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Not asking for rights, demanding them: The National Woman’s Party in Minnesota’s more radical approach to suffrage

National Woman’s Party of Minnesota founder Sarah Tarleton Colvin called on women to abandon what she saw as the prevailing tactic of the day — gently guiding powerful men to support suffrage — and urged them instead to demand their rights.

historic photo of four women holding a petition
Suffragists including Bertha Moller, secretary of the Minnesota branch of the National Woman's Party (second from left), pose with a suffrage petition before presenting it to a New Mexican senator, 1918.
Records of the National Woman’s Party, Library of Congress

The National Woman’s Party (NWP) was a suffrage organization that emphasized civil disobedience and direct action in its fight for the right to vote. Minneapolis activist Jane Bliss Potter led the founding of its Minnesota chapter in 1915. Though its forceful approach frustrated some, the NWP lent a transformative sense of urgency and focus to Minnesota’s suffrage movement.

The origins of the NWP lie in an earlier group called the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CU), founded by women’s rights activists Alice Paul and Lucy Burns in 1913. Paul modeled its philosophy on the militant tactics of suffragists she had met while studying in England, where they were called suffragettes. Her approach upset members of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), from which she split in 1914.

In Minnesota, suffrage supporters encountered similar tensions. More traditional suffragists like Clara Ueland, president of the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association (MWSA), initially supported the Minnesota chapter of the CU but distanced themselves when the group used controversial tactics like picketing. Other Minnesota women, however, were restless with the Nineteenth Amendment’s slow climb towards ratification.

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One of those women was Minneapolis activist Jane Bliss Potter, who created a Minnesota branch of the CU in 1915. Another was Sarah Tarleton Colvin, a nurse and community organizer who had moved to St. Paul in 1897. Like Paul, Colvin was tired of dawdling, and she readily accepted Paul’s methods when she encountered the CU in Washington, DC. In 1916, when the CU reorganized as the National Woman’s Party (NWP), Colvin joined the “Suffrage Special” train tour through the western United States. The excitement followed her home to Minnesota, where she and Myrtle Agnes Cain joined the group’s Minnesota chapter. The Minnesota NWP boasted members that Colvin described as enthusiastic, articulate, and remarkably devoted to the movement.

Women from the Minnesota NWP traveled to Washington, DC, in January 1917 to participate in national protests involving the first-ever picketing of the White House. Their demonstrations continued into 1919. The NWP suffragists engaging in these non-violent, legal protests—including seven Minnesota women—were harassed, jailed, and at times force-fed for demanding the right to vote. Colvin was arrested twice in 1919, once for burning President Woodrow Wilson in effigy. She protested her two five-day sentences with a hunger strike. Bertha Moller, the Minnesota chapter’s secretary, was arrested eleven times during the demonstrations.

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NWP members, now numbering 800, also carried out smaller-scale protests in Minnesota. In 1918, NWP officials announced a boycott of Liberty Bonds. According to Colvin, the party had little interest in giving money to “short-sighted, incompetent men.” Frustrated with the government, they refused to affiliate themselves with either the Democratic or Republican Party. They continued to do so in the midst of a worsening influenza epidemic, during which calls for civic unity intensified. In 1919, members refrained from buying Christmas presents for their families and instead donated the funds to the suffrage cause.

Despite the rifts and inequalities that pervaded the movement, suffragists won the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. At its annual conference in 1921, the NWP invited major suffrage organizations to celebrate their accomplishments and brainstorm future plans. Colvin was excited to enact meaningful changes with her newly won vote, like addressing income inequality and passing an equal rights bill. Yet she was deflated by the many suffragists who believed their work was over. After returning to Minnesota, she ended her involvement with the NWP.

Myrtle Cain worked for the national NWP after 1923 to help advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment, but Minnesota’s branch never fully regained the momentum of its suffrage days. Many of its members continued to organize for women’s rights and use their vote to create change in their communities. The NWP, which still exists nationally, is remembered as a particularly ambitious and outspoken voice in Minnesota’s suffrage movement.

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