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Saluting the Constitution – and Minnesota's early suffrage gains

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It's not a major holiday — in fact, it's not a holiday at all — but this upcoming Sunday, Sept. 17, is a noteworthy day: Constitution Day. The low-profile event commemorates the signing of the U.S. Constitution 228 years ago.

This year also marks the 97th anniversary of one of the amendments to the Constitution: the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote.

The city of South St. Paul deserves kudos for announcing plans to commemorate — and to set aside funding — three years from now for the 100th anniversary of women in that community becoming the first to cast votes after passage of the post-World War I constitutional amendment giving women the right of suffrage, although Stillwater stakes a less verifiable claim to that honor, too.

As the local media duly noted in the last week in August, women in South St. Paul were believed to be the first of their gender to cast ballots under the amendment, voting in a local water bond referendum on Aug. 27, 1920, one day after the measure was signed into law following ratification a week earlier by the necessary two-thirds of the states — 36 of the 48 in existence at the time.

Not the first women voters in Minnesota

But those South St. Paul women who voted the day after the amendment went into effect across the nation were hardly the first females to vote — or even serve in elective office — in Minnesota. The state was in the vanguard of women's rights at the ballot box, not only in the run-up to the federal constitutional amendment in the early part of the last century, but dating back five decades earlier to Minnesota's early days.

In 1857, as Minnesota prepared for statehood the following year, a proposal was made to include in the emerging Minnesota Constitution a provision allowing women to vote — but only if they were married. The measure did not make it into the document, but it laid the groundwork for an amendment to the state constitution 18 years later.

In 1875, the voters handily adopted a provision allowing women to vote in local school board elections. Approved by a 55 percent-to-45 percent margin, it applied to all women over 21 years of age, the legal voting age at the time (and for the next 100 years), whether wed or not. Moreover, it permitted women not only to vote, but to serve on those bodies as well, which materialized a year later when the first female was elected to a school board in Minneapolis.

But that was not the end of the campaign for women's suffrage in Minnesota until after World War I. Before the turn of the century, in 1893, the right of women to vote across-the-board was proposed as a constitutional amendment by simply striking the word "male" from the eligibility criteria. It was approved by a large margin in the Senate, but was not acted upon by the House before the legislative session concluded, and with the end of the session, the proposal died without the approval by both chambers and subsequent passage by a majority of voters in a statewide referendum, as required to modify the state Constitution. 

Voting for library board

However, the effort was not for naught as five years later, in 1898, the Minnesota Constitution was amended to allow all women over 21 to vote for local library board members and serve on those bodies as well.

Those early developments were spurred by a strong organization of women in this state that played a major role in bringing about universal women's suffrage. The group, known as the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association (MWSA), was created in 1881. For nearly the next four decades, it was in the forefront of the women's suffrage movement, highlighted by frequent marches and demonstrations, some numbering thousands of adherents, seeking public support at various sites, including the State Fair.

So, the South St. Paul women who cast the historic first votes after enactment of the 19th amendment 97 years ago drew upon a rich and robust history of women suffrage in this state, which helped create a foundation for its extension to the rest of the country.

This article was originally published in MinnPost