There's a party happening on the third floor of the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. The room is filled with 22 extraordinary women, and everyone is invited — just mask up and show up.
Spoiler alert: These Minnesota ladies, while life-size, are cutouts. Their stories, told through text, black-and-white photographs, rendered drawings and other memorabilia, make up the exhibition "Extraordinary Women."
The honorees range from 19th-century abolitionist Emily Goodridge Grey to more recent heroes such as Debbie Montgomery, who became the St. Paul Police Department's first female officer in 1975. (There's a street named after her in the Rondo neighborhood, where she grew up.)
Bright yellow signage introduces viewers to each of the ladies in this exhibit, which originally came out of a show about the suffragist movement. Produced in partnership with the League of Women Voters of Minnesota, it was supposed to open last fall and feature 43 women, but because of pandemic closings, the number was cut and spacing between each display has been increased.
"These were very ordinary women in many ways, who looked around and used the assets at hand to do extraordinary things," said senior exhibition developer Kate Roberts. "We looked at women's activism in general, stories of hope, and inspiration."
• American Indian Movement co-founder Pat Bellanger — Nokomis, to her family — fought for treaty rights.
• Minnesota Freedom Rider Claire O'Connor, a white woman, joined the struggle to destroy segregation laws.
• Ruth Tanbara committed to making Minnesota home for fellow Japanese-Americans.
Roberts hopes women will go to the exhibition with an open mind and leave feeling inspired to make a difference in their own communities.
"We were going for underexposed stories," she said, "and by definition that means you're talking about women in general, then African Americans, Native people, Asians, but there's so much more work to be done and so much more research we need to do." (Despite the focus on diversity, the show does not include any Latina women.)
The exhibition begins in historic Minnesota, when the first settlers arrived. Women fought for temperance laws restricting alcohol as well as the right to vote and the abolition of slavery. Very few women in the show were devoted to only a single issue.
"A lot of people were tackling all three of those issues simultaneously, especially women who moved here from the East Coast," said Roberts.
Similarly, women of color were intersectional in their approach, Roberts said. "[They] did not often have the luxury to focus only on suffrage ... [except as] part of a broader package of civil rights."
For example, there's Marie Bottineau Baldwin of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. Born in Pembina, a North Dakota town on her ancestral homeland that's on the Minnesota border, Baldwin moved to Washington, D.C., in the early 1890s to fight for treaty rights. She was also the first woman of color and Indigenous graduate of Washington College of Law in 1912.
"She's living in D.C. and she goes out and marches with fellow lawyers in suffrage marches but she is not even considered a U.S. citizen," said Roberts. "Here she is supporting this right that she won't even have until 1924, when the Indian Citizenship Act passed."
Roberts hopes visitors will "be ready to take the next step. I think that's a really neat challenge — what can we do to captivate women enough that they say 'I am ready to be active?' "
@AliciaEler • 612-673-4437