The election could have passed unnoticed, with no mention in the history books.
Residents in South St. Paul had been paying extra money to route water from the stockyards up the hillside to their homes. A water bond measure scheduled for a vote aimed to fix that. Election Day was Friday, Aug. 27, 1920.
But the day before the vote, the afternoon edition of the South St. Paul Reporter had a wire story splashed across the front page. The U.S. secretary of state had just signed a proclamation at his home in Washington, D.C., certifying the 19th Amendment and unceremoniously ending a century-old struggle over the right of women to vote.
Suddenly, the women of South St. Paul had the chance to be the first to vote under the full, certified power of the amendment.
Marguerite Newburgh rose before 5 a.m. Election Day, skipped her usual breakfast and arrived at City Hall while the building was still locked. Eighteen seconds after the polls opened, she cast her ballot in favor of the water bond measure. One by one, 89 women followed.
One hundred years later, the legacy of the 19th Amendment is everywhere. Out of Minnesota’s suffragists came a generation of activists who helped pave the way for policies that benefited women and propelled them into successes in business and politics. The number of women in government is growing, now making up more than 20% of Congress and nearly a third of those serving in legislatures across the nation.
In every U.S. presidential election since 1964, more women than men have turned out to vote, including four years ago, when thousands showed up to the polls in the signature white pantsuit of the first major-party female nominee for president, Hillary Clinton. This fall, women will once again be a large and powerful voting bloc that could decide the 2020 presidential race between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
“Women are absolutely not monolithic, and you can just see that looking at cross tabs in voting and the different platforms of different women serving in office,” said University of Minnesota political science Prof. Kathryn Pearson.
But it’s a complicated legacy, one that enfranchised all white women on that day in 1920 but meant years of struggles for many women of color to earn and fully exercise the right to vote. And it’s a legacy in progress, as women still struggle with sexual harassment and wage gaps in the workplace and have yet to shatter the highest glass ceiling in Minnesota and national politics.
“Women didn’t fight for the right to vote as some privilege for them,” said Michelle Witte, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Minnesota. “It was for the justice they wanted to see in the world.”
Struggle for women of color
Enfranchisement was an idea rather than a reality for Josie Johnson growing up in Texas in the 1940s. At 14, she would tag along with her father as he collected signatures to eliminate a poll tax designed to prevent Black people from voting. By 1956, she’d moved to Minnesota and became the first Black woman to join the League of Women Voters. Early on, Johnson didn’t feel their missions were aligned.
“What I was very concerned about was … the white women identifying their struggle as a solo struggle,” Johnson said. She worked with the league to go where Black, Hispanic and Native American women gathered and bring them into discussions where they’d been historically excluded.
Native American men and women were expressly prohibited from voting until the passage of the Snyder Act of 1924. Many Asian women faced citizenship barriers, too. But like for other communities of color, it took passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act before they saw enfranchisement.
Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan was raised to value those rights. Growing up, her mother took her along to the polls, hoisting her up to help fill in the ballot circles. Flanagan continues the Election Day tradition with her own daughter.
“We talk about civil rights and how some people were not allowed the right to vote. Women. Native folks. And she’s always like, ‘That’s not fair why did they do that?’ ” Flanagan said. “I appreciate her 7-year-old analysis, because it isn’t fair.”
Flanagan remains concerned about modern-day disenfranchisement, particularly among Native Americans. But she sees plenty to celebrate as she reflects on the centennial. The 40-year-old member of White Earth Nation is the first Native American elected to statewide office: “One hundred years ago, I don’t think anybody thought there would be an Ojibwe woman as lieutenant governor.”
From voting to governing
Moving women into the halls of power was a natural extension of securing the right to vote, but it hasn’t always been easy in Minnesota. Within two years of the 19th Amendment’s certification, four women were elected to serve in the Minnesota Legislature. But their numbers had dwindled to one woman in the 201-member Legislature by the time Joan Growe and six other women successfully ran for office in 1972.
But women still weren’t allowed to lead committees. Growe was constantly asked if she was “strong enough” for the job. “Well I don’t expect to wrestle anyone,” she remembered telling her male colleagues.
Drawn to election policy, Growe supported a same-day voter registration law. One year later, she implemented the change as the first woman and longest-serving secretary of state in Minnesota history. Since then, Minnesota has consistently had among the highest voter turnout in the nation.
Growe left that job to run for the U.S. Senate in 1984 against an incumbent Republican. Growe lost that race, and it was more than 20 years before Minnesotans first sent a woman, Amy Klobuchar, to the U.S. Senate. But unlike more than two dozen other states, Minnesota has yet to elect a woman to its highest executive office — the governorship.
“I was surprised at how willing women and people were willing to say to me: ‘I love what you stand for, I think you would be a great governor, but I’m not going to vote for you because you’re a woman,’ ” said Erin Murphy, a former state representative who won the DFL endorsement for governor two years ago but lost the primary to Gov. Tim Walz.
But she’s proud when she looks at the Legislature. House Speaker Melissa Hortman is the third woman to hold the gavel. Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent is the first woman to lead the DFL caucus in the upper chamber. Currently 65 women serve in the Minnesota House and Senate, making up roughly a third of the Legislature.
That’s down from a high of 70 women serving in 2009. Part of the reason for the decline was a number of Republican women in the suburbs who were swept out in the 2018 midterm election, reflecting the GOP’s ongoing struggle to recruit and elect women.
Anne Neu has spent the last decade working to help Republicans close their “abysmal” representation gap. In 2016 she decided to run herself, but the North Branch Republican experienced firsthand the challenges and stigma female candidates can face. She announced her candidacy for a special election just a week after her husband died following a long illness, leaving her a single mom of five. Someone wrote a letter to the editor saying she should stay home and tend to her kids.
Neu prevailed and is now the assistant minority leader for the House Republican Caucus. She’s used that role to recruit and train women on the right. November ballots will feature more than a dozen GOP women running for the state House, including in seats the party hopes to win back from DFL control.
“While we are certainly reflected at the ballot box in casting our votes, we are still underrepresented in elected office,” she said. “It is a value to all of us to have those diverse voices at the table.”
A work in progress
Betty Folliard doesn’t believe in subtlety when it comes to the push for women’s equality. Often decked out head to toe in suffragist colors of purple, white and gold, she’s been on a crusade at the Capitol to add a clause to the state Constitution ensuring equal rights regardless of gender.
She sees the amendment as a direct extension of the suffrage movement, drafted one year after the 19th Amendment was ratified. The ERA’s supporters argue it would apply a more rigid standard of legal scrutiny in cases involving gender discrimination, but it’s failed to gain traction in the divided Legislature.
“We are the modern-day suffragists. We are the torch bearers. We are taking the unfinished business of women’s equality and running with that ball,” said Folliard. “Or, as I say, pushing that boulder up the hill.”
The focus of the movement has expanded as it builds on its intersectional roots.
Early suffragists came out of the abolition movement as advocates for human rights. Anika Bowie sees parallels to the push to end racial disparities in everything from the criminal justice system to voting rights. Bowie, vice president of the Minneapolis NAACP, has spent years pushing legislators to restore voting rights for felons who have served their time but are still on probation. She’s not giving up.
“One hundred years ago, they came up against roadblocks, but women kept going on with these conferences, kept going on with their speeches and kept applying the pressure,” she said.
Susan Grannis O’Brien’s grandmother Macha Grannis was among the 90 women who voted in South St. Paul the day after the 19th Amendment was certified 100 years ago. She only occasionally told the story to her granddaughter, but something stuck.
“I’ve never missed an election,” said O’Brien, who is now 80 years old. “We were brought up to never — ever — take it for granted.”