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In 1885, Minneapolis was host to the American Woman Suffrage Association Convention

photo of redeemer church
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Church of the Redeemer, 215 Eighth Street South, Minneapolis, 1905. Photo by C. J. Hibbard.
The fight for woman suffrage in Minnesota was well underway when the American Woman Suffrage Association held its annual convention in Minneapolis in 1885. Key leaders of the movement were on hand to speak, among them prominent Minnesota suffragists, both female and male.

The long campaign for woman suffrage began with the convention held in Seneca Falls, New York, in July 1848. Congress gave the movement a setback when it adopted the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, specifying “male” as a qualification for voting. In response, suffrage leaders stepped up the effort by starting two new organizations the following year.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony founded the National Woman Suffrage Association to gain the vote by constitutional amendment. Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, and Stone’s husband, Henry Blackwell started the more conservative American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). The AWSA worked for suffrage through state auxiliaries.

In 1881, a group of local women led by Sarah Burger Stearns of Duluth formed the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association (MWSA) in Hastings. By this time, the Fifteenth Amendment had technically extended suffrage to African American men (1870) and Minnesota women could vote in school board elections (1875). The state legislature had considered several petitions and suffrage bills in the 1860s and 1870s, but none had succeeded.


In October 1885, the AWSA’s seventeenth annual convention came to Minneapolis. Minnesota sent five delegates, one for each of the state’s congressional districts. Local newspapers featured both pro- and anti-suffrage articles. Detractors doubted the success of the suffrage movement, accusing most women of being “fatally apathetic” to the vote. They argued that women’s influence over their husbands, whose duty was to represent the family unit at the polls, was sufficient. Pro-suffragists responded that men and women both had much to offer in public affairs—that their different perspectives offered a balance that was missing with half of the population disenfranchised.

The convention opened on October 13 at the Church of the Redeemer in Minneapolis. AWSA President William Dudley Foulke of Indiana gave the opening remarks, followed by speeches from Lucy Stone, Dr. Hannah Cutler Cobden of Illinois, and Henry Blackwell. All spoke of progress made and predicted the movement’s ultimate national success. Thirteen states allowed women to vote in school elections, and three territories (Wyoming first, followed by Washington and Utah) gave them full suffrage rights. Major J. A. Pickler shamed Governor Gilbert Pierce of Dakota Territory for vetoing the suffrage bill passed by his legislature earlier that year—an echo of Minnesota Governor Horace Austin’s veto in 1870.

Minneapolis Mayor George A. Pillsbury spoke that evening. He questioned the sense of preventing intelligent, native-born women from voting when “ignorant and debauched ” male foreigners, new to citizenship, enjoyed that right. AWSA President Foulke delivered a powerful speech in which he reminded the assembly that “the just powers of government are derived from the consent of the governed,” a principle violated with the vote denied to female citizens. Lucy Stone spoke on the duties and strengths of motherhood and the logic of including women’s voices in policy-making, particularly on issues concerning women and children.

The sessions on October 14 featured reports from each state auxiliary. Dr. Martha G. Ripley, president for the MWSA, reported that Minnesota women had petitioned Congress for the passage of a sixteenth amendment with a request that married women be allowed to retain their property. They lobbied the state legislature each year, and vowed to continue to do so until achieving suffrage. Sixty-five Minnesota newspapers published weekly suffrage articles.

Sarah Burger Stearns spoke on the progress being made in higher education for women as more colleges opened their doors to female students.

The Committee on Resolutions declared perhaps the strongest arguments in favor of woman suffrage by citing the US Constitution. Women were not only being governed without their consent, they were being taxed without representation. If political power lay with the people, then women, as people, should be permitted to vote.

At the final session on October 15 attendees heard the AWSA’s resolutions and elected officers. Minnesota’s Martha A. Dorsett was elected a vice president at large, Sarah Burger Stearns a vice president for the states, and Dr. Ripley as a member of the Executive Committee of States.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Deborah Gelbach on 07/08/2019 - 12:06 pm.

    Thanks for this!!! I didn’t know any of it…and feel all the more enlightened for reading it.

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