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.