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Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association fought for women’s right to vote

Minneapolis women lining up to vote for the first time in a presidential electio
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Minneapolis women lining up to vote for the first time in
a presidential election, 1920

From 1881 to 1920, the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association (MWSA) struggled to secure women’s right to vote. Its members organized marches, wrote petitions and letters, gathered signatures, gave speeches, and published pamphlets and broadsheets to force the Minnesota legislature to recognize their right to vote. Due to their efforts, the Minnesota Legislature approved the Nineteenth Amendment in 1919.

In the 1870s, many women across Minnesota organized local women’s suffrage groups. In 1875, the Minnesota legislature recognized women’s right to vote in school board elections. However, many women wanted to vote in all elections. Seeing the need for a statewide agency, fourteen women formed the MWSA. The Minnesota chapter was affiliated with the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Among the founders of the MWSA were Harriet Bishop and Sarah Burger Stearns. Stearns became the organization’s first president. By 1882, the MWSA had grown to two hundred members. In 1885, MWSA-president Martha Ripley convinced NAWSA to hold their annual meeting in Minnesota. This national event demonstrated the importance of the Minnesota chapter to the larger organization. It also drew the attention of Minnesota’s male lawmakers.

In 1893, the MWSA convinced the Minnesota Senate to take up women’s suffrage. President Julia Bullard Nelson worked with Ignatius Donnelly, a Populist state senator. The Populists regularly supported a women’s suffrage plank. Nelson herself was a Populist school superintendent candidate in 1894. Nelson and Donnelly initially sought the vote for women in municipal elections. However, the Senate went further. Its members voted to remove the word “male” from the state’s voting requirements. The bill passed thirty-two to nineteen. However, this change did not pass the House. That chamber did not have time to take it up before the legislative session ended. Even if it had passed the House, however, the voters of Minnesota would have had to approve it before it became law.

After the failure of the 1893 amendment, the movement continued. However, the MWSA was unable to build on its earlier success. The MWSA and its ally, the Political Equality Club, placed women’s suffrage before the state legislature every session. Each time, the bill either died in committee or was defeated.

During the 1910s, the movement picked up momentum again. In 1914, Clara Ueland organized a parade through Minneapolis of over 2000 suffrage supporters. Ueland would become MWSA president in 1915. This event gave the movement renewed attention. During this period, the MWSA had to contend with a rival organization, a Minnesota branch of the National Women’s Party (NWP). The NWP was more radical than the MWSA. It was much more likely to take direct action, such as hunger strikes, than the MWSA. Even though they disagreed on tactics, the two organizations often worked together.

By 1919, 30,000 women across the state officially belonged to local suffrage associations. They joined the MWSA, the NWP, and other organizations. Their numbers and continued activities convinced lawmakers to act. In 1919, the Minnesota legislature recognized women’s right to vote in presidential elections. The same year, the legislature ratified the Nineteenth Amendment. It did not take effect until 1920, however, when the required two-thirds of the states approved it. With their right to vote secured, the MWSA became the Minnesota League of Women of Voters. On the lawn of the Minnesota State Capitol is a memorial to the MWSA.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Jim Ivey on 09/07/2012 - 09:22 am.

    The importance of activists and alternative political parties

    Thanks for reminding us that progressive change in this country is always the result of social activists and alternative political parties working together to apply pressure on the establishment. Change won’t happen unless you fight for it, and force those in control to respond to the strength and numbers of your movement.

    In today’s world that means fighting back against the corporate control of our two-party political system. With both parties accepting billions of dollars in support from corporate interests, the only way to break out of this cycle is to join with activist groups like Move to Amend and political parties like the Green Party, and let the establishment know that you won’t be voting for candidates that continue to let corporations control our elections.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/07/2012 - 10:27 am.

    Interesting story

    But it is the accompanying picture I find fascinating.

    The women are wearing 1900’s garb in 1920. Is it a reflection of Scandinavian frugality or German morality?

    • Submitted by Ashleigh Swenson on 09/07/2012 - 11:00 am.


      …they were probably dressed for the autumn chill, as it would have been November. The “flapper” look didn’t really take hold among the general public until a bit deeper into the 1920s. Also, clothing was much sturdier and better-constructed back then, so it is possible these ladies are indeed wearing the same “1900s garb” they had been wearing since the 1900s. 🙂

  3. Submitted by Jill Zahniser on 09/07/2012 - 01:37 pm.

    MN and the National Woman’s Party

    Thanks for mentioning the MN chapter of the NWP, one of the earliest and strongest branches. Women like Sarah Tarleton Colvin of St. Paul joined the silent sentinels in the front of the White House in 1917. Later, NWP chairman Alice Paul kicked off the ratification campaign from St. Paul, one of several visit she made to the Twin Cities area.

    March 1913 is the centennial of the great suffrage parade in Washington DC, the event which marked the debut of Alice Paul on the national stage.

  4. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 09/08/2012 - 09:52 am.

    I agree, the pic is from an earlier gathering…

    Swift is right on this one…more like early lectures on the women’s movement from the 1881 period maybe…1920 skirts were rising slowly until the flapper era in the later 20’s? Yes I may be wrong but…

    Note also the young girl on the left in the picture…could be an early fashion statement of things to come. The younger girl is almost squashed by the elder crowd in their long-layered wool coats.

    The girl is looking backwards; annoyed maybe because her little brother has tagged along and with his friends sailing spitballs at the women; spitballs from the park across the street and yelling “Lefty anarchists all of youse!”

    And girl yells back…”Go home little brother..Mom said it is your turn to wash the breakfast dishes!”

    I do wonder what the tire company has to do with it ? ( old company from Chicago that sold tires for cars and bikes) Interesting questions arise whatever the time period?

    Footnote: The right to vote was a sacred trust for my mother. Would not discuss her voting choice with my father but both independent voters…and North Dakota politics as they once were; hard to tell a Republican from a Democrat at times.

    What has happened to the present debacle called the Republican Party today since taken over by theocratic capitalists; Ayn Rand devotees?

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