Votes for women

Organized groups, such as the University of Minnesota’s women’s suffrage club, were a force behind the movement for suffrage equity in 1913. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.
Organized groups, such as the University of Minnesota’s women’s suffrage club, were a force behind the movement for suffrage equity in 1913. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

In September 1919, the Minnesota legislature ratified the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote.

The process took about 30 minutes.

But the path to women’s suffrage locally and nationally wasn’t so simple.

Women’s suffrage was on Minnesotans’ minds from the state’s beginnings in 1858. While writing the new state constitution, Democrats proposed allowing married women to vote in Minnesota, but the idea was quickly dismissed.

That same year, in Champlin, early suffragist Dr. Mary Jackman Colburn made likely the first-ever public lecture on women’s rights in Minnesota.

On the ballot

Minnesota moved a small step closer to women’s suffrage in 1875 when a constitutional amendment allowing women the right to vote and run for office — on school issues — was included on the ballot.

Suffrage activists were strategic in their work on the amendment: To avoid triggering opposition, they held off publicizing the amendment until right before the election.

Advocate Sarah Burger Stearns also convinced the editor of the Pioneer Press, the leading newspaper in Minnesota, to announce his support for the amendment. Finally, activists ensured that the ballots were printed with very specific wording regarding the amendment: “For the amendment of Article VII relating to electors: Yes.”

This required voters to scratch out “yes” and write “no” if they opposed it.

The amendment ultimately passed — with 24,340 votes in favor and 19,468 against; the next year, Charlotte Ouisconsin Clark Van Cleve became the first woman elected to the Minneapolis school board.

This suffrage banner was used by the St. Paul Political Equity Club in 1910-1919. Photo courtesy of The Minnesota Historical Society

Getting organized

A statewide organization was formed in 1881 when the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association (MWSA) was created by 14 women in Hastings.

Stearns was elected its first president. Within a year, the group had 200 members, and MWSA eventually became a branch of the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA).

The fight continued steadily on from 1893 to 1907 with very little success.

One small victory occurred in 1898 when voters approved an amendment giving women the right to vote and serve on library boards in Minnesota.

In 1914, Clara Ueland became president of the MWSA. She worked to make the MWSA even more organized, including hiring paid organizers to travel around Minnesota and finding key local women to be coordinators in their areas.

In the state legislature, meanwhile, the divide was getting narrower and narrower; in 1915, suffrage was defeated by only one vote in the Senate.

Strategy conflict

At the same time, the national suffrage movement was experiencing a split. Some leaders, like Alice Paul, felt more radical tactics were needed and subsequently left NAWSA.

The National Woman’s Party (NWP) was formed in 1916 and relied on civil disobedience and protests, rather than other methods, such as lobbying political leaders, to fight for the vote. The NWP began picketing outside the White House in January 1917 and continued the protest for nearly two more years.

Minnesota’s suffragists felt this national split. As a branch of NAWSA, the MWSA kept up its same tactics and distanced itself from the picketers.

But some Minnesotans, like Sarah Tarleton Colvin and Bertha Moller, went to Washington, D.C. to protest. Moller was arrested 11 times and jailed twice, and Colvin, president of the Minnesota branch of the NWP, was jailed for five days after burning President Woodrow Wilson in effigy.

By 1918, several more states, including New York and California, granted women full voting rights. Then a constitutional amendment passed the U.S. House of Representatives in January 1918, and Minnesota’s entire delegation voted in favor.

In June 1919, the U.S. Senate passed the amendment, sending it to the states for ratification, which required two-thirds of states to approve it before it could become law.

Three women wait in line to vote in a primary election – possibly a school board election – after an amendment that gave women the right to vote in school board elections was passed in 1898. Photo courtesy of The Minnesota Historical Society.

Federal ratification

In the midst of this, back in Minnesota, legislation passed in March 1919 allowing women to vote in presidential elections.

At that point, 30,000 Minnesota women were members of a local suffrage organization. Suffragists then lobbied Minnesota Gov. Joseph Burquist to call a special legislative session to vote to ratify suffrage on the federal level.

In a special session on Sept. 8, 1919, both houses ratified the 19th Amendment, which passed 120–6 in the House of Representatives and 60–5 in the Senate.

One suffragist reported, “The moment the Senate vote was polled the corridors, floors and galleries of both houses were in an uproar; hundreds of women cheered and laughed and waved the suffrage colors, while in the rotunda a band swung into the strains of The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

The amendment was approved by a two-thirds majority of states a year later, and the 19th Amendment became federal law in August 1920.

However, Minnesota’s suffrage leaders didn’t consider their work done.

The MWSA transformed into the Minnesota League of Women Voters, which is still an active organization devoted to civic engagement nearly 100 years later.

Lauren Peck is a media relations and social media associate for the Minnesota Historical Society.

See an exhibit

Visitors to the Minnesota History Center can learn more about the U.S. suffrage movement and see related artifacts in the exhibit WW1 America, which examines this transformative and turbulent period in American history.

The exhibit is open through Nov. 11.