The 19th century Suffrage Movement in Minnesota

Early leaders of the local movement

In October 1885, the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) held their seventeenth annual convention at the Church of the Redeemer in Minneapolis to showcase the growing westward momentum of the movement.

Minnesota was a vast prairie, the homeland of more 10,000 Dakota, Ojibwe and Anishinaabe peoples in July 1848, when the first woman's rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, NY.

Early efforts to champion women's suffrage started in the more urban eastern United States. Congress delivered a setback to women's rights in 1868, with the Fourteenth Amendment specifying "male" as a qualification for voting. National suffrage leaders responded by organizing. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony founded the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), which was focused on gaining the vote by constitutional amendment. Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, and Stone's husband, Henry Blackwell, started the more conservative American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), which worked for suffrage through state law.

In Minnesota, small suffrage organizations sprang up around the state in the 1860s and 1870s. They circulated petitions, which led to the unsuccessful 1870 suffrage bill. These scattered organizing efforts led to a statewide move in 1881 to coordinate. Fifteen women gathered in Hastings to form the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association (MWSA.)

Drawing on her east coast networks, MWSA president Martha Ripley convinced the AWSA to hold their seventeenth annual convention in Minneapolis to showcase the growing westward momentum of the movement.

The convention spanned three days -- October 14-16, 1885 -- and was held at the Church of the Redeemer in Minneapolis. More than 50 delegates came from 21 states and territories, traveling from as far away as Rhode Island and Washington Territory. Minnesota sent five delegates, one for each of the state's congressional districts.
The sanctuary of the church was nearly full each day. “The very walls were given tongues,” wrote the Minneapolis Daily Tribune journalist, referring to the many posters that hung outside:

“Either sex alone is but half itself”

“Happily a woman’s voice may do some good, sir! Here’s a woman will speak” -- Shakespeare

Speeches were both serious and fun. The AWSA president, William Dudley Foulke of Indiana, reminded the assembly that "the just powers of government are derived from the consent of the governed," a principle violated with the vote denied to female citizens. Abigail Scott Duniway, a suffrage activist from Oregon, entertained the audience with her wit, persuading them to stay well into the night.

Other speeches were made by Julia Ward Howe, Henry Blackwell, Lucy Stone Blackwell and many others. Lucy Stone, who had been active in a movement for women’s rights for nearly 40 years, spoke on the duties and strengths of motherhood and the logic of including women's voices in policy-making, particularly on issues concerning women and children.

Sadly, many of the arguments for women's suffrage were made at the expense of the poor, foreign-born, and people of color. When Minneapolis Mayor George A. Pillsbury spoke on the first evening, he questioned why “ignorant and debauched ” male foreigners, new to citizenship, enjoyed the right to vote when women did not. Sarah Burger Stearns spoke on the progress being made in higher education for women as more colleges opened their doors to female students. But she also urged southern women to argue for their enfranchisement “to offset the ignorant colored vote.”

At the time, thirteen states (including Minnesota) allowed women to vote in school elections. Three territories (Wyoming first, followed by Washington and Utah) gave them full suffrage rights. But for much of the 19th century, additional progress would be slow.


Images

Church of the Redeemer, Eighth Street and Second Avenue South, and Charles H. Hunter residence, 829 Second Avenue South, Minneapolis

Church of the Redeemer, Eighth Street and Second Avenue South, and Charles H. Hunter residence, 829 Second Avenue South, Minneapolis

Photo circa 1878 | Source: Minnesota Historical Society | Creator: Photographer: William H. Jacoby View File Details Page

Proceedings of the Convention of Colored Citizens of the State of Minnesota, 1869.  <br /><br />

Proceedings of the Convention of Colored Citizens of the State of Minnesota, 1869.

This pamphlet contains the speeches made in honor of the one-year anniversary of voting rights for African American men in Minnesota. In the early years of Minnesota™s statehood, few African Americans moved to the region. Only 700 appeared on the census in 1868. By 1890, Minnesota™s Black population had grown to 3,683—only 0.3 percent out of a total of 1,310,283. But small numbers did not prevent them from asserting their interests. Arguing that they were entitled to full citizenship, a group of black St. Paul barbers published a petition addressed to Minnesota legislators in 1865: “We the undersigned, colored residents of the State of Minnesota, respectfully petition . . . to amend the Constitution of this State, by striking out the word ‘white,™ believing it not only superfluous, but . . . a mark of degradation . . . , supporting the unnatural prejudice against us who have committed no crime save the wearing complacently the dark skin our Creator has seen fit in his all-wise providence to clothe us with . . . . We do feel that our white citizens have imposed a stigma upon us that dampens our ardor… .” Twice Minnesota voters rejected the black suffrage question on the ballot: in 1865 and 1867. The third time, they passed it. Ten years after statehood and three years after the Civil War, Minnesota voters in 1868 agreed to allow black men to vote (56.7 to 43.3%). The state was two years ahead of the 15th Amendment, which opened national voting rights to include black men. (Women would have to wait another 50 years.) | Source: Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) View File Details Page

Governor Horace Austin Vetoes the 1870 Suffrage Bill

Governor Horace Austin Vetoes the 1870 Suffrage Bill

One of the most bitter set-backs in the suffrage movement came in 1870 with Governor Horace Austin's veto of the 1870 female suffrage bill. This was the first of its kind to pass both the House and Senate. In the late 1860s, Minnesota women had brought a series of petitions, each with several hundred signatures, requesting an amendment to Section 1 of Article IV of the state constitution to give women the right to vote. In response, Representative Abram M. Fridley introduced a bill in 1870, which would extend suffrage to all citizens, male and female, aged twenty-one and over. It included immigrants and any Native Americans who agreed to live by US laws and customs and who adopted the English language. The bill passed both the state House and Senate, but needed to pass a public vote. Before that could happen, Governor Austin vetoed the measure on a legal technicality, even though he supported women's votes. Fifty more years would pass before Minnesota women would gain these rights. Official portrait of Governor Horace Austin, 1873. Artist: Carl Gutherz View File Details Page

Mary Jackman Colburn (1811-1901)

Mary Jackman Colburn (1811-1901)

In 1858, a year after Minnesota's statehood, Mary J. Colburn of Champlin delivered what is believed to be the state™s first women's rights speech. A fluid writer and speaker, with a reputation of being “forceful,” she also gave presentations at local clubs and churches around the state. In June 1865, she spoke on the “Patriotism of Woman” at the Methodist Church in St. Cloud, and in 1867 she testified before a state senate committee about women™s suffrage. In Champlin, she was a regular speaker for the “Progressive Spiritualists,” a group that questioned traditional religion. Colburn was also known for her advocacy of African-American enfranchisement and immigration. In 1864, she won a writing prize for an essay promoting immigration to the state ("Minnesota as a Home for Immigrants"), which was widely circulated in the Eastern United States and Europe. In her private life, she was not unfamiliar with tragedy. She and her husband lost their eldest daughter, Madora, at the age of 21 years. | Source: Hennepin History Museum View File Details Page

Ignatius Donnelly (1831–1901), ca. 1885

Ignatius Donnelly (1831–1901), ca. 1885

Minnesota's suffrage movement had powerful male allies, including the colorful Ignatious Donnelly, who served the state as lieutenant governor, state senator, and U.S. congressman. Widely known as a writer, orator, and social thinker, he was an articulate spokesperson for the populist movement. Donnelly had read John Stuart Mill's essay "The Subjection of Women" and believed that tax-paying women should have the right to vote. The suffragist Julia Nelson cultivated his friendship in the 1890s, persuading him to sponsor suffrage legislation. Initially, they sought the vote for women in municipal elections, but the Senate pushed ahead and--by a vote of 32 to 19--voted to remove the word “male” from the state™s voting requirements. The bill did not become a law, however, because the House failed to vote on it before the end of the 1893 legislative session. The MWSA continued to bring their amendment before future legislatures without success. | Source: Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) | Creator: Photograph by Charles A. Zimmerman View File Details Page

Martha Ripley (1843-1912)

Martha Ripley (1843-1912)

Feminist politics and women™s medicine were Martha Ripley™s twin passions. Born in November 1843 in Lowell, Vermont, she married William Ripley in 1867. She moved to Minneapolis in 1883, after her husband was injured and lost his managerial job in a Massachusetts™ textile mill. This pushed her to become the sole breadwinner for their three daughters. She brought with her a medical degree from the Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM), one of the few medical schools in the United States that accepted women. Shortly after her arrival in Minneapolis, Ripley was elected president of the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association (MWSA), a new affiliate of the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) led by Ripley™s Massachusetts friends, Henry Blackwell and Lucy Stone. Drawing on her Boston connections, she brought the seventeenth annual convention of the AWSA to Minneapolis in 1885. In her time as president of MWSA, Martha was an advocate for raising the age of consent in Minnesota. She lobbied for the rights of female workers to be able to unionize. Drawing on her medical background, she pushed for such health reforms as improved sanitation and access to clean water. Her unfashionably short haircut (picture) signaled her independent attitude. She may be best known for establishing the Maternity Hospital in 1886, where she devoted many hours to caring for young, poor, unmarried women who were often turned away from other hospitals because of their financial or marital status. As the hospital grew, it began to offer housing for “destitute” children as well as unwed mothers and their children, training and job assistance for single mothers, and even adoption services. Martha Ripley died in 1912, soon after the completion of her new hospital, located along Glenwood Avenue in Minneapolis. In 2007, the historic buildings were renovated into housing for low income residents. | Source: Minnesota Historical Society | Creator: Engraver: Samuel Sartain, ca. 1890. View File Details Page

Julia B. Nelson (1842-1914) with a pupil

Julia B. Nelson (1842-1914) with a pupil

Julia Nelson's story is similar to that of Martha Ripley: personal tragedy spurred her to work for gender and racial justice. Her husband and infant son died within five months of each other, leaving her a widow at age 26. Nelson decided to use her Hamline University teaching degree (earned in 1862) to teach African Americans through the Freedman™s Bureau in Texas. Despite violent threats, she taught in the South from 1870 to 1888, returning to Minnesota in the summers. In 1881, alongside fourteen other women, Nelson helped to found the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association (MWSA.) An excellent public speaker, Nelson became a sought-after orator and paid lecturer for MWSA. Fluent in Norwegian, she made many campaign stops among Minnesota's Norwegian settlements. Like many suffragists, she also was active in the Women's Christian Temperance Union, becoming the MN state superintendent and editor of the group™s newspaper, Minnesota White Ribboner. Unwilling to give up political work when she grew ill with chronic bronchitis, she died of pneumonia on December 24, 1914. | Source: Minnesota Historical Society View File Details Page

A 19th century ballot machine

A 19th century ballot machine

Suffragists in Minnesota secured important victories in the years before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. In 1875, a ballot initiative granted women™s right to vote in school board elections, allowing women to serve in elected positions for the first time in Minnesota. In 1898, another successful initiative won women the right to vote for library boards. This second victory would prove bittersweet. In response, the rules for ballot initiatives were changed and women in Minnesota would be barred from voting for any higher offices until 1920. This ballot box, last used in Minnesota™s gubernatorial election of 1914, shows the complexity of voting rules. Since women were not allowed to vote in statewide or national elections, this voting machine had a mechanism to prevent them from doing so, while still allowing them to vote for school and library boards. A sign on the back of the machine in the bottom left reads, “BEFORE A WOMAN ENTERS THE BOOTH…” – and follows up with instructions on how to move the adjacent lever. This essentially blocked the possibility of an “illegally cast” ballot. | Source: Hennepin History Museum View File Details Page

Access Information:

Today, St. Olaf Catholic Church stands on the site of the Church of the Redeemer.

Street Address:

Church of the Redeemer, 215 8th Street South, Minneapolis,MN 55402 [map]

Cite this Page:

Jacqueline deVries, with Grant Berg, Brendan Descamps, Jackson Gerber, A. J. Hanson, and Indy Weisman, “The 19th century Suffrage Movement in Minnesota,” Augsburg Digi-Tours, accessed September 25, 2020, http://digitours.augsburg.edu/items/show/64.

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