They were all considered respectable, upstanding women in their community. Schoolteachers and church leaders and charitable volunteers, each one educated and God-fearing. Yet the 14 women who congregated that night in Hastings changed the future of Minnesota — indeed the world.
It was 1881 and the First Presbyterian Church on Vermillion Street was a gathering place for those celebrating life’s greatest and smallest events. On the surface, this looked like any other meeting, one of many that coordinated the comings and goings of Hastings.
But this gathering was different. When it was over, these women represented the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association. Not only would they be instrumental in the fight for women’s rights in Minnesota, they would also play significant roles in ensuring that the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution would become law.
The 19th Amendment guarantees women the right to vote. It became the law of the land on Aug. 26, 1920. But 100 years ago this summer and fall, the states were in the process of debating and ratifying and celebrating this document.
As we approach the 100th anniversary of what became a global inspiration, many engaged travelers will want to visit Seneca Falls, N.Y., site of the first women’s rights convention in 1848. This is now a national historic site operated by the National Park Service.
But it’s not necessary to travel 1,000 miles to immerse yourself in the history of women’s suffrage. Dozens of Midwestern destinations provide insight into the people and the efforts that made the women’s vote a reality.
The first stop is no farther than St. Paul and the State Capitol grounds, where you’ll find the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Memorial. The names of 25 women, including many of those 14 who met in Hastings, are engraved on a garden trellis. A winding trail represents the timeline in women’s suffrage with plaques explaining the details.
Look for one in 1875. That’s when the Legislature allowed women to vote in school board elections. Look for Sept. 8, 1919. That’s when Minnesota became the 15th state to ratify the 19th Amendment.
The very last plaque is empty. It represents the first woman elected president of the United States.
While names like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are synonymous with the women’s vote, their work would have been fruitless without the efforts of numerous women in the Midwest.
Among them is Carrie Chapman Catt, born in Ripon, Wis., and raised near Charles City, Iowa. She became so influential in the women’s suffrage campaign that Susan B. Anthony asked her to address Congress in 1892. Eight years later, this Midwesterner succeeded Anthony as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
The Carrie Lane Chapman Catt Girlhood Home and Museum outside of Charles City is a state historic site where the spunk of this future suffragette is documented in tales of her chasing boys with snakes and challenging her father when he went to vote without her mother. Planning is underway for programs this fall and winter (catt.org).
A graduate of Iowa State University, Catt has been honored with the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics on its campus. The center offers leadership development opportunities and encourages research on women in politics and public service. On Feb. 14, 2020, the Catt Center kicks off a statewide celebration of the 19th Amendment with speakers, workshops, exhibits and a one-woman performance of “The Yellow Rose of Suffrage” by theater professor emerita Jane Cox (cattcenter.iastate.edu).
Many Minnesotans have visited Huron, S.D., the childhood home of Minnesota senator and Vice President Hubert Humphrey. That small town is also the home of mother-and-daughter suffragettes Mamie and Gladys Pyle. In 1922, Gladys became the first woman elected to South Dakota’s House of Representatives. In 1938, she was the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate.
The Pyle House Museum is filled with campaign items and other memorabilia that by today’s standards seem hysterically archaic, such as a shaving mug bearing the seal of the South Dakota House.
Another standard-bearer for the suffrage movement was Virginia Minor of St. Louis, who founded the Woman’s Suffrage Association of Missouri in 1867.
Minor sued for the right to register to vote, a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. That case was tried at the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis, one of two nationally significant cases tried in St. Louis that hinged upon the definition of citizenship. The other was the Dred Scott case.
The Virginia Minor and Dred Scott cases are among the reasons the Old Courthouse is included in the Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis. Their stories are among those interpreted by Park Service rangers.
Minor is also featured in the Bad-Ass Babes Tour from offbeat tour company Renegade STL (renegadestl.com). The two-hour bus tour includes a stop at the Drury Inn, site of the 1919 National Woman Suffrage Association Convention, where Carrie Chapman Catt introduced the idea of the League of Women Voters.
Minor is one of many suffragettes buried at St. Louis’ Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum. The cemetery offers the occasional suffragette tour (bellefontainecemetery.org).
Women’s Suffrage in the Midwest
National Votes for Women Trail: For an expansive list of sites associated with women’s suffrage, visit ncwhs.org/votes-for-women-trail.
Minnesota Women’s Suffrage Day: Sept. 8 is the 100th anniversary of Minnesota becoming the 15th state to ratify the 19th Amendment. The state League of Women Voters plans an event on the State Capitol grounds from noon to 5 p.m., including a parade, voter registration, history exhibit and food trucks (lwvmn.org).
More Places of Interest
Indiana: The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is home to a large collection of buttons, pennants and other items used by suffragettes (childrensmuseum.org).
Kansas: In Argonia, Susanna Salter was the first woman elected mayor in the U.S. Her home is available for tours (1-316-706-4972). Stonehaven Farm in Tonganoxie was the home of suffragette Cora Wellhouse Bullard. The restored home is open for overnight stays and special programs (stonehavenkansas.com).
Nebraska: The Beatrice Public Library was founded by suffragette Clara Colby, who published the influential Women’s Tribune. The library has a permanent exhibit about Colby.
Wisconsin: Suffragette Theodora Youmans is memorialized in a park in downtown Waukesha. A historical marker in Viroqua notes where Lucy Stone gave the first women’s rights speech in the area in 1856.