In honor of Women’s History Month, the Indiana Senate Democratic Caucus is highlighting the women senators in our caucus. This week, we’re highlighting State Senator Shelli Yoder (D-Bloomington), whose journey from stocking shelves at a local hardware store, to seminary and a career in human services, to teaching at the Kelley School of Business, uniquely positions her to be an effective legislator and a leader for all Hoosiers.
In the early 90s, Yoder stepped foot in the Indiana Senate chamber for the first time, where she had the opportunity to address the body as a twenty-something student. She remembers looking up at the board listing the Senator’s names, wondering who they were, what it took to get their names up there, and thinking, “that will never be me.”
Now, years later, Sen. Yoder is serving her first term as the State Senator for District 40, which includes most of Monroe County and Bloomington. Yoder’s strong family roots, experiences as a mom and educator, and lifelong history of public service, make her a uniquely empathetic ear in elected office, where she prioritizes advocacy for children and families, fighting to reduce poverty and strengthening public education. Senator Yoder is also a Senior Lecturer at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, where she helps students learn to articulate their moral compass, execute their values, and plan strategically for their professional careers.
Although Sen. Yoder had been an activist and advocate throughout her life, she had not considered being a candidate for elected office until 2012 when, motivated by a lack of action on the impending climate crisis and low representation of women in politics, she ran for US Congress. She recalled the feeling of uneasiness she felt reading a Herald Times article highlighting candidates who had filed to run and thought, “I don’t see myself or my family represented here.” She said that Former State Senate Minority Leader Vi Simpson inspired her to enter the political sphere. Sen. Yoder now holds the seat once held by the Former Minority Leader, which for Sen. Yoder “makes the job and the honor both surreal and incredibly meaningful.”
Although she won a competitive Primary in 2012, her first campaign for Congress came up short in the end. Sen. Yoder’s commitment to public service and desire to tackle big issues, however, had only been strengthened by this experience. Shortly thereafter, she won a seat on the Monroe County Council, where she would serve for almost seven years, including as Vice President and then President. This experience showed her how important local government can be in the lives of Hoosiers and gave her “a deep appreciation for what it means to truly serve.” She ran for US Congress again in 2016, traveling extensively throughout Southern Indiana, meeting neighbors, learning about local businesses and community projects and listening carefully to what Hoosiers expect from their elected representatives. It showed her that folks from all different walks of life expect the same things: good public schools, clean air and water and well-paying jobs; and that “every community has its own soul and sense of place.”
That’s why, when former State Senator Mark Stoops announced his retirement in 2019, she jumped at the opportunity to do more. Then-Councilwoman Yoder saw an opportunity to serve in a new way, for greater representation in Indiana—a state where only 24% of our elected legislators are women—and to speak on behalf of the soul of her own community. Running for State Senate was a family decision made by Yoder, her spouse and three children, who have been an integral part of her time in public service.
As a woman leader in the nonprofit sector and now in the political arena, Sen. Yoder understands the fear and self-doubt many women feel in putting themselves out there and being bold in their professional lives. “There is a socialization that we women endure that tells us we are inherently lacking something. As a white woman, I recognize that I have privilege and that it is too often even more difficult for women of color.” She works to flip that script in the classroom and as an elected official, to empower women to constantly pursue what makes them come alive and lead on the most important issues facing our communities.
She recognizes how fortunate Monroe County has been for many years to see strong women in leadership roles such as city clerks and judges. When asked what Women’s History Month means to her, she responded that it’s about appreciating those that paved the way, learning every day and surrounding herself with diverse stories. She also said it’s about trying to understand others, learn as you go and have the courage to grow and change.
Born and raised in Shipshewana in a Mennonite family, Sen. Yoder was taught from a young age that representation matters. She received a public education, was a first-generation college student in her family, and completed graduate degrees at IUSB and Vanderbilt University Divinity School.
“It is the greatest honor to be the vessel and the voice for my constituents. I recommit to District 40 every time I enter the chamber to do the best I can in representing them,” Sen. Yoder says. “Public service is not just elected office. You don’t need a title to ‘carry the water’.”
Today, when Sen. Yoder walks in the Senate chamber and sees her name on the board, “it makes me very emotional.” She strives each day to be a woman and a leader that every young person in Indiana can look to and say, “that could be me.”