100 years of women voting: 3 Minnesota women who paved way for women's suffrage

Scandinavian Woman Suffrage Association participate in “Minnesota Day”
Members of the Scandinavian Woman Suffrage Association participate in “Minnesota Day” at a suffrage picket line in Washington, D.C., in 1917. Photographed by Harris and Ewing, Washington, D.C.
Courtesy of Library of Congress’ National Woman's Party Records

From the pandemic to unrest following the killing of George Floyd, the year 2020 is likely to go down in the history books. But besides those current issues, there’s one more thing that makes this year historic unlike others: It’s the 100th anniversary of women voting in the United States. 

In 1920, the Congress ratified the 19th Amendment a year after it passed, granting women the right to vote. Minnesota women were able to vote from the 1870s — but the voting right was limited to public school elections, and female voters had to place their ballots in a separate, designated ballot box for women voting.

In September 1919, three months after Congress passed the amendment, the Minnesota Legislature ratified it, becoming the 15th state in the U.S. to guarantee women the right to vote.

But the fight for the women suffrage goes back decades before the 19th Amendment. In the mid-1800s, women on the East Coast started organizing marches and rallies, and wrote petitions to lawmakers demanding the right to vote. In Minnesota, one of the state’s first women suffrage associations was established in 1869 — that’s only 11 years after Minnesota became a state. 

“So very early on, women were recognizing the power of coalition power, of coming together and then the power of connecting nationally as well,” said Kate Roberts, a senior exhibits developer for the Minnesota Historical Society. 

In honor of 100 years of women voting, we’re taking a look back at the work of three Minnesota women who helped break down barriers and paved the way for women’s suffrage. 

Sarah Burger Sterns

Portrait of Sarah Burger Stearns, Duluth, Minn.
A close view portrait of Sarah Burger Stearns in midlife, wearing a dress with elaborate sleeves and a cameo. Stearns was an advocate of women's suffrage and was the first woman to serve on the Duluth School Board.
University of Minnesota Duluth, Kathryn A. Martin Library, Northeast Minnesota Historical Collections via Minnesota Historical Society

Established in 1881 in Hastings, Minn., the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association led statewide and national efforts for women’s suffrage movements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its first president, Sarah Burger Sterns, was born in New York in 1836, and was well aware of the suffrage movement that was going on the East Coast before she moved to Minnesota in the 1860s.

“She went to her first suffrage rally when she was 14 years old. She came here after she had worked as a nurse in the Civil War,” Roberts says. “She was well on her way to understanding what it meant to fight for women's rights.”

Stearns founded early suffrage societies in Rochester and Duluth and became a force for petitioning for women’s suffrage at the state Capitol. 

“Sara Berger Stearns didn't live to see the amendment passed,” Robert says. “She, no doubt, realized that she was fighting for something that would be of benefit to her daughters, her granddaughters or great granddaughters. I think that's what we learned today — that the folks who are fighting for voting rights, for the continued enfranchisement of all sorts of people recognize the work might not happen today, might not happen tomorrow, but it will happen. And people need to keep fighting.”

Nellie Francis

Nellie Francis, in 1924.
Nellie Francis, in 1924. Image is from Mary Dillon Foster's "Who’s Who Among Minnesota Women" (1924).
Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

While the 19th Amendment granted all female American citizens the voting rights, many barriers to suffrage remained, keeping women of color and poor, working-class people from voting — such as poll taxes and other voter suppression restrictions. The struggle for equality in voting rights continued through the 1965 Civil Rights Act and arguably lingers today.

Nellie Francis, born in Nashville, Tenn., in 1874, moved to St. Paul with her family in 1885 and went to St. Paul High School, now St. Paul Central High School, in 1890. Francis, who was the school’s only African American graduate in 1891, delivered a valedictorian speech on the race problem, and had “never let up on” the topic, Roberts says. 

She was also interested in voting rights, which led her to form the Everywoman Suffrage Club in Minnesota, an African American suffragist group, in 1914. As the club’s president and a delegate to state suffrage conferences, she formed alliances with other suffragist clubs, mostly consisting of white women. 

Another accomplishment she made in Minnesota’s history was that Francis drafted the first anti-lynching legislation for the state after the 1920 lynching in Duluth. The bill was passed in Minnesota the following year. 

Ruth Tanbara

Ruth Nomura, graduate of Oregon State University, 1930.
Ruth Nomura Tanbara, graduate of Oregon State University, 1930.
Private collection of Judy Nomura Murakami via Minnesota Historical Society

Ruth Tanbara, native of Portland, Ore., resettled in St. Paul in 1942 as a result of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. She was one of the thousands of Japanese Americans on the West Coast who were forced to move under the order during World War II. 

After she and her husband, Earl, moved to Minnesota, they took part in many community efforts to help other Japanese Americans arriving in the state adjust and settle in. Tanbara also contributed to fostering community acceptance of the Japanese American evacuees in St. Paul for 30 years. 

Tanbara was a “noted people person,” who tirelessly advocated for Japanese Americans in Minnesota, Roberts says. Tanbara also helped citizenship efforts in the community, which went hand in hand with the voting rights movement.

“What Ruth did in particular then was both [to] speak out in terms of housing, making sure that relocation efforts were continuing,” Robert says, “but also to make sure that communication was happening so that the community was ready and willing to integrate these Japanese Americans into the [St. Paul] community.”

Editor’s note: This video was filmed back in February before the COVID-19 pandemic.


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