August 2020

History: The Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association


Minnesota Woman Suffrage Group at Headquarters, 1917 – Library of Congress, Harris & Ewing Collection

 By Eric W. Weber

From 1881 to 1920, the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association (MWSA) struggled to secure women’s right to vote. Its members organized marches, wrote petitions and letters, gathered signatures, gave speeches, and published pamphlets and broadsheets to force the Minnesota Legislature to recognize their right to vote. Due to their efforts, the legislature approved the 19th Amendment in 1919.

In the 1870s, women across Minnesota organized local women’s suffrage groups. In 1875, the Minnesota Legislature recognized women’s right to vote in school board elections. Many women, however, wanted to vote in all elections. Seeing the need for a statewide agency, 14 women formed the MWSA. Among the founders were Harriet Bishop and Sarah Burger Stearns. Stearns became the organization’s first president. By 1882, the MWSA had grown to 200 members. In 1885, MWSA president Martha Ripley convinced the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) to hold their annual convention in Minnesota. This national event demonstrated the importance of the MWSA. It also drew the attention of Minnesota’s male lawmakers. The MWSA eventually became a chapter of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), which formed in 1890.

In 1893, the MWSA convinced the Minnesota Senate to take up women’s suffrage. President Julia Bullard Nelson worked with Ignatius Donnelly, a Populist state senator. The Populists regularly supported a women’s suffrage plank. Nelson herself was a Populist school superintendent candidate in 1894. Nelson and Donnelly initially sought the vote for women in municipal elections. However, the Senate went further. Its members voted to remove the word “male” from the state’s voting requirements. The bill passed 32-19. However, this change did not pass the House. That chamber did not have time to take it up before the legislative session ended. Even if it had passed the House, however, the voters of Minnesota would have had to approve it before it became law.

After the failure of the 1893 amendment, the movement continued. However, the MWSA was unable to build on its earlier success. The MWSA and its ally, the Political Equality Club, placed women’s suffrage before the state Legislature every session. Each time, the bill either died in committee or was defeated.

During the 1910s, the movement picked up momentum again. In 1914, Clara Ueland organized a parade through Minneapolis of over 2,000 suffrage supporters. Ueland became MWSA president that same year. This event gave the movement renewed attention. During this period, the MWSA had to contend with a rival organization, a Minnesota branch of the National Women’s Party (NWP). The NWP was more radical than the MWSA. It was much more likely to take direct action, such as hunger strikes, than the MWSA. Even though they disagreed on tactics, the two organizations often worked together.

By 1919, 30,000 women across the state officially belonged to local suffrage associations. They joined the MWSA, the NWP, and other organizations. Their numbers and continued activities convinced lawmakers to act. In 1919, the Minnesota Legislature recognized women’s right to vote in presidential elections. The same year, the Legislature ratified the 19th Amendment. It did not take effect until 1920, however, when the required two-thirds of the states approved it. With their right to vote secured, the MWSA became the Minnesota League of Women of Voters. On the lawn of the Minnesota State Capitol is a memorial to the MWSA. 


Editor’s note: This piece is reprinted from the Minnesota Historical Society’s MNopedia (mnopedia.org), an online encyclopedia of state history, under a Creative Commons license.

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