The political reporter from Chicago came to Minnesota to chronicle a historic curiosity in 1922. Anna Dickie Olesen, who grew up on a southern Minnesota farm near Waterville, had become the country’s first woman endorsed by a major party in a U.S. Senate race.
Two years after the 19th Amendment opened polling places to women, Minnesota Democrats picked Olesen to challenge Republican Sen. Frank Kellogg.
The Chicago Herald and Examiner reporter spent a week trailing Olesen as she delivered fiery speeches in six counties, “on street corners and along roadsides, at county fairs and harvest-home festivals; in halls and homes.”
From Bird Island to Jackson, Minn., she transformed cynics into believers.
“Skeptics who gather to scoff are blinded by the brilliance of oratory,” the reporter wrote. “For nearly two hours the large audience sat in attention so rapt that not an auditor shifted in his or her seat and those standing even forgot to shift their weight from one foot to another.”
Olesen’s nomination made the front page of the New York Times on June 21, 1922. “I was and am ready to accept on equality with men whatever the fortunes of politics may offer,” she said. “… It is for the common people I stand.”
She insisted she wasn’t running out of vanity or personal ambition. “Everything is for the people.”
Spending less than $500, Olesen crisscrossed the state in a Ford sedan contributed by supporters. Both sides of the car — and the cover of the spare tire on the back — were emblazoned with placards proclaiming: Anna D. Olesen for U.S. Senate.
Olesen was the mother of a 14-year-old daughter and wife of the school superintendent in Cloquet. He begged reporters to call her Anna Dickie, her maiden name, rather than “Mrs. Peter Olesen.”
Born in 1885 on a farm in Le Sueur County, Anna Dickie began public speaking lessons at 12. Her ancestors included Welsh immigrants who formed a colony in Ohio that stressed education, according to Dolores De Bower Johnson’s profile of her in “Women of Minnesota.”
Northfield researcher Susan Hvistendahl, who’s written extensively about Olesen, thinks the political trailblazer’s narrative is worth rekindling as we move within a year of the 2016 presidential election.
“Anna’s story warrants attention with Hillary Clinton the presumptive Democratic candidate and Anna the forgotten first woman in any state ever to be endorsed by a major political party for the office of U.S. Senate,” Hvistendahl said.
The young Olesen, she said, would often ride a horse to Waterville High School. She taught English to immigrants, advocated for Prohibition, women’s voting rights and social welfare programs — becoming a leader of the Cloquet Women’s Club and the statewide association of such groups.
Olesen burst on the scene with a dazzling speech at the Democrats’ state convention in 1916 and then joined the popular Chautauqua series of public lectures led by three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan.
Speeches in Washington, D.C., in 1920 at the annual Jackson Day banquet and later in San Francisco at the Democratic National Convention put Olesen in the national spotlight.
“Small in stature,” the Washington Herald said, “she proved herself a forensic giant.” The World’s Work said her “vitality, magnetism and charm … radiated so richly and strongly you could almost see the rays darting out over the audience.”
When she ran in 1922, at 37, she was often introduced by Bryan, the aging Democrat, who was 62 by then.
“There is a not a country in the civilized world which does not give women some role in government,” he said. “I don’t know of any man or woman I would rather see in the Senate than Mrs. Olesen. Eventually a woman member of congress from Minnesota, why not now?”
On the Senate side, that “now” would have to wait 84 years until Amy Klobuchar became Minnesota’s first woman to win a U.S. Senate seat in 2006. In 1922, Henrik Shipstead of the fledgling Farmer-Labor Party unseated Kellogg. Olesen wound up third with half as many votes as Kellogg and less than a third of the votes Shipstead secured.
She moved to Northfield with Peter the next year when he became a Carleton College registrar and German professor. She promised to do “whatever little I can do to boost the city of cows, colleges and contentment,” saying Northfield “seems like home to me already.”
Franklin Roosevelt repaid her party loyalty with a spot on the New Deal’s National Emergency Council — the only woman on the policy panel.
After spending most of her life in the Minnesota towns of Waterville, Cloquet and Northfield, the Olesens eventually moved to Georgia.
Peter died at 81 in 1960 in Northfield, and Olesen went on to remarry a man 19 years younger than she was.
Chester Burge had been charged and acquitted in his first wife’s murder. He’d also been charged and acquitted, on appeal, of sodomy with his black chauffeur. People wondered why she would marry the flamboyant scoundrel but, two years after they wed, Burge died when their home exploded in Palm Beach, Fla.
Olesen was back in Northfield. “Every horse has been shot out from under me,” she said, sometimes expressing disappointment that her foray into politics hadn’t open the floodgates for female candidates.
Olesen died at 85 in 1971 after a fall and is buried next to Peter in the Sakatah Cemetery in Waterville.
Back on the stump, 50 years earlier, she said she wanted to “pioneer a trail for women in politics,” but asked voters for no special consideration.
“I also ask that no one close his mind against me because I am a woman,” she said, no doubt cringing inside when someone asked her about housework.
“A man takes part in civic affairs without neglecting his vocation,” she replied. “And a woman can readily adjust herself to the new order that is sure to accompany the advent of women in politics.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org