The first female nominee of a major party for the US Senate, Anna Dickie Olesen was a celebrated orator and passionate social reformer who became one of the most prominent Democratic women of the early twentieth century.
Anna Dickie was born on July 3, 1885, to Peter and Margaret Dickie of Cordova Township, Le Sueur County. Intelligent and talkative from a young age, Anna showed signs early on of the oratorical power she would wield as a public speaker. The Dickies, teetotalers and staunch Republicans, switched their party allegiance in the 1890s and became avid supporters of three-time Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, whom Anna would admire as a political idol.
In 1905, at age nineteen, Anna married a young Danish immigrant named Peter Olesen, at the time a student at Hamline University. The couple settled in St. Paul before moving to Pine City in 1908, where Peter had accepted a job as superintendent of schools. The next year Mr. Olesen accepted the same position in Cloquet, once again uprooting the young family, which now included a year-old daughter, Mary. Anna became involved in the social and political affairs of her new community, leading the local Mothers’ and Women’s Clubs and tutoring area immigrants in English. In 1918, the Olesens lost their home in the wildfire that ravaged the area. Despite the setback, they remained in Cloquet for another decade, and Anna began a seventeen-year crusade to secure federal aid for the fire’s victims.
As her busy schedule put pressure on her single-income family, Olesen sought an additional income source by auditioning for the Chautauqua circuit — a traveling, tent-based speaker series that drew thousands across the country. Olesen’s oratorical skills and political acumen on the circuit soon caught the attention of national Democrats, and in 1920 she was the first woman invited to speak at the national Democratic Party’s Jackson Day Dinner.
In 1922, at age thirty-six, Olesen ran for and won the endorsement of the state Democratic Convention in Minneapolis for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Frank Kellogg, making her the first woman nominated for the body by a major party. Driving a Ford sedan given to her by friends for the purpose, Olesen, sometimes accompanied by her brother and/or daughter, maintained an exhaustive campaign schedule across the state. Some days she would make as many as twelve stops, delivering speeches that earned her comparisons to populist former governor John A. Johnson. In the end, both Olesen and Kellogg fell short to Farmer-Labor candidate Henrik Shipstead. Olesen came in third with just over 120,000 votes.
Olesen’s electoral defeat did not keep her from continuing her political work. She continued to be a popular speaker on the Chautauqua circuit and achieved a degree of financial independence through her speeches. In 1932, she was elected a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. By now known nationally as one of the party’s preeminent orators, Olesen was invited to give a speech seconding the nomination of House Speaker John Nance Garner for vice president. She also campaigned vigorously for the Roosevelt/Garner ticket in the lead-up to Election Day.
After the Democratic sweep of federal offices in 1932, President Roosevelt appointed Olesen to lead the new National Emergency Council (NEC) in Minnesota in 1934. As state director (the only woman to serve in the role nationwide), Olesen coordinated the efforts of various New Deal agencies in Minnesota during the Depression. In addition to her role as state director of the NEC, Olesen also continued lobbying for funding for the Cloquet fire victims. Perhaps her single greatest political achievement was helping steer an aid bill through Congress and pressuring Roosevelt to sign it, which he did on August 27, 1935. In total, $10.8 million would be paid out to fire survivors as a result of the law.
In 1942, at the age of fifty-seven, Olesen retired from public life. In 1960, Peter Olesen died; the next year, Anna married Chester Burge, a friend of hers and Peter’s, only to lose him to a gas explosion two years later. Olesen passed away in Northfield on May 21, 1971, at the age of eighty-six. She is interred in Sakatah Cemetery, Waterville, next to Peter.
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