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How Women Have Shaped the State

Weaving the Web of Minnesota Society

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Maka Waŝte’ Wiŋ and Frances Densmore

Maka Waŝte Wiŋ (Good Earth Woman, also called Susan Windgrow, left) and Red Wing ethnologist Frances Densmore (right) examine a pair of moccasins made by Maka Waŝte Wiŋ, a Dakota artist and elder, ca.1930.

The part played by women in Minnesota's development has been deeply influenced by demography. Immigrants have been important in the state from its beginnings until the twenty-first century, and in their struggles for cohesion, identity, and leadership, newcomers have relied on women as supporters of community and preservers of language and culture.

Therefore, until very recent years, Minnesota has been slow in giving equal rights and political prominence to women, especially in places like the Iron Range, where ethnic traditions are strong. Minnesota has produced no nationally heard voices for feminism, nor has the state had many celebrated female artists and reformers. Yet there have been notable teachers, and the influence of women in Minnesota has been great within families and schools, and when they are working as a group in their communities and through their organizations.

In the World of Work

Long before Minnesota was a state, Dakota and Ojibwe women in the region had a strong voice in deciding policies of trade or of war and peace, although they were not ordinarily a part of tribal councils. Usually working together, they processed hides and meat, raised gardens, made maple sugar, and gathered wild fruit, nuts, and herbs. They also were responsible for building and maintaining the dwelling, whether a skin tipi or a bark house, and it belonged to the wife. Thus, a woman had the right, backed by others in the community, to tell an abusive or lazy husband to leave. The role of men was in performing the strenuous and often dangerous job of hunting. Men also defended the family or band in warfare when necessary and generally represented the tribe in external relations.

By contrast, white women on isolated frontier homesteads worked alongside men to turn the prairie into a farm and had almost no contact or influence outside their immediate families. Even as settlement increased and community life developed, farmwomen had little chance to work together other than at occasional church events. One exception in Minnesota was the Patrons of Husbandry, better known as the Grange. Started by an Elk River settler named Oliver H. Kelley, the Grange grew into a nationwide brotherhood of farmers during the 1870s. At the urging of Kelley's niece, Caroline Hall, the organization admitted women and became a sisterhood as well.

During the first 30 years of statehood (c.1860-1890), Minnesota offered few employment opportunities for women. Domestic service was one, and many young immigrants became maids, cooks, and housekeepers. But American-born women tended to shun domestic service as demeaning work. For the better educated, school teaching was an option; however, pay was low and in rural districts teachers had to "board around" with local families. Not until the 1880s, with the growth of the Twin Cities and the opening of mills and factories, did more opportunities appear.

By 1900, farmers' daughters working in city sweatshops gave Minneapolis and St. Paul more women living independent of their families than most other urban centers in the country. Better working conditions, but not better pay, came with the invention of the typewriter and other office machines, and with the growing complexity of business operations. The "paperwork revolution" in the early twentieth century provided a whole new field of employment for women.

By the 1930s, women were well established not only in clerical work but also in such traditional women's occupations as teaching and nursing. As the decade drew to a close, new industrial unions brought women more opportunities and better pay. For example, at the Strutwear Hosiery Company in Minneapolis, a fierce strike in 1935 and 1936 led a craft union of skilled male knitters to admit some 600 production workers, mostly women, who had been excluded. And in the service industry, organizer Nellie Stone Johnson made female and minority employees the core of a new union of all Twin Cities hotel and restaurant workers.

During the labor shortage of World War II, women were asked to take jobs. The country assumed that they would return to homemaking after the war, but they did not. In Minnesota, as elsewhere, nearly half the state's women continued in employment outside the home, although their average wages and chances for promotion were far lower than those of men.

This inequality continued for decades before a group of Minnesota women, known as the Willmar 8, brought it to the nation's attention in 1977 and 1978. They staged a strike at a Willmar bank after being told that they need not apply for promotion, even while training the men hired for supervisory positions. They received little support from either government or unions, and they lost their jobs, but the publicizing of their story brought the beginnings of change in the white-collar world.

In 1982, Minnesota mandated a comparable worth policy for state employment, and in 1984, it was extended to local governments. This put indirect pressure on private businesses to equalize pay and opportunities. Nevertheless, the first decade of the twenty-first century still saw a "glass ceiling" in much of the corporate world and an average disparity of more than 20 percent in pay between men and women in Minnesota.

In the Arts and Education

In an informal way, much education always has been carried on through the arts. Storytelling, painting, singing, and making decorative crafts communicate the elements of a culture to the young. This was especially true in American Indian societies where much of the instruction was provided by women in connection with daily tasks, through the decoration of functional objects like moccasins, or with the creation of highly prized ceremonial wear like bandolier bags.

Among Euro-Americans, activities such as quilt-making, embroidery, and lace-making were generally dismissed as "crafts," and women who had the opportunity aspired to more pure forms of "art," like sketching, piano playing, singing, and writing. These were the tests of cultivation and class status for both a woman and the community in which she lived. To demonstrate that their cities and towns were indeed "civilized" places, women on the Minnesota frontier often combined to patronize the arts with choirs, art shows, or dramatic productions, and to bring noted performers or lecturers to the state. Few Minnesota women gained more than local fame as performers, but some women's organizations, like St. Paul's Schubert Club and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, grew into civic institutions that achieved a wide reputation for excellence. At last, in 1976, the work of women artists received recognition with the opening of a gallery by the Women's Art Registry of Minnesota (WARM).

In literature, individual women had more opportunity. Early in the twentieth century, Minnesota produced well-known novelists Grace Flandrau and Maude Hart Lovelace. In both painting and children's literature, Wanda Gág attained distinction. More recent widely read authors have been Meridel LeSueur, Carol Bly, Patricia Hampl, and Louise Erdrich.

The first women to preside over formal classrooms in Minnesota were missionaries or the wives of missionaries, and most of their students were American Indians. As white settlement spread in the 1850s, the demand for teachers in rural schools led to the need for female education. The territory's first private college, Hamline University, which opened classes at Red Wing in 1854, admitted women along with men. Other colleges did the same, and by the 1880s, there were even a few female faculty members. One of those was Maria Sanford, who had a wide impact on the growing state both as a professor of English at the University of Minnesota and a popular public lecturer on art, travel, and the classics. In 1905, the Sisters of St. Joseph founded the College of St. Catherine for Minnesota's Catholic women. Three other Catholic women's colleges quickly followed.

In 1875, a narrow majority of Minnesota men voted to allow women to cast ballots and run for office in school elections. After that, a few women began to appear on school boards and in supervisory positions. It was not until 1972, however, that the State Department of Education called for an end to widely practiced discrimination in hiring and promotion on the basis of sex and marital status. Meanwhile, teachers like St. Paul's Mary McGough had been active in organizing Minnesota locals of the American Federation of Teachers, and in 1946, St. Paul was the scene of the country's first teachers' strike.

In Health and Social Service

In 1883, the city of Minneapolis had only eight licensed female physicians, but the practice of midwifery by women was well accepted. In 1838, for example, when illegal settlers were expelled from the Fort Snelling military reservation, army wives there pled with the commander to make an exception for one woman who was always relied on for assistance with difficult births. They were unsuccessful.

The best-known name among women in Minnesota medicine is that of Martha Ripley. She was one of the state's first generation of female physicians. In 1886, when no Minneapolis hospital would admit an unmarried woman for care in pregnancy or childbirth, Ripley rented an empty house and founded Maternity Hospital, open to all and doubling as a social service agency. Run mainly by women, it was known as one of the most distinguished medical facilities in the Upper Midwest until it closed in 1956.

The organization of women's clubs among affluent wives of city businessmen in the late nineteenth century led to the founding of the influential Minnesota Federation of Women's Clubs in 1894 and to the widespread promotion of social services. Groups like the Women's Christian Association, the Women's Welfare League, and the Women's Cooperative Alliance provided housing and counseling for young working women and promoted family sex education and birth control. One of the most significant achievements was adoption in 1917 of the Minnesota Children's Code, a comprehensive piece of legislation that made Minnesota a leader in the protection of women and children.

Women also played an active role in the settlement house movement, which supplied poor neighborhoods with resident social workers and services during the early twentieth century. Constance Currie, director of Neighborhood House on St. Paul's West Side, and Gertrude Brown, first director of Phyllis Wheatley House in Minneapolis, were among many who helped shape their communities far beyond the doors of such institutions.

Building on their tradition of working together, Minnesota women forged ahead during the transformative years of the 1960s and 1970s. Many social barriers to women were confronted and fell. A volunteer collective that formed in St. Paul in 1972 opened the country's first shelter for battered women two years later. Other shelters, along with forward-looking laws on domestic violence, followed. A more controversial issue was abortion. Efforts to legalize it in the state began in the 1960s and opposition crystallized with the organization in 1969 of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life. In 1973, the US Supreme Court declared antiabortion laws unconstitutional, but the struggle over it has continued, appearing in one form or another in every Minnesota legislative session since that time.

In Law, Politics, and Government

Suffrage for Minnesota women was delayed through seventy-two years (1848-1920) of organizing and protesting, and then came only with the adoption of the nineteenth amendment to the US Constitution. The chief opposition was from the state's large German Catholic population and from its brewing industry. As elsewhere in the United States, the prohibition movement became linked with women's rights in Minnesota because liquor was widely associated with domestic abuse. Scandinavian communities were more supportive of suffrage for Minnesota women after their countries of origin allowed women to vote: Finland in 1906, Norway in 1913, Denmark in 1915, and Sweden in 1918.

In the final years of the struggle for suffrage (1912-1920), Minnesota women were divided. Led by Sarah Colvin of St. Paul, the Minnesota Congressional Union used street protest and civil disobedience, while the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association, led by Clara Ueland of Minneapolis, lobbied the legislature. After the vote was achieved, the more radical Minnesota Congressional Union went on to work for an equal rights amendment, while the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association became the League of Women Voters. Many women opposed an equal rights amendment, arguing that it would destroy the protective laws for which they had worked hard.

Another fifty years passed before Minnesota women had more than a token presence at any level of government, lawmaking, or the courts. Four women were elected to the legislature in 1922, and the number briefly reached five in 1929 before shrinking to none in 1945 and one in 1951. The number varied by two or three seats in the years that followed, but it was still just one 20 years later. In 1971, anger mounted, the nonpartisan Women's Political Caucus was organized, and six women joined the legislature in 1973. After nearly forty years, the number has climbed. Today, women generally hold nearly a third of the seats in both the Senate and the House.

In 1954, Minnesota sent its first woman to the US Congress. She was Coya Knutson, a two-term legislator from the Red River Valley. Knutson won in the primary election by a landslide and replaced a Republican in her district, but she never had the full support of her own Democratic-Farm-Labor (DFL) Party. In 1958, she was defeated in a campaign that is remembered bitterly for her husband's public plea, "Coya, come home!"

Not until 2000 was another Minnesota woman, Betty McCollum of St. Paul, elected to Congress. Michele Bachmann of Stillwater joined her in 2006. The same year, Amy Klobuchar became the first woman to serve as a US Senator from Minnesota. No woman has been governor, but women have held the office of lieutenant governor exclusively since 1982, when DFL candidate Rudy Perpich selected Marlene Johnson as his running mate and won.

In appointive offices, Minnesota women got a somewhat earlier start. Eugenie Anderson of Red Wing became the first US woman to hold ambassadorial rank, when President Harry Truman selected her as ambassador to Denmark. She served there from 1949 to 1953 and then went on to other diplomatic posts.

The only statewide elective office held by a woman before the 1970s was that of secretary of state. In 1952, Virginia Holm was elected for one term to succeed her husband, Mike. On the ballot, she appeared as "Mrs. Mike Holm." Joan Growe was elected secretary of state in 1974 and served for 24 years. More recently, women also have held the offices of state auditor and attorney general.

In 1921, on the heels of making women voting citizens, the Minnesota legislature admitted them to jury service and to duty as deputy sheriffs. By 2010, however, less than a third of district court judges in the state were women, and until 1977, the state's Supreme Court was entirely male. In that year, Governor Perpich appointed Rosalie Wahl, the first woman to sit as a state Supreme Court justice. He continued appointing women until, for a brief time, they were a majority on Minnesota's bench. In 2010, they held two seats out of seven and one was chief justice.

In 1973, Minnesota lawmakers approved the proposed equal rights amendment to the US Constitution, but no state equal rights law has been adopted, and at this point, one appears unlikely. The tide of change that swept Minnesota women toward equality after 1970 has slowed since 2000 with the increased polarization of the state on so-called "social issues." As before, Minnesota women are divided among themselves in their roles as conservators of culture and tradition, and their desire for equality as workers, educators, and citizens.

Rhoda R. Gilman has published extensively in the fields of Minnesota and Upper Midwest history. She is a founding member of Women Historians of the Midwest and a former candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota on the Green Party ticket.

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© Rhoda R. Gilman
  • Bibliography
  • Related Resources

Bauer, Heidi, ed., with introduction by Barbara Stuhler. The Privilege for Which We Struggled: Leaders of the Woman Suffrage Movement in Minnesota. St. Paul: Upper Midwest Women's History Center, 1999.

Bingham, Marjorie. "Keeping at It: Minnesota Women," in Clifford E. Clark, ed., Minnesota in a Century of Change: The State and Its People Since 1900, 433-471. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1989.

Gilman, Rhoda R., and Gretchen Kreuter. "Women in Minnesota's History," in Minnesota Legislative Manual, 1975–1976, 2–24. St. Paul: 1975.

The Office on the Economic Status of Women.

Stuhler, Barbara, and Gretchen Kreuter, eds. Women of Minnesota: Selected Biographical Essays. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1977.

Related Images

Maka Waŝte’ Wiŋ and Frances Densmore
Maka Waŝte’ Wiŋ and Frances Densmore
Operating room, St. Mary's Hospital, Rochester
Operating room, St. Mary's Hospital, Rochester
Schoolhouse near Fosston
Schoolhouse near Fosston
Wild rice harvest
Wild rice harvest
Western Freight traffic office
Western Freight traffic office
Willmar 8, striking bank employees in Willmar
Willmar 8, striking bank employees in Willmar


Although women joining together in groups and organizations have played a strong role in shaping the kind of society we have in Minnesota, the state has been slow to give them individual equality and power as citizens.

Part of this reluctance has been rooted in the desire of the state's many immigrant groups for preservation of the culture and traditions that give them ethnic identity.

American Indian women, living in villages and working in groups, had more control over their lives and communities than did Euro-American women on isolated family farms.

In the world of work, employment opportunities for women outside the home expanded steadily from teaching, domestic service, and health care, to industrial and clerical jobs, but the state's women have yet to achieve full equality in either pay or promotion.

Women's creative work often has been dismissed as "crafts," but women in both American Indian and Euro-American communities have been conservators of the traditional culture and art of their people.

Although few individual Minnesota women have achieved prominence in the arts, working together within their communities, they have given the state a reputation as a welcoming place for the arts and education.

The early need for teachers in the state's public school system led to the admission of women at most private and public colleges.

As in the arts and education, Minnesota women have achieved social change and protection for themselves and their families by forming community organizations, creating institutions, and uniting in group efforts.

It took Minnesota women more than seventy years to get the vote and another fifty years to get more than token representation in government, lawmaking, or the courts.

The 1960s and 1970s were transformative decades for the status of women and control over their own lives, but in Minnesota, the pace of change has slowed in the recent past.



A convention at Seneca Falls, New York, signals the beginning of a national movement for women's rights. In the same year, Wisconsin becomes a state and Minnesota moves toward becoming an organized territory.


The Patrons of Husbandry is formed in Minnesota, allowing membership to women and restricting four of its elected positions to women.


Minnesota allows women to vote in school elections, which enables women to influence education at the political level.


The American Woman Suffrage Association holds its national convention in Minneapolis, and the suffrage movement forges an alliance with the temperance movement.


250 women workers at Shotwell, Clerihew, and Lothman, a Minneapolis clothing factory, stage the first strike by women in Minnesota.


Minnesota women vote for the first time in state and national elections, following ratification of the nineteenth amendment.


The election of six women to the Minnesota legislature marks a renewal of the struggle for women's rights after fifty years of quiescence.


Justice Harry Blackmun, a Minnesota native, writes the controversial US Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.


A group of St. Paul women, calling themselves "Women's Advocates," establish the nation's first shelter for battered women and spark a continuing movement against domestic violence.


Justice Rosalie Wahl is appointed by Governor Rudy Perpich to be the first woman on the Minnesota Supreme Court.