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Cain, Myrtle Agnes (1894–1980)

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Myrtle Cain

Myrtle Cain during her first term in the Minnesota House, 1923.

Known as the “flapper legislator,” Myrtle Agnes Cain was a lifelong women’s rights activist and labor organizer. When she was elected to the Minnesota House in 1922, she and three other women became the state’s first female legislators.

Cain was born in 1894 in Minneapolis. Her father, a boilermaker active in the Railroad Brotherhood union, shaped her interest in labor organizing from an early age. In line with her family’s Irish-Catholic roots, Cain attended St. Anthony of Padua High School in addition to Minneapolis public schools.

While still a student, Cain began shaping the community-building skills that would come to define her career. While working a part-time gig with a union of telephone workers in 1918, she won better wages and working conditions for employees after leading a lengthy strike. Riding that victory, she headed a branch of the Women’s Trade Union League and landed a women’s outreach position with the American Federation of Labor.

As an established women’s rights activist at the height of the suffrage movement, Cain was drawn to fight for the right to vote. After befriending Alice Paul, the founder of the National Woman’s Party, she joined a Minnesota chapter of the organization. The party’s comparatively forceful approach to the suffrage fight resonated with Cain’s own radical outlook.

Cain and her fellow suffragists celebrated the fruits of their labor in 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment was finally ratified. Yet Cain sought to amplify her voice even further and soon launched a congressional campaign. Armed with an impressive resume, Cain beat out three other candidates by 500 votes to win a seat in the Minnesota House. She took office in 1923—not long after she cast her first vote. Cain was known not only for being one of the youngest legislators in office, but also for belonging to its first generation of women representatives.

Despite serving just one term in the House, Cain compiled an extensive legislative record. One of her proudest accomplishments was the passage of a bill that banned people from disguising their identities in public. The bill, which aimed to prevent Ku Klux Klan members from gathering, was the first of its kind and inspired fifteen other states to adopt similar legislation. Cain also fought to strengthen women’s rights. Her bill titled “Granting Equal Rights, Privileges, and Immunities to Both Sexes,” which was the first of its kind that demanded equal rights for women in Minnesota, proved to be too radical for its time.

After a busy two-year term, Cain lost her reelection bid to a male opponent by a handful of votes. Yet she did not let the defeat stop her political career. She soon moved to Washington, DC, where she spent four years living at National Woman’s Party headquarters and lobbying for women’s rights. She completed her East Coast tour with a stint in New York City, where she coordinated programming for the American Women’s Association and brushed shoulders with a host of celebrities.

Cain’s father’s death pulled her back home to Minneapolis. The Great Depression struck the country soon after, and Cain quickly jumped into action. She started small by coordinating deliveries to kids whose families couldn’t afford milk. Then, after observing overloaded and under-resourced city agencies fail to help everyone in need, Cain took matters into her own hands. As director of the City Wide Direct Relief Committee, Cain quickly connected Minneapolis residents to vital resources like food, clothing, housing, and heat.

During World War II, Cain pushed for equal pay for women at the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant (TCAAP), where she worked as public relations director. When the war ended and spurred housing shortages in Minneapolis, then-mayor Hubert Humphrey appointed Cain to serve as a housing consultant. As an active Farmer-Labor Party supporter, Cain often corresponded with other high-profile politicians, like Walter Mondale and Eugene McCarthy. She was also a uniting influence when the divided Farmer-Labor and Democratic parties merged in 1944.

Though active on many political fronts, Cain never abandoned her passion for women’s rights work. She began working on an equal rights bill in 1948 in close collaboration with activist Arvonne Fraser. When the feminist movement picked up in the 1960s and inspired a new generation of women to fight for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), Cain was a mentor to many. She happily watched from the crowd when the state finally passed the bill in 1973, acknowledging that the legislation was long overdue.

Not long afterwards, in 1980, Cain died at her home in Minneapolis. Along with twenty-four other women, she is honored at the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Memorial near the State Capitol for her commitment to strengthening women’s rights and workplace opportunities.

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Ackerberg, Peter. “Senate Clinches It: Minnesota Becomes 26th to Ratify ERA.” Minneapolis Star, February 9, 1973.

Bauer, Heidi. The Privilege for Which We Struggled: Leaders of the Woman Suffrage Movement in Minnesota. St. Paul: Upper Midwest Women’s History Center, 1999.

Brown, Curt. “Trailblazing Legislator Fought Fiercely for Equality.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, August 24, 2019.

“Do You Know?” Session Weekly, February 28, 1997.

Foster, Mary Dillon. “Myrtle A. Cain.” In Who’s Who Among Minnesota Women (St. Paul: N.p., 1924), 44.

Kaul, Greta. “Ladies Who Legislate: A Brief History of Women Lawmakers in Minnesota.” MinnPost, August 19, 2016.

Leonard, Betty. “Only 11 State Women Have ‘Laid Down Law.’” Minneapolis Star, February 8, 1957.

Weber, Bob. “Myrtle Cain Back on Political Front.” Minneapolis Star, 1968.

146.K.7.8.F
Myrtle Cain papers, 1923–1978
Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Letters, news clippings, and other documents concerning Cain’s personal life and political career.

Related Images

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Myrtle Cain
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Myrtle Cain greets fellow legislators
Myrtle Cain greets fellow legislators
Congressional voting card
Congressional voting card
Myrtle Cain with O. W. Behrues, Mike E. Collins, and Floyd B. Olson
Myrtle Cain with O. W. Behrues, Mike E. Collins, and Floyd B. Olson

Turning Point

In 1922, Cain is elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives. The legislation she focuses on during her term sets the stage for a lifetime of labor organizing and equal rights work.

Chronology

1894

Myrtle Agnes Cain is born on April 11 in Northeast Minneapolis to working-class Irish parents.

1918

Cain gets her first taste of labor organizing when she helps her fellow telephone workers pull off a successful strike.

1920

The Nineteenth Amendment is ratified nationwide. In theory, it grants suffrage to all women citizens; in practice, voting remains difficult or impossible for women of color.

1922

On November 7, Myrtle Cain is elected to the Minnesota House by a 500-vote margin.

1923

Cain’s “anti-masking” bill, targeted at Ku Klux Klan members, is passed on April 8.

1944

The Minnesota Democratic Party merges with the Farmer-Labor Party on April 15, becoming the DFL. Cain, a staunch Farmer-Labor supporter, helps to bridge the divide between the two parties.

1946

Cain works for Hubert Humphrey’s Minneapolis mayoral campaign. He wins with 61 percent of the vote.

1968

Cain steps in to help with Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign, which calls for an immediate end to the Vietnam War.

1973

On February 9, the Minnesota Senate ratifies the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) as Myrtle Cain watches from the crowd. The anti-discrimination bill mirrors legislation that Cain had attempted to pass in 1923.

1973

In honor of Cain’s service to the state, Governor Wendell. R. Anderson declares February 12 to be “Myrtle Cain Day.”

1980

Cain dies on February 6 in the same Northeast Minneapolis home that she had campaigned from in the 1920s.