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Entries about Minnesota history from MNopedia are made available through a partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society and with funding from the Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

A bill for woman suffrage was passed by the Minnesota Legislature in 1870. It was vetoed

photo of portrait of horace austin
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
portrait of Governor Horace Austin, 1873. Artist: Carl Gutherz.
Minnesota’s early woman suffragists endured many setbacks in their fight for the vote. Perhaps none was as disappointing as Governor Horace Austin’s veto of the 1870 female suffrage bill — the first to pass both the House and Senate. His controversial decision appeared to defy the state constitution.

Minnesota women began to pressure the state legislature in the 1860s to amend Section 1 of Article IV of the Constitution of the State of Minnesota to give women the right to vote. On January 11, 1866, Representative Anson R. Hayden presented the first known petition for woman suffrage in the House of Representatives for Eva J. Spaulding and others. The petition made little progress beyond its referral to the joint committee on amendments to the constitution.

In 1867, Representative John Seboski offered another petition with 200 signatures to House members for review. The petition stalled after it was referred to a special committee of representatives.

The next year, the legislature considered a petition from Mary A. Graves with 350 signatures, presented by Representative Alpheus B. Colton. The petition asked that the word “male” be removed as a qualification for voting. The committee on elections recommended that it be carried forward, but the request was tabled.


The tide seemed to turn when a fourth petition bearing 605 signatures reached the House in February 1869. In spite of some legislators treating it as a joke, it resulted in House File 91, the first bill for female suffrage in Minnesota. Representative John Lathrop of Rochester introduced the bill on February 8. A motion to table the bill indefinitely failed, and the bill advanced. On February 24, the legislature invited women to speak, and Mrs. Addie L. Ballou of St. Paul stepped up to address the House. In spite of objections and the absence of several representatives, a vote was taken. The bill suffered defeat by one vote, twenty-two to twenty-one. Efforts to reconsider the bill failed and it never reached the Senate.

In 1870, the legislature considered two petitions with a total of 750 signatures. This resulted in House File 123 (HF 123), introduced by Representative Abram M. Fridley on February 9. The bill extended suffrage to all citizens, male and female, aged twenty-one and over. It included immigrants and Native Americans who agreed to live by US laws and customs and who adopted the English language.

The bill passed the House on February 15, thirty-three to thirteen. It passed the Senate on February 24 with a vote of twelve to nine. Several legislators publicly admitted that they voted for the measure in their respective legislative bodies but would not support it at the polls. They wanted the people to decide.

Minnesota’s constitution requires that any bill for a constitutional amendment that is passed by a legislative majority be put to a public vote. The 1870 bill clearly stated this: “The proposed amendment shall be submitted to the people of the several districts of this State for their approval or rejection, at the next general election.” Both men and women who met all necessary qualifications would be permitted to vote on the amendment, although women’s votes would be placed in “separate and distinct ballot boxes.”

The bill reached Governor Austin’s desk for his signature. Recognized as being pro-suffrage himself, he surprised supporters by vetoing it. Senator William Lochren of Rochester protested that Austin could not legally veto a constitutional amendment bill and declared that the question of female suffrage would be decided at the polls the following November.

The vote never happened.

Austin cited the illegality of the bill as the reason for the veto and the blocked public vote. Under Minnesota’s constitutional law, women could not yet legally vote. The bill had no authority to enable them to vote until such authority was granted through constitutional amendment. In his personal correspondence, he claimed that he would not have vetoed the bill if it had called out the women’s votes as advisory only, not as legal and binding. Austin asserted that the author of the bill intended the measure to fail, and he indicated a desire to see a stronger bill in the future that had a better chance of success.

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

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Howard Salute on 08/05/2019 - 01:15 pm.

    I’m relieved to know that the town of Austin Minnesota was not named after this governor

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