Kim Olson: USAF Pilot. Texas Women's Hall of Famer. Next Up? Ag Commissioner
Who runs the world? Still men... but Kim Olson knows how to work within that world and is doing her damnest to swing the door open for women to march their asses in. She is currently running for Texas Commissioner for Agriculture.
Speaking with Olson for an hour gives a window into her life and the wisdom she has gained. Her warm disposition paired with a relaxed vocabulary makes it easy to relate to her extraordinary stories and seem like you are talking to a life-long friend. The experience of living on overseas bases while growing up heavily influenced her. At the age of 14, she was with her parents who were teachers on Clark Air Force Base when the POWs came off an airplane from Vietnam. The patriotism, grace, and appreciation for freedom greatly impacted Olson.
Several years later, she entered the military, influenced policy changes, and, as a result, became the first woman pilot at Laughlin Air Force Base. Her time in the military vastly shaped her insights, especially on women in male-dominated spheres. Unlike most fields, the military is a closed personnel system, where everyone starts at the same level and works their way up. At the time of her entrance, major shifts were happening within the military due to more women joining ranks, making women about 15% of personnel at the time. Respect had to be gained. As women rose in the ranks, there was more respect for the lower ranked airwomen as well. Women brought three things to the military that changed it at its core. First, the military started viewing itself as a family unit, rather than individuals. Second, internally, a higher bar of excellence was pursued because of the presence of women. And third, externally, perception shifted towards acceptance of women in combat and as patriots.
Back as a civilian, Olson recognizes the close-knit family units that make up Texas. Texas is a huge state but still has the feeling of a small community. The crossing paths of Texans’ daily lives are apparent to Olson when she speaks with friends and constituents alike. As she travels from farm to farm and from rural towns to cities, she often hears familiar names uttered by people in completely different locale, often exclaiming “Oh, I was just at their farm visiting.” This connectivity between and within families is the very human side that relates to us all.
Kim Olson is not a politician first; she doesn’t state her involvement with local ISDs, the book she authored, her work as President of Grace After Fire, or even her induction into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame as her greatest accomplishment. No. Most of all, Kim Olson is proud of her children and reiterates that they are her real legacy. She is a mom, a wife, and a caretaker of senior parents and a brother. Being part of a household ties her to every Texan in the state, and that is a great asset to all women. “What you aren’t makes you the best. Women tend to say we’re not qualified enough. Stop that. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. No matter your background, your imperfect background, all of that makes you the perfect candidate.”
Olson advises that women must veer outside of their individual lanes and collaborate. Much like lionesses that hunt together, women must run in she-packs elevating each other. When one woman is attacked, every other woman should speak up and come to her side in acts of solidarity against the deep-rooted biases that exist against women in power. This approach comes from her personal experience of being a lone woman in a room full of men, where female flyers were disparaged behind closed doors. She continues to see parallels in today’s media coverage; “Women get downplayed, discounted, or ignored because frankly, the gatekeepers are still men.”
Kim Olson’s mission extends far beyond serving as Ag Commissioner. It is about replacing herself with more women to follow. She recognizes the same male-dominated environment in politics as seen in the military, and how much it can improve with women’s impact on the system. Olson emphasizes that it is not enough to be first, so women in positions of power must reach back, mentor, and champion other women to bring them into positions of power as well. If this does not happen, the door the first woman swings open “will close as fast as a screen door. We must make policy changes and unhinge that door, so it does not shut. I replace me with you.”
The passion behind that truth comes with every swift statement she delivers, imagining the repercussions anywhere from a military base to a political race. For all our sakes, she can’t lose.