Women's Suffrage and World War I

Women of all backgrounds worked side by side during the war, demonstrating their capacity for civic engagement.

A turning point for the suffrage movement came in April 1917, when the United States entered the First World War. Historians have argued that suffrage volunteerism during the war helped persuade opponents of women's civic capacities.

Clara Ueland and other leading suffragists had misgivings about the decision to enter the far-away "European" war, but they concluded it was necessary and mobilized support among their followers. Minnesota suffragists volunteered in numerous ways. They offered to replace men in industry and worked to educate women on food production and conservation.

Hundreds of them joined the Red Cross. The MWSA turned over their headquarters at the Essex building for Red Cross sewing, led by the skilled Mrs. Bradford Viles who designed the patterns. Others came to this building, the makeshift headquarters of the Red Cross during the war.

In the war effort, women from many different organizations and backgrounds worked side by side. Members of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, Colonial Dames, and Minneapolis's branch of the Daughters of the Confederacy all volunteered. The Minneapolis Council for Jewish Women, led by president Mrs. Leopold Metzger, provided supplies to the Red Cross. They turned their worship space, the Temple House, into a center for sewing clothes for the war effort and stockpiling medical supplies.

Even anti-suffragists joined in. Lavinia Gilfillan, president of the Minnesota Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, hosted events at her home like sewing clothes for Belgian children, creating care bags for soldiers, and serving on a home-economics committee. Although she was against women's suffrage, that did not mean she was anti-women in public life.

Not all suffragists agreed that patriotic nationalism was the right way to secure the vote. Scandinavian suffragists favored a neutral stance. Clara Ueland's daughters, Anne, Elsa, and Brenda, all questioned the displays of jingoism. In Washington D.C., the National Woman’s Party continued their protests in front of the White House, carrying provocative signs that led to their arrest.

Although Ueland initially had cordial relations with the NWP, she severed ties in 1917, a decision that was controversial among Minnesota women. It spurred the Scandinavian Woman Suffrage Association to walk out of the MWSA state convention in protest.


Red Cross volunteers

Red Cross volunteers

A Red Cross class preparing surgical dressings at the headquarters, 722 Second Ave. SO. Minneapolis Sunday Tribune, June 17, 1917, p.1 View File Details Page

Wartime Parade

Wartime Parade

On the left side of the image, suffragists in Red Cross uniforms stand in front of the Minneapolis suffrage headquarters on Nicollet Avenue in 1917 for the farewell parade for the First Minnesota Infantry before they were sent to war. View File Details Page

Women Doctors in the Movement:  Ethel Edgerton Hurd (1846-1929)

Women Doctors in the Movement: Ethel Edgerton Hurd (1846-1929)

The suffrage movement attracted support from a number of women doctors. Martha Ripley may be the best known, but their ranks also included Mary J. Colburn, Cora Smith Eaton, and Mabel Ulrich. One of the most energetic was Dr. Ethel Edgerton Hurd. A practicing physician, Hurd earned her degrees from Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, where in 1865 she was the first woman to graduate, and -- thirty-two years later -- from the University of Minnesota Medical School. She found time to establish the Scandinavian Woman Suffrage Association, serve as president of the Political Equality Club of Minneapolis, and provide leadership on the board of the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association. Hurd also played a major role in nominating and supporting female candidates for the school and library board, as well as registering women to vote in those elections. She was a sought-after speaker on public health and "social hygiene." View File Details Page

Women "doing their bit"

Women "doing their bit"

Minneapolis Morning Tribune, June 17, 1917, p.8. View File Details Page

The Pillsbury Building, ca. 1914

The Pillsbury Building, ca. 1914

Many physicians, including Ethel Hurd, maintained offices in the Pillsbury Building, located on the southeast corner of Nicollet Avenue and Sixth Street, Minneapolis. View File Details Page

German-Americans and Women's Suffrage<br /><br />

German-Americans and Women's Suffrage

Photo: Grain Belt Brewery, Marshall Street and 13th Ave. Northeast, produced Grain Belt Golden, a traditional golden German-style lager.Minnesota's German population tended to oppose women's suffrage. During World War I, suffragists cast that opposition as "un-American." Germans were the single largest immigrant group in 19th century Minnesota. The majority were farmers in Lyon, Brown, Stearns and Otter Tail counties, where German immigrants and their descendents often made up more than 50 percent of the population. Others were urban professionals, bankers, and business owners in growing cities like St. Cloud, New Ulm, and St. Paul. Minnesota's taste for beer was cultivated by the dozens of German breweries in the Twin Cities and beyond. German communities maintained close ties through marriage, schools, and the use of the German language in key civic arenas like churches and newspapers. Although divided by religion -- some were Catholics, others Missouri Synod Lutherans and Mennonites -- they shared some common cultural values, including an orientation toward traditional gender roles. Der Nordstern, a German-language newspaper published in St. Cloud, was a firm champion of “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” (“children, kitchen, church”) and portrayed independent and enfranchised women, whether in Germany or the United States, as a threat to state and family unity -- “die groSse Gefahr für Staat und Familie.” German opposition to women™s suffrage was fueled by the popular perception that suffragists supported prohibition. Local suffragists often belonged to the Women™s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and sponsored joint events, leading to confusion and alienating many German-Americans, for whom beer drinking was a deeply embedded cultural practice. Virtually all Minnesota™s breweries were German-owned. Minnesota suffragists expressed frustration with German immigrants™ reluctance to embrace modern roles for women. When public opinion turned against German-Americans during World War I, suffragists cast their opposition as un-American. Unwittingly, through their conservatism, local German-Americans may have contributed to the future suffrage victory. View File Details Page

Street Address:

Red Cross Headquarters, 722 Second Ave SO [map]

Cite this Page:

Jacqueline deVries and Indy Weisman, “Women's Suffrage and World War I,” Augsburg Digi-Tours, accessed July 30, 2021, https://digitours.augsburg.edu/items/show/72.

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