Not surprisingly, Myrtle Cain's dark brown hair had gone gray. After all, she'd been waiting 50 years for this moment.
Now 78, she sat in the back of the Minnesota Senate chamber on a winter day in 1973, watching the 48-18 vote that made Minnesota the 26th state to ratify an Equal Rights Amendment that would put a ban on sexual discrimination in the U.S. Constitution.
That effort ultimately stalled before the necessary 38 states agreed, but on this day Cain could smile and exhale with relief.
"Minnesota has lived up to its reputation," she said.
Known as the "flapper legislator'' for her modern look and outlook, Cain made history back in 1922. She was 28 and single when she joined three other married women as the first female Minnesotans elected to the state House. She introduced the first bill in Minnesota demanding equal rights for women in 1923 during her one term.
"Of course, we got nowhere then," she recalled in 1970. "All kinds of terrible things were predicted."
The oldest child of a Minneapolis boilermaker and granddaughter of Irish immigrants, Myrtle Agnes Cain was born in 1894. When she died at 85 in 1980, she was still living in the same north Minneapolis house at 650 Jackson St. NE. from where she had campaigned in 1922.
After graduating from St. Anthony's Convent in Minneapolis, Cain became active in the suffrage movement. She rose to president of the Minneapolis Women's Trades Union and co-founded the state branch of the National Woman's Party.
After narrowly losing her legislative seat in 1924, she remained active as the Nonpartisan League morphed into the Farmer-Labor Party that merged into the DFL 75 years ago. She delivered a petition to President Calvin Coolidge at the White House in 1926, urging him to support an equal rights amendment.
During World War II, she fought for equal pay for women as the labor relations director at the ammunition plant in Arden Hills staffed largely by women. The War Department had allowed paying them 20 percent less than their male counterparts. Cain was among the activists who successfully urged President Franklin Roosevelt to order equal pay for government-contract workers regardless of sex.
Cain also served as a hotel inspector for Gov. Floyd Olson and worked as an aide to Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey and U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy.
"Myrtle Cain worked with dedication, integrity and compassion throughout her life to translate liberal goals and objectives, particularly those concerning equal rights for woman and equal rights for all Americans, into reality," then Gov. Wendell Anderson said in 1973.
Never married, Cain joined Sue Metzger, Dickey Hough, Hannah Johnson Kempfer, and Mabeth Hurd Paige as the state's first female legislators. By 1957, 35 years after their election, only seven more women had won legislative campaigns. The most recent Legislature's makeup included 64 women.
"If women have to go out and ring doorbells in political campaigns," Cain said in 1948, "they also have the right to make party policy."
Although her legislative career lasted only two years, Cain made a difference. She authored anti-masking legislation that outlawed members of groups — including the Ku Klux Klan — from concealing their identities by wearing masks and robes in public. Hers was the first bill of its kind in the nation and 15 other states soon followed.
Her fight for equal rights was her true passion. In a 1970 interview, she said the opposition hadn't changed much in the 50 years from suffrage to the ERA. Not only men got in her way, but women's groups feared equality would mean loosening so-called protections aimed at safeguarding female workers.
"Some of this protective legislation talk has been a real bugaboo," she said. "It really isn't so protective. Often, it protects women from getting some of the good jobs."
Mentoring fellow politically active women was among her jobs.
"Working with Myrtle in the state DFL office in the 1950s, she taught me about women's suffrage and made me into a political feminist," DFL activist Arvonne Fraser said.
That's why Cain is among 25 Minnesota women honored in the Woman Suffrage Memorial Garden on the grounds of the State Capitol she helped to change.
"Women have done a great deal," she said in 1970. "They've gone into the professions — they've worked in the war plants when men were scarce and they've done an excellent job."
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.