A traveling exhibit highlighting the Minnesota women behind the suffrage movement and the formation of the League of Women Voters has arrived at Blue Earth County Historical Society.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in the United States.
It was a decades-long campaign that began in Minnesota around the time it achieved statehood in 1858. When the amendment was ratified in 1920, Mankato women were already forming their own chapter of the League of Women Voters.
Shelley Harrison, curator and archivist for the Blue Earth County Historical Society, said the exhibit highlights not only Minnesota women but prominent Mankato women who formed civic groups prior to 1920 to push for change at a time when their names and identities were defined by their husbands.
“Here in Blue Earth County, there were people like Mrs. J.R. Brandup, Mrs. J.W. Andrews and Mrs. Mary Trafton,” Harrison said. “They were known by their husbands’ titles. They were upper-middle class women who had the education and the means to support the cause.”
Harrison said Andrews was a well-known civic leader and a founding member of the local chapter of the League of Women Voters. Trafton was a teacher who had connections to the Normal School, which later became Minnesota State University, and Brandup was a doctor.
Communications and Archives Manager Heather Harren said the exhibit also highlights women who paved the way professionally for others to follow.
“Dr. Helen Hughes Hielscher, one of the early doctors in town, is credited with starting the poppy movement in remembrance of World War I,” Harren said. “Charlotte Farrish was one of the first female attorneys here in town. We are highlighting women who were influential.”
The last few years preceding the amendment’s passage were a catalyst for change, Harrison said, with the increasing popularity of automobiles and World War I. Those events allowed women to travel and work in fields that had previously been limited to men.
“First we had the Great War,” Harrison said. “With all the men who went off to serve, women were given the opportunity to work more jobs and have more occupations.”
Before that decade, opportunities for women were limited. Married women were not allowed to work. Teachers had to give up their jobs once they married, and if they had money, they were required to pool it with their husbands.
Women’s groups, however, provided a space for empowerment.
“In Mankato, lots of women were involved in women’s clubs and organizations like the tourist club, the art history club and the Mankato Women’s Club, which still exists today,” Harrison said. “All these clubs were founded before the amendment was passed. They were a way for women to get together, study, have discussion groups and talk about the important topics of the day. Suffrage was one of those topics.”
Both women and men who advocated for the right for women to vote had different ideas about how to advance their cause.
“It ran the gamut between groups that thought there should be radical protests and picketing the White House, to more common sense approaches like parades and handing out things at county fairs, rallying and lobbying legislators,” Harrison said.
There were some early victories before the 19th Amendment was passed. In the 1870s, Minnesota women were given the right to vote in school board elections. The law, however, required that women had separate ballots and ballot boxes without any information about other candidates who were running for office.
“With every step forward, there always seemed to be two steps back,” Harrison said.
When the 19th Amendment passed, prominent Mankato women were already in the process of forming the League of Women Voters, who helped with voter registration, advocating for greater roles for women in public affairs, and pushing for civil and human rights legislation.
The exhibit features a Mankato Township voting booth from 1924.
“It’s cool to see a vintage voting booth that these women 100 years ago were able to vote in,” Harren said.
Harrison said there was still a lot of work to be done after 1920. Native Americans weren’t given U.S. citizenship until 1924, and some states created hurdles, from requiring literacy tests for people of color, to voting fees.
Following the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the League of Women Voters was instrumental in strengthening and expanding that legislation.
Today the political but nonpartisan organization hosts debates, campaign forums and holds hundreds of events related to local, state and national elections. There are 700 chapters nationwide with 37 local chapters in Minnesota, including in St. Peter and Brown County.
“This isn’t something that’s just from the past,” Harrison said. “It’s a continued struggle. There are women who have made that advance and progress from the 1960s to today to our first woman mayor. We’re always advancing and moving forward.”