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Olesen, Anna Dickie (1885–1971)

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Anna Dickie Olesen

Anna Dickie Olesen. Photograph by Harris & Ewing, Washington, DC, ca. 1922. Photograph Collection, Carlton County Historical Society, Cloquet.

The first female nominee of a major party for the US Senate, Anna Dickie Olesen was a celebrated orator and passionate social reformer who became one of the most prominent Democratic women of the early twentieth century.

Anna Dickie was born on July 3, 1885, to Peter and Margaret Dickie of Cordova Township, Le Sueur County. Intelligent and talkative from a young age, Anna showed signs early on of the oratorical power she would wield as a public speaker. The Dickies, teetotalers and staunch Republicans, switched their party allegiance in the 1890s and became avid supporters of three-time Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, whom Anna would admire as a political idol.

In 1905, at age nineteen, Anna married a young Danish immigrant named Peter Olesen, at the time a student at Hamline University. The couple settled in St. Paul before moving to Pine City in 1908, where Peter had accepted a job as superintendent of schools. The next year Mr. Olesen accepted the same position in Cloquet, once again uprooting the young family, which now included a year-old daughter, Mary. Anna became involved in the social and political affairs of her new community, leading the local Mothers’ and Women’s Clubs and tutoring area immigrants in English. In 1918, the Olesens lost their home in the wildfire that ravaged the area. Despite the setback, they remained in Cloquet for another decade, and Anna began a seventeen-year crusade to secure federal aid for the fire’s victims.

As her busy schedule put pressure on her single-income family, Olesen sought an additional income source by auditioning for the Chautauqua circuit—a travelling, tent-based speaker series that drew thousands across the country. Olesen’s oratorical skills and political acumen on the circuit soon caught the attention of national Democrats, and in 1920 she was the first woman invited to speak at the national Democratic Party’s Jackson Day Dinner.

In 1922, at age thirty-six, Olesen ran for and won the endorsement of the state Democratic Convention in Minneapolis for the US Senate seat held by Republican Frank Kellogg, making her the first woman nominated for the body by a major party. Driving a Ford sedan given to her by friends for the purpose, Olesen, sometimes accompanied by her brother and/or daughter, maintained an exhaustive campaign schedule across the state. Some days she would make as many as twelve stops, delivering speeches that earned her comparisons to populist former governor John A. Johnson. In the end, both Olesen and Kellogg fell short to Farmer-Labor candidate Henrik Shipstead. Olesen came in third with just over 120,000 votes.

Olesen’s electoral defeat did not keep her from continuing her political work. She continued to be a popular speaker on the Chautauqua circuit and achieved a degree of financial independence through her speeches. In 1932, she was elected a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. By now known nationally as one of the party’s preeminent orators, Olesen was invited to give a speech seconding the nomination of House Speaker John Nance Garner for vice president. She also campaigned vigorously for the Roosevelt/Garner ticket in the lead-up to Election Day.

After the Democratic sweep of federal offices in 1932, President Roosevelt appointed Olesen to lead the new National Emergency Council (NEC) in Minnesota in 1934. As state director (the only woman to serve in the role nationwide), Olesen coordinated the efforts of various New Deal agencies in Minnesota during the Depression. In addition to her role as state director of the NEC, Olesen also continued lobbying for funding for the Cloquet fire victims. Perhaps her single greatest political achievement was helping steer an aid bill through Congress and pressuring Roosevelt to sign it, which he did on August 27, 1935. In total, $10.8 million would be paid out to fire survivors as a result of the law.

In 1942, at the age of fifty-seven, Olesen retired from public life. In 1960, Peter Olesen died; the next year, Anna married Chester Burge, a friend of hers and Peter’s, only to lose him to a gas explosion two years later. Olesen passed away in Northfield on May 21, 1971, at the age of eighty-six. She is interred in Sakatah Cemetery, Waterville, next to Peter.

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“Anna Oleson [sic] Speaks Here.” Freeborn County Standard, October 26, 1922.

Brown, Curt. “Fiery Orator Anna Dickie Olesen Blazed a Path for Women in Politics.” Star Tribune, November 15, 2015.

Carroll, Francis M., and Franklin R. Raiter. “The People Versus the Government: The 1918 Cloquet Fire and the Struggle for Compensation.” Journal of Forest History 29, no. 1 (January 1985): 4–21.

Chrislock, Carl Henry. The Progressive Era in Minnesota, 1899–1918. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1971.

Fahlstrom, Paul Gerin. Anna Dickie and Peter Olesen: Notable Citizens of Cloquet. Cloquet, MN: Carlton County Historical Society, 1996.

“Indrehus and Mrs. Olesen Hot on Trail of Preus and Kellogg.” Duluth Labor World, October 28, 1922.

Johnson, Dolores de Bower. “Anna Dickie Olesen.” In Women of Minnesota: Selected Biographical Essays, edited by Barbara Stuhler and Gretchen Kreuter, 226–246. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1998.

“La Follette Makes It Clear.” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, October 26, 1922.

“Lind to Speak for Democrats.” Duluth Labor World, October 28, 1922.

Minnesota Political Party Platforms: 1849–1942
Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Content related to 1922 references Anna Dickie Oleson. The collection was compiled by William Anderson and Theodore C. Blegen between 1933 and 1964.

“Mrs. Olesen and Prohibition.” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, October 26, 1922.

“Mrs. Peter Olesen Indorsed [sic] for Senator by Democrats.” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, April 1, 1922.

Olesen, Anna Dickie. “Letter to William Jennings Bryan.” August 25, 1922. In Anna Dickie and Peter Olesen: Notable Citizens of Cloquet, by Paul Gerin Fahlstrom. Cloquet, MN: Carlton County Historical Society, 1996.

“Primary Fight Vanishes When Nonparty Acts.” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, April 2, 1922.

“Quinn Is Returned to Bench; G.O.P. Ticket Sweeps State.” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, November 11, 1922.

“Woman Nominated for U.S. Senator.” New York Times, June 21, 1922.

Related Images

Anna Dickie Olesen
Anna Dickie Olesen
Anna Dickie Olesen, ca. 1920
Anna Dickie Olesen, ca. 1920
Anna Dickie Olesen, ca. 1910.
Anna Dickie Olesen, ca. 1910.
Anna Dickie Olesen in hat, ca. 1920.
Anna Dickie Olesen in hat, ca. 1920.
Anna Dickie Olesen
Anna Dickie Olesen
Anna Dickie Olesen
Anna Dickie Olesen
Anna Dickie Oleson with her husband and daughter
Anna Dickie Oleson with her husband and daughter
Anna Dickie Olesen, 1937.
Anna Dickie Olesen, 1937.

Turning Point

In 1922, Anna Dickie Olesen is nominated by Minnesota Democrats to be their party’s nominee for US senator. She becomes the first woman endorsed for the office by a major party.



Anna Dickie is born in Cordova Township, Le Sueur County, on July 3.


Anna and her new husband, Danish immigrant Peter Olesen, settle in Cloquet, and the new Mrs. Olesen begins an involvement in community political affairs.


Olesen is elected president of the Eighth Congressional District Federation of Women’s Clubs.


Accepting perhaps her most high-profile invitation to date, Olesen delivers a speech advocating women’s suffrage at the state Democratic Party convention.


Deciding to pursue a source of income independent of her husband, Olesen auditions joins the Chautauqua speakers’ circuit. She begins giving speeches around the Midwest on behalf of women’s suffrage, prohibition, and political reform, among other issues.


Olesen is catapulted onto the national political stage with highly publicized speeches at the Democratic Party’s Jackson Day Dinner in Washington, DC, and the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco.


Olesen accepts her party’s nomination for US Senate. becoming the first woman nominated for the body by a major party. Though she finishes in third place, the campaign cements her position as one of the most influential Democratic women in the country.


Olesen and her husband spend time in Europe while Peter studies at the University of Heidelberg in Germany.


Back in the United States, Olesen is elected as a delegate to the 1932 Democratic National Convention, where she makes a speech on behalf of vice presidential nominee John Nance Garner.


Anna Olesen is appointed state director of the National Emergency Council (NEC), tasked with oversight of New Deal programs, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.


After serving as the NEC’s state director for Minnesota for its eight years of existence, Olesen retires from public life after the office is eliminated.


After Peter’s death in 1960, Anna marries Chester Burge of Macon, Georgia. Their marriage lasts less than two years; Burge’s dies in a gas explosion..


Anna Dickie Olesen dies on May 21, at the age of eighty-six, in Northfield.