Hannah Jensen Kempfer was the first woman from rural Minnesota elected to the state legislature. She brought her personal knowledge of farming, education, child welfare, business, and natural resources to the House, serving nine terms in the Minnesota legislature between 1922 and 1942.
Johannah Jensen was born in 1880 on the ship where her single mother, Josephine Anderson, worked. Anderson put her into foster care in Stavanger, Norway. Two years later, Johannah’s foster parents, Ole and Martha Jensen, had a biological son named John.
Relatives living in Minnesota wrote letters to the Jensens telling them about homestead land, and the family immigrated from Norway to Minnesota around 1885. They eventually settled near Erhard, in Otter Tail County. Ole Jensen never made a success of farming and developed health problems. His wife and children worked for other families, washing clothes and doing chores. It was a difficult life of poverty.
Johannah was determined to get an education. To earn and save money for school books, she sold wood and wore homemade wooden shoes. A teacher shortened her name to Hannah to “Americanize” it. When her family needed to repay a loan, Hannah went to find work in Fergus Falls. She was only twelve years old.
From then on, Jensen supported herself. She found work anywhere she could while attending school. After graduating from Fergus Falls High School, she passed the state teacher exam. Not yet eighteen, she began teaching in one-room schools in Friberg Township. In 1903, she married a local farmer named Charles Kempfer. They never had children but became foster parents.
In addition to teaching, Hannah Kempfer wrote for Wheelock’s Weekly, a newspaper read throughout Otter Tail County. Using the pen name “K. J. H.”, she promoted her community as well as her own successes. In one article, she described creating a school lunch program by encouraging students to prepare and eat hot meals in her classroom.
Kempfer gained recognition countywide as a community organizer. Her work helped families affected by tragedies and communities struck by natural disasters. When a tornado nearly destroyed Fergus Falls in 1919, she organized relief efforts by Otter Tail County farmers. Her students knit for the Red Cross during World War I. And when the Minnesota Public Health Association organized officers in each county, Kempfer served as the officer for her township.
Kempfer’s farming experience brought her further into the public eye. She belonged to the Otter Tail County Holstein Breeders Association, most of whose members were male. Money she received from a Great Northern Railway contest went back into the community to start the Edwards Better Farming Club for children, a precursor to 4-H clubs. In 1920, a county farm display she created won second place at the Minnesota State Fair.
After the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, Kempfer ran for a seat in the legislature representing House District 50. She had the support of suffragists as well as business leaders and local politicians. She refused party endorsements and ran as an Independent. She campaigned around the district in her Model T Ford, seeking the farm vote. She was nominated on June 22, 1922, and elected on November 11, 1922.
Kempfer drew on her childhood experiences to advocate for women and children. One of the first bills she submitted after taking office defended the rights of children born to single mothers. At a time when talking about sex outside of marriage was taboo, Kempfer spoke openly on the floor of the Minnesota legislature about the circumstances of her own birth. The bill passed.
In 1925 Kempfer voted in favor of a constitutional amendment regulating the labor of children under age eighteen; the bill subsequently failed to pass in the Minnesota legislature. In 1935, she introduced a bill giving state money to a Mother’s Pension Fund.
Kempfer’s colleagues in the legislature respected her honesty and diligence. In 1925, they named her honorary Speaker of the House — the first such distinction for a woman lawmaker in Minnesota. When suffragist Clara Ueland died in 1927, Hannah was selected to represent the legislature at her funeral.
Kempfer was a voice for farmers and conservationists. She served on and chaired the Fish and Game committee during her nine terms in office. One law she supported added license fees for hunters that repaid farmers for crop damage; a fishing license fee she proposed in 1928 was adopted and provided money for state hatcheries. In 1925, she and fellow lawmaker Mabeth Hurd Paige sponsored a bill to protect the showy lady’s slipper, Minnesota’s state flower.
Kempfer retired to her farm in 1942. She passed away in 1943.
For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.