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Explore a Timeline of Women's Suffrage Efforts in Minnesota

March 6, 2024

By Jess Bellville

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

Just 39 words in length, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave women the right to vote when it was passed on June 4, 1919 and enacted on August 26, 1920 – but its passage was fraught with decades of legal challenges and intense demonstrations in which women activists sometimes put their lives directly on the knife’s edge. Technically, the amendment gave 26 million women at the time the right to vote, but the robust bloc of women voters that politicians feared failed to materialize until decades later.

In addition, it’s worth noting one of the fair criticisms of the 19th Amendment: Efforts to propel its passage neglected the sweeping support of African-American, Asian-American, Native American and Latina women, and many cultural groups continue to feel the sting of that early disenfranchisement in the present moment.

As we enter another national election cycle – we’d like to take the opportunity to honor the 72 years of struggle that suffragists dedicated themselves to, in turn giving 68 million women the opportunity to raise their voices via the ballot.

As it turns out, Minnesota holds a unique distinction in the national history of women’s suffrage: One day after the 19th Amendment was cemented into law – on August 27, 1920 – the town of South St. Paul held a special election on a water bond referendum, and 90 women in the community turned out to cast their votes, becoming the first in the country to do so after the amendment’s passage. The journey to women’s suffrage in the U.S. was a long, winding one – and many Minnesota women played an important role in achieving victory in 1920, as this timeline reveals.

Watch a 30-Second Minnesota episode on those South St. Paul women who took their new right to vote seriously just one day after the 19th Amendment became the law of the land.

Mary Colburn – who graduated from Harvard University with a medical degree in 1840 – gave the first public lecture on suffrage in Champlin, Minn. The speech was entitled “The Rights and Wrongs of Women,” and it was the first public lecture in the state of Minnesota on women’s rights.

Jane Grey Swisshelm, a St. Cloud journalist who wrote frequently about abolition, women’s rights and suffrage, becomes the first woman to present to the Minnesota House of Representative on “Women and Politics.”

Mary A. Graves presented a petition with more than 350 signatures through Representative Alpheus B. Colton asking that the word “male” be removed as a qualification for voting. Despite the election committee’s recommendation that the petition be carried forward, it ultimately failed to receive the momentum it needed.

Mary Jackman Colburn of Champlin and Sarah Burger Stearns of Rochester form Minnesota’s first two suffragist societies.

A fourth petition entered the Minnesota House of Representatives with 605 signatures seeking women’s suffrage. While some lawmakers treated it as a joke, the effort did result in House File 91 – the first bill supporting women’s rights in the state of Minnesota.

Two petitions with a combined 750 signatures for women’s rights were blended into House File 123, giving suffrage to all citizens, male and female, aged 21 and over. This bill also extended suffrage to immigrants and Native Americans, who agreed to live by US laws and customs, including the adoption of the English language. This bill passed both the Minnesota House and Senate, but before it went to the public for a vote, Governor Horace Austin – a man who claimed to be pro-suffrage – vetoed the constitutional amendment bill. A public vote did not go forward.

The Minnesota Suffrage in School Affairs Amendment, also known as Amendment 2, passed in the Minnesota legislature, allowing women the right to vote in school elections and in school matters. The following year, Charlotte Ouisconsin Clark Van Cleve became the first woman elected to the Minneapolis school board.

The Minnesota House and Senate passed a bill aimed at allowing women the right to vote on the “whiskey question.” But when this amendment went to the public, male voters defeated it at the polls.

The Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association (MWSA) was first incorporated in Hastings, Minn., the first statewide suffragist organization.

MWSA’s President Julia Bullard Nelson convinced the Minnesota Legislature to take up suffrage again. This time around, the suffrage bill sought to give women the right to vote in municipal elections only – but the Senate went a step further and voted to remove the word “male” from the state’s voting requirements. The bill passed 32 to 19 in the Minnesota Senate, but failed in the House.

The Minnesota Women Vote for Library Boards Amendment, also known as Amendment 1, passed with 62 percent of the public voting in favor. The amendment allowed women to vote for and serve on library boards.

Nellie Griswold Francis – who would later go on to lead the effort to enact a statewide anti-lynching statute in 1921 – founded the Everywoman Suffrage Club for African-American women in Minnesota.

The 33rd Convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association was convened in Minneapolis in the hope of engaging women in the Midwest.

The Scandinavian Woman Suffrage Association was founded in Minnesota.

The Minnesota Senate’s suffrage amendment failed to pass once again.

The Minnesota Senate’s suffrage bill failed by two votes.

The Minnesota House passed a suffrage amendment, but the bill failed in the Senate.

Collage of Minnesota Suffragettes
The Minneapolis Sunday Tribune covers the 1914 suffrage parade organized by Clara Ueland.

Clara Ueland and the MWSA organized a suffrage parade through the Twin Cities, bringing more than 2,000 women into the streets.

Women’s suffrage was defeated by only one vote in the Minnesota Senate.

Minnesota became the 15th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote.

The 19th Amendment became the law of the land in the United States. Though it technically allowed all women to vote, barriers such literacy tests and poll taxes continued to keep many women of color disenfranchised.

Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 granted Native American women and men citizenship and the right to vote.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 reduced barriers to voting for people of color.

Video Producer: Bobby Edwards

Made in partnership with the League of Women Voters Minnesota.

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In October 1974, the Minnesota organization Women’s Advocates opened its doors as the first domestic abuse shelter in the United States. Discover more about their groundbreaking work supporting the needs of women and combatting gender stereotypes along the way.

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