whether it's raising kids, building an organization or giving back to a community. Finding a way to give yourself grace at work and at home helps to achieve balance.”
She credits her husband, NMU President Brock Tessman, with being a “participatory partner” who shares responsibility for their children and supports her pursuits.