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Minnesota helped build momentum for women’s suffrage

Here, ratification of the constitutional amendment occurred in September 1919.

A 1915 image of the Minnesota Political Equity Club.
A 1915 image of the Minnesota Political Equity Club.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

“A milestone has been passed — a new era dawned for American women,” gushed the Minneapolis Tribune’s Lilian Taaffe, when the 19th Amendment giving U.S. women the right to vote was adopted on Aug. 18, 1920.

“To the snow-haired veterans, who have seen in suffrage a cause to die for, if need be, the hour was a supreme one, the one for which they have waiting for, dreaming for,” declared Taaffe.

In 1920, Minnesota had its share of “snow haired veterans,’’ who saw suffrage as an all-consuming cause even if they were not ready to die for it. Here, ratification of the constitutional amendment occurred the previous year, in September 1919.

Suffrage efforts in the 19th century

Minnesota’s action represented the culmination of a crusade launched four decades earlier. In 1881, a group of suffragists came together to form the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association (MWSA). Earlier in the 19th century, smaller, more local groups of women had worked to promote voting rights in this state. In 1875, they won a small victory when the Minnesota Legislature allowed women to vote in school board elections. Then, in 1893, the MWSA was able to persuade the Minnesota Senate to expand the suffrage by striking the word “male” from the state’s voting requirements. but the legislation died in the Minnesota House.

Frustrated by continued legislative resistance after the 1893 setback, the MWSA took its cause to a new, more public level in 1914 when the Minnesota group organized the state’s first major suffrage demonstration. On May 2, nearly 2,000 advocates marched through downtown Minneapolis in support of votes for women. The largely female army was supported by a contingent of about 300 men.

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“Equal Suffrage put herself on parade yesterday,” the Tribune told its readers. “Perhaps you were one of those astounded. Be that as it may, Minneapolis wakes this morning with some distinctly new ideas of those who are engaged in obtaining votes for women.”

“Minneapolis learned by practical demonstration that those who ask the ballot for women are distinctly not a bevy of hopeless spinsters, unhappily married women and persons who have nothing else to do.

“The parade was not what the largely male group of bystanders had expected,” according to the Tribune. “They (the bystanders) saw women of every walk of life. Young women, old women, middle aged women, rich women, women beautiful, women otherwise. But always patiently dignified.

“By the time all had passed, the onlookers were impressed with the fact that there is in Minneapolis a considerable army of women determined to have the ballot and to march through the streets to get it.”

Male supporters included prominent civic leaders

On the day after the parade, the men who marched in support of women’s suffrage found that their names had been printed in the Minneapolis Journal. Those names included such prominent civic leaders as former mayor David C. Jones, and William Purcell, the city’s leading exponent of prairie style architecture.

The May 1914 demonstration may have raised the profile of Minnesota’s suffrage movement, but it did not lead to any immediate legislative action. The activists who marched through the streets of Minneapolis and their counterparts in other states would need to keep up the pressure for suffrage as the United States became entangled in World War 1.

During those years, the political winds were beginning to shift. Initially somewhat ambivalent about the cause, President Woodrow Wilson had come around to supporting suffrage by 1918. That year, a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote was narrowly adopted by the U.S. House but rejected by an equal narrow margin in the Senate. Finally, in May 1919, Congress approved what became the 19th Amendment and sent the constitutional provision out to the states for ratification. Five months later, on Sept. 8, with strong support from Minnesota Gov. J.A.A. Burnquist, the Minnesota Legislature ratified the 19th Amendment. Only a handful of legislators in the House and Senate opposed the measure, which made Minnesota the 15th state to support ratification.

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‘We can extend our influence to the sister states’

During the celebration after the ratification vote, one of the leaders of the successful legislative effort, Sen. Ole Sageng, addressed the joyous suffragists who had crowded into the Capitol rotunda. “We have reached the home goal today,” Sageng declared. “I am glad now that as far as Minnesota is concerned, the contest is won. If there is more to be done, we can extend our influence to the sister states so that you folks can vote in the next national election.”

Minneapolis Tribune headline from Sept. 9, 1919.
Minneapolis Tribune headline from Sept. 9, 1919.
Then, looking ahead, Sageng observed, “I don’t anticipate that at once a great change will come over the public affairs of America; but I do believe the change is so fundamental and tremendous in its final results, that it will take some time before we notice a change in government.”

Minnesota may have helped spur the suffrage cause with its ratification vote in 1919, but gender equality in this state was still very much in the future. A later generation of feminists would probably roll their eyes at what they would have seen as the suffragists’ deference to their male superiors, symbolized by the final event of the ratification celebration. Later in the day on Sept. 8, the leaders of the Minnesota Women Suffrage Association served a fried chicken dinner to the state’s all male political leaders. The dinner was a sign of appreciation by the women of the MWSA for receiving the right to vote from the men who controlled the levers of power at the Capitol.

The women may have been deferential at the celebratory event, but they did what they could to maintain their dignity in their unaccustomed roles as wait staff. “The suffragists were not “parlor waitresses,” the Minneapolis Tribune observed. “They didn’t stop to take off their hats before they pitched in to work. They ladled gravy and passed all manner of dishes, hot and tired as they were.”