Minnesota was the 15th state to ratify the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote in 1919 — signed into law in 1920.
Now the history of the women’s suffrage movement is coming to life across Minnesota as nonprofits launch or prepare new exhibits and events marking the 100th anniversary.
The Hennepin History Museum in Minneapolis has opened an exhibit highlighting local suffragists who pushed for voting rights. In St. Paul, the Minnesota Historical Society and Ramsey County Historical Society are revealing new exhibits next fall.
And across the state, museums and historical societies are hosting traveling exhibits that the League of Women Voters of Minnesota debuted earlier this year.
“Every right we enjoy today is only available because somebody else paved the way for us,” said Michelle Witte, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Minnesota, a nonprofit based in St. Paul. “It’s not just remembering the past. It’s what it means for our future.”
Before 1919, women in Minnesota could only cast a ballot in local school board or library board elections. After the amendment was signed into law in the U.S. Constitution in 1920, the first women to cast a ballot were in South St. Paul, voting on a city bond referendum. But voting rights were largely extended only to white women, excluding American Indians, who weren’t granted citizenship until four years later, and many African-American women faced voting barriers until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“The right to vote had to be earned and fought for by women and people of color,” Witte said. “It’s good to remember.”
The anniversary of the 19th Amendment is sparking new conversations, especially due to renewed interest in civics and democracy, Witte said.
The lessons of the past, she said, are reminders to all of today’s citizens about the importance of ensuring that voting rights aren’t restricted and safeguarding cybersecurity while encouraging people to get engaged in democracy.
“We all have the baton … take it and move it forward,” she said. “Take time to learn about your history, because it’s still so relevant today.”
The 19th Amendment isn’t the only equal rights discussion receiving attention. Last March, the state House passed a bill to put a measure on the 2020 ballot regarding the Equal Rights Amendment, which Minnesota ratified in 1973. Supporters wanted to let voters decide whether to alter the state’s constitution to say people have equal rights regardless of gender. While the effort failed to pass the Senate, supporters are expected to keep pushing.
A legacy of activism
Due to demand for the traveling exhibit that the League of Women Voters unveiled last April, the organization created three exhibits that are popping up at more than 40 locations across the state. The exhibit, which is at the Runestone Museum in Alexandria until Dec. 31, details the suffrage movement and the League’s history since the organization also started in 1919.
The League also partnered with the Minnesota Historical Society on its new exhibit on women’s suffrage. The 5,000-square-foot exhibit will open Sept. 26, one of two new exhibits starting in 2020 at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul, but staff have already begun putting it together.
The exhibit, “She Voted: Her Fight, Our Right,” will be available through summer 2021. It highlights Minnesota women and men who helped fight for voting rights before and after the 19th Amendment passed. It also outlines how current Minnesotans can get involved — whether it’s voting, running for office or being more aware of current events.
The Historical Society is also planning voting rights-related events at some of its other 26 sites across the state, a teacher workshop to help teach suffrage to students and online content.
“Minnesota really does have a legacy of women being active civically,” said Kate Roberts, the state historical society’s senior exhibit developer. “Making the link from past to present … is very important.”
The Hennepin History Museum in Minneapolis is localizing the movement further with an exhibit that opened in November on suffrage, highlighting Hennepin County trailblazers — and even anti-suffragists — involved in the push for voting rights, which lasted decades before the 19th Amendment was ratified.
“It makes it a lot more real when they can see it in their community,” said John Crippen, executive director of the museum in south Minneapolis, which draws about 5,000 visitors a year.
The exhibit, which has a voting machine last used in 1914 — believed to be one of the last of its kind — will be open until July. The museum is also hosting educational activities dubbed “Suffrage Saturdays” on the third Saturday of each month and will hold a series of panel discussions in 2020 tying suffrage to current issues.
In downtown St. Paul, the Ramsey County Historical Society plans to install an exhibit in August at the Landmark Center, called “Persistence,” focused not just on the 19th Amendment but broader local activism up to modern times. Organizers say it was important to link the past to the current efforts to exclude people from voting rights.
“People take it for granted now,” said Chad Roberts, the president of the historical society. “When we forget some of these really important things, they repeat themselves.”