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Kempfer, Hannah Jensen (1880–1943)

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Hannah Kempfer

Hannah Kempfer at work in the Minnesota Legislature, ca. 1930. From the Kempfer Collection, Otter Tail County Historical Society Archives, Fergus Falls.

Hannah Jensen Kempfer was the first woman from rural Minnesota elected to the state legislature. She brought her personal knowledge of farming, education, child welfare, business, and natural resources to the House, serving nine terms in the Minnesota legislature between 1922 and 1942.

Johannah Jensen was born in 1880 on the ship where her single mother, Josephine Anderson, worked. Anderson put her into foster care in Stavanger, Norway. Two years later, Johannah’s foster parents, Ole and Martha Jensen, had a biological son named John.

Relatives living in Minnesota wrote letters to the Jensens telling them about homestead land, and the family immigrated from Norway to Minnesota around 1885. They eventually settled near Erhard, in Otter Tail County. Ole Jensen never made a success of farming and developed health problems. His wife and children worked for other families, washing clothes and doing chores. It was a difficult life of poverty.

Johannah was determined to get an education. To earn and save money for school books, she sold wood and wore homemade wooden shoes. A teacher shortened her name to Hannah to “Americanize” it. When her family needed to repay a loan, Hannah went to find work in Fergus Falls. She was only twelve years old.

From then on, Jensen supported herself. She found work anywhere she could while attending school. After graduating from Fergus Falls High School, she passed the state teacher exam. Not yet eighteen, she began teaching in one-room schools in Friberg Township. In 1903, she married a local farmer named Charles Kempfer. They never had children but became foster parents.

In addition to teaching, Hannah Kempfer wrote for Wheelock’s Weekly, a newspaper read throughout Otter Tail County. Using the pen name “K. J. H.”, she promoted her community as well as her own successes. In one article, she described creating a school lunch program by encouraging students to prepare and eat hot meals in her classroom.

Kempfer gained recognition countywide as a community organizer. Her work helped families affected by tragedies and communities struck by natural disasters. When a tornado nearly destroyed Fergus Falls in 1919, she organized relief efforts by Otter Tail County farmers. Her students knit for the Red Cross during World War I. And when the Minnesota Public Health Association organized officers in each county, Kempfer served as the officer for her township.

Kempfer’s farming experience brought her further into the public eye. She belonged to the Otter Tail County Holstein Breeders Association, most of whose members were male. Money she received from a Great Northern Railway contest went back into the community to start the Edwards Better Farming Club for children, a precursor to 4-H clubs. In 1920, a county farm display she created won second place at the Minnesota State Fair.

After the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, Kempfer ran for a seat in the legislature representing House District 50. She had the support of suffragists as well as business leaders and local politicians. She refused party endorsements and ran as an Independent. She campaigned around the district in her Model T Ford, seeking the farm vote. She was nominated on June 22, 1922, and elected on November 11, 1922.

Kempfer drew on her childhood experiences to advocate for women and children. One of the first bills she submitted after taking office defended the rights of children born to single mothers. At a time when talking about sex outside of marriage was taboo, Kempfer spoke openly on the floor of the Minnesota legislature about the circumstances of her own birth. The bill passed.

In 1925 Kempfer voted in favor of a constitutional amendment regulating the labor of children under age eighteen; the bill subsequently failed to pass in the Minnesota legislature. In 1935, she introduced a bill giving state money to a Mother’s Pension Fund.

Kempfer’s colleagues in the legislature respected her honesty and diligence. In 1925, they named her honorary Speaker of the House—the first such distinction for a woman lawmaker in Minnesota. When suffragist Clara Ueland died in 1927, Hannah was selected to represent the legislature at her funeral.

Kempfer was a voice for farmers and conservationists. She served on and chaired the Fish and Game committee during her nine terms in office. One law she supported added license fees for hunters that repaid farmers for crop damage; a fishing license fee she proposed in 1928 was adopted and provided money for state hatcheries. In 1925, she and fellow lawmaker Mabeth Hurd Paige sponsored a bill to protect the showy lady’s slipper, Minnesota’s state flower.

Kempfer retired to her farm in 1942. She passed away in 1943.

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“25 Cent Stamp Suggested for State Hunters.” St. Cloud Times, January 27, 1941.

“Boiled Dinner in the School Room: Friberg Teacher Devises a Happy Plan.” Wheelock’s Weekly, January 26, 1905.

“Funeral is Simple and Beautiful.” Fergus Falls Daily Journal, October 2, 1943.

“Gives Children Father’s Name.” Fergus Falls Daily Journal, January 18, 1923.

“Help the Needy.” Fergus Falls Weekly Journal, January 14, 1915.

“House Passes Pension Bill.” Minneapolis Star, February 28, 1929.

“House Votes to Abolish North and South Fish Zones.” Minneapolis Star, February 28, 1929.

Hannah J. Kempfer papers
Archives, Otter Tail County Historical Society, Fergus Falls
Description: Correspondence, newspaper clippings, family photographs, and family history relating to Hannah Kempfer and her family as well as her activities in the Minnesota legislature.

Kempfer, Hannah. “An Emigrant Girl’s Story.” Undated, unpublished autobiography. Available at the Otter Tail County Historical Society.

“Large Delegation to Attend Conference at Washington on Cause and Cure of War.” Minneapolis Tribune, January 8, 1928.

“Met President and Mrs. Hoover at White House in Washington.” Fergus Falls Daily Journal, November 29, 1930.

“Minnesotan Rocked the Cradle of Billy Douglas.” Minneapolis Star, 1939.

“Minnesotans Are Honored at Luncheon.” Minneapolis Star, April 20, 1933.

“Mothers’ Pension Fund is Approved.” St. Cloud Times, April 19, 1935.

“Mrs. Hannah J. Kempfer, Veteran Minnesota Legislator, Dies at 63.” Minneapolis Star, September 27, 1943.

“Mrs. Kempfer Will Fight to Keep Seat.” Minneapolis Tribune, August 2, 1928.

“Odds 196 to 1 Against: but Woman Solon Champions Outdoors.” Minneapolis Tribune, February 2, 1941.

“Senate Girds for Battle on Child Bill: Proposed Amendment Loses by Narrow Margin in Lower House.” Minneapolis Star, February 27, 1925.

“Special Hunter Tax for Game Damage.” Fergus Falls Daily Journal, January 27, 1941.

“St. Olaf College Choir Pays Honor to Mrs. Ueland.” Minneapolis Tribune, March 5, 1927.

“Suspends the Rules: Pa Kempfer Stays Home While Ma Goes to St. Paul to Make the Laws.” Minneapolis Daily News, February 16, 1923.

“To Demand Teacher Health Examinations.” Minneapolis Star, January 31, 1935.

“Township Officers of Health Society.” Wheelock’s Weekly, May 8, 1919.

“Weighing Babies.” Fergus Falls Daily Journal, August 14, 1918.

“Women Back Bill to Shield Child Waifs.” Minneapolis Star, January 17, 1923.

“Women Frame Bill to Protect State Flower.” Brainerd Daily Dispatch, February 25, 1925.

“Women Representatives Seek to Save the State’s Flower From Extinction.” Minneapolis Star, February 24, 1925.

Related Images

Hannah Kempfer
Hannah Kempfer
Jensen family cabin
Jensen family cabin
Johannah and John Jensen
Johannah and John Jensen
Hannah Jensen holding a piglet
Hannah Jensen holding a piglet
Hannah Jensen
Hannah Jensen
Hannah Jensen with her students
Hannah Jensen with her students
Otter Tail County Holstein Breeders Association banquet
Otter Tail County Holstein Breeders Association banquet
Hannah Kempfer with her Model T Ford
Hannah Kempfer with her Model T Ford
Charles Kempfer and Hannah Jensen Kempfer
Charles Kempfer and Hannah Jensen Kempfer
Kempfer Farm exhibit at the Minnesota State Fair
Kempfer Farm exhibit at the Minnesota State Fair
Hannah Kempfer at the Minnesota Legislature
Hannah Kempfer at the Minnesota Legislature
Legislative stationery and campaign cards of Hannah Kempfer
Legislative stationery and campaign cards of Hannah Kempfer
Hannah Kempfer with Mabeth Hurd Paige
Hannah Kempfer with Mabeth Hurd Paige

Turning Point

In 1922, Hannah Kempfer runs for office and becomes the first woman from rural Minnesota to serve in the legislature. Colleagues call her “The Lady from Otter Tail.”



Hannah Jensen is born in Norway to a single mother, who puts her in foster care.

ca. 1885

The Jensen family immigrates to the United States.


Hannah Jensen graduates from Fergus Falls High School. She passes the state teacher’s exam and begins teaching in country schools.


Jensen marries Charles Kempfer. The couple farms in Otter Tail County and fosters eleven children.


Kempfer directs the local child welfare and Better Babies program in Erhard. Staff weigh every child under the age of five and send a report to Washington, DC.


Running as an Independent candidate, Kempfer is the first woman from rural Minnesota elected to the legislature.


Minnesota representatives select Kempfer to serve as the Honorary Speaker of the House, making her the first woman to hold that position.


Kempfer chairs the Fish and Game Committee. She supports the first personal fishing license law, creating a fifty-cent license fee to fund state fish hatcheries, build dams, and regulate water levels.


Kempfer is a member of the Minnesota delegation, as well as a guest speaker, at a conference in Washington, DC, on the “Cause and Cure of War.” She specifically addresses “foreign born women,” encouraging them to become US citizens.


Kempfer leads the fight to end the two-zone fishing policy in Minnesota. Until then, fishing had been allowed in the southern zone from May 29 through February 1 but in the northern zone only from June 21 to February 1.


President Hoover invites Kempfer to testify at the White House Conference on Child Health and Protection in Washington, DC.


Kempfer and five other women are honored by nearly two dozen women’s organizations including the Women’s Committee for Economic and Political Equality and the League of Women Voters at the Frances Perkins Luncheon in Minneapolis.


Kempfer introduces legislation requiring all public school teachers to receive mandatory tuberculosis testing.


Kempfer dies a year after retiring from politics.


A marker in honor of Hannah Kempfer is dedicated in Maplewood State Park.