Local historians and elected officials are charging ahead with plans to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of South St. Paul’s historic role in having the first women to cast a vote after a constitutional amendment cleared away obstacles nationwide.
Dozens of South St. Paul women went to the polls Aug. 27, 1920, when they voted on an $85,000 city bond referendum the day after the states ratified the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, giving women the right to vote nationwide.
“Probably 99 percent of the people that I tell about it, they have no idea,” said Dakota County Commissioner Joe Atkins. “They’re just blown away.”
No plaque or special day commemorates the city’s historic vote. But a South St. Paul history buff held a suffrage celebration last year on Aug. 27, and it will be repeated this year.
There is still a bit of intrigue about South St. Paul’s place in history. Some local historians say Stillwater may have a similar claim, leaving officials scrambling to cement their place in history.
Last week, the South St. Paul City Council voted to allow staff to start applying for grants and planning a 2020 celebration to commemorate 100th anniversary of the vote. The Dakota County Historical Society envisions creating an exhibit on the milestone. Others are considering statues or monuments.
The city, once known as “Cow Town” because of its busy slaughterhouses and stockyards, has struggled to redefine itself after its last stockyard closed in 2008.
“To be able to brand themselves as the first in the country to have women vote, I think that would be a huge benefit to the community,” said Matt Carter, executive director of the Dakota County Historical Society.
South St. Paul’s role in women’s suffrage was a bit of a fluke.
At the time, women could already vote in some places in the U.S. through a patchwork of state and local laws. Many western states allowed it, and elsewhere they could cast ballots in specific instances. But after a passionate, decades-long national debate, Congress approved the 19th Amendment on June 4, 1919. It was ratified by two-thirds of the states on Aug. 18 and signed into law on Aug. 26, 1920.
By chance, South St. Paul had scheduled a vote on the water bond measure the next day. The city had plenty of women who were active in social causes including women’s suffrage, said Lois Glewwe, a historian who has written two books on South St. Paul.
“This action of voting became very important to them, both the society women and the working women, to say, ‘We have a big stake in this town and a big stake in our government,’ ” Glewwe said.
The morning after the amendment was approved, she said, 87 women queued up at voting booths in South St. Paul and helped push the bond through.
Some sources actually credit Stillwater with hosting the inaugural vote, though Stillwater hasn’t formally contested the issue, Glewwe said.
“I think it’s really up to us to make the claim,” she said, adding that city officials see an opportunity for local and national distinction.
While the basic facts of the water bond vote are known, details remain sketchy. Nailing them down is a first step in helping the city embrace its role, historians said.
Carter, of the Dakota County Historical Society, said he initially thought that South St. Paul women were the first to vote in Minnesota rather than the country, but now he plans to create an exhibit around the idea that they were the first to vote under the 19th Amendment. The county historical society will start a two-year research project with the exhibit’s opening planned for 2020.
Carter said he’s hoping South St. Paul residents will dig through their attics and find long-lost items related to the vote that belonged to their mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers. He’s especially looking for the original voting rolls. Recognizing the women individually “would be a huge deal and one of our main goals,” he said.
Some observances have already begun.
Last year, Madeline Hansen, a women’s historian and playwright, spearheaded the inaugural “First in the Nation” suffrage celebration in South St. Paul. She created the “Pass the Torch” award to honor local women trailblazers.
To cap the event, Hansen organized “the world’s shortest suffrage parade,” in which a group marched from the new City Hall to the site of the previous one, where the original vote took place. The annual celebration will happen again Sunday.
Several people have mentioned the possibility of a statue or plaque to mark the achievement.
Last week, the South St. Paul City Council endorsed the idea of starting a group to plan a centennial event and authorized city officials to research grant opportunities.
Among the 87 women who voted on the 1920 water bond referendum was Macha Grannis, an elocution teacher at the high school and an avid reader. She was also an activist, said her granddaughter, Susan Grannis O’Brien, 77, of South St. Paul.
“She was especially proud [of being first to vote] because she believed in women’s rights,” O’Brien said. “I was lucky to have a grandma like that.”