It was a merger that forever altered Minnesota’s political landscape. On April 15, 1944 — 75 years ago this week — the state’s Farmer-Labor and Democratic parties joined forces.

The parties had been clashing for 20 years before leaders realized they were splitting the state’s liberal vote and helping Republicans win elections — see 31-year-old Gov. Harold Stassen’s victory in 1938.

Seventy-five years later, after DFLer descendants of that merger swept statewide races in November, several men are credited as architects who brought the parties together. Elmer Kelm, a Chanhassen banker, led state Democrats at the time. Former Farmer-Labor Gov. Elmer Benson played a pivotal role, as did an emerging force named Hubert Humphrey.

But the merger wasn’t solely the byproduct of an all-boy’s network. Marian Le Sueur, a progressive orator, educator, feminist and socialist firebrand, was the vice chairwoman of the DFL Party from 1944 to 1948 — making her the new party’s highest-ranking female officer.

“She was mean and didn’t smile much, but I loved being around her,” recalled her great-grandson, David Tilsen, 70. His childhood memories include Marian doling out kitchen tasks to him when he was 5. “She’d say, ‘If you’re going to sit there, do some work.’ ’’

Born in the southern Iowa city of Bedford in 1877, Mary Del Lucy was nicknamed Mayme. Disliking her given name, she adopted “Marian” in her teens, when she once dyed her hair red and ran off to Chicago with a friend.

Her mother divorced her hard-drinking father and went to work as a fraternity cook at Drake University — where Marian enrolled in 1894.

She married an itinerant preacher in 1897 in Idaho, but the marriage dissolved in Texas after she had three children — including the late renowned writer and poet Meridel Le Sueur.

Back then, divorced women were denied child custody, so Marian Le Sueur fled with the kids to Oklahoma. Her husband finally agreed to a divorce, citing as grounds “the dangerous thoughts gleaned from reading books.”

To support her children, she began lecturing on women’s rights and birth control, demanding “freedom of women over their own bodies, and the right not to have children they cannot feed.”

In a 1994 Women’s Studies Quarterly publication, Le Sueur’s descendants described her as “strong, vivacious, gorgeous” — a powerful speaker who stood ramrod straight at 5 feet 8 and walked into a room “like a ship docking.”

During the Depression, “she was a stable presence in the family,” but her “strength, combined with a residual anger, had its price,” wrote Prof. Julia M. Allen in that 1994 essay. “She is not remembered as someone who had fun.”

Her outspoken stance once landed her in trouble for giving birth control and abortion information to a woman with 14 children in Kansas City. The woman refused to name her and was jailed, prompting Le Sueur to care for her children while the mother was locked up.

Le Sueur led the English department at a short-lived socialist People’s College in Kansas, where she met her second husband — law professor and fellow radical Arthur Le Sueur.

By 1918, Marian Le Sueur had written a textbook called “Plain English — for the Education of the Workers by the Workers” and once chained herself to the White House fence in a women’s suffrage protest.

Along with Arthur and the children, Le Sueur moved to the Twin Cities, helping people who literally had been tarred and feathered for opposing World War I.

Floyd B. Olson, Minnesota’s first Farmer-Labor governor, appointed her to the state education and planning boards, where she played a pioneering role in rural electrification and public power cooperatives.

By the time of the DFL merger, she was 67 when she became a party officer. But she wasn’t done yet. Two years after Arthur died in 1950, Le Sueur ran for the U.S. Senate, opposing the Korean War on the Progressive Party’s ticket in 1952.

She died two years later in 1954 at 77. Tilsen, a longtime DFL activist, still has a letter she wrote shortly before her death:

“Don’t grieve for me — My life has been rich and full and when a machine is worn out it should be discarded. And it has been a rich life lived in a struggle to grow and understand [and] help build a world where every man could have equal opportunity to be his rich full self.”

In a poem written upon Marian Le Sueur’s death, her fellow radical organizer and writer Irene Levine Paull asked:

“Do you walk with an air of easy freedom?

Then give her thanks

For it is she who hacked your freedom out of rock …

For all her heartache and her lonely pain

For all her sweetness hammered to pointed steel

So a new world might be gained.”

 

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Reach him at mnhistory@startribune.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.