“Women’s rights”—If a woman has any paramount right it is that of being relieved, if possible, from distressing ailments to which the sex is exclusively liable. Such relief is certain if she resorts to Holloway’s Pills as an alternative. Their purifying and resisting operations, and their effort in renewing suspended functional action, recommend them above all other medicines to the confidence of the sex. CAUTION: See that the words “Holloway, New York and London,” appear as a watermark on every leaf of the box or pot. No others are genuine.
St. Paul Daily Press, March 3, 1870
On March 11 Governor Horace Austin, a former lawyer and judge from St. Peter, vetoed the measure, stating, “I have concluded not to sign this bill for the following reason: Section 1, of article 7 of the State Constitution provides who shall be voters of this State; and section 1 or article 14 provides that no amendment proposed by the Legislature shall be adopted unless a majority of ‘voters’ present and voting shall have ratified the same. The ‘voters,’ as used in the section last cited means a ‘voter,’ as defined in the first section referred. The bill proposes to test the question in a manner not within the Constitution.” In other words, women, already barred by the constitution from voting, could not be permitted to vote on changes to the constitution.
The reaction was convulsive. Stearns and her associates had viewed him as an ally. She and her husband, a friend and political ally, had campaigned for him to be elected governor. Never in their wildest considerations did they believe that a veto was possible. They were already preparing to canvass the state. Now the governor pushed everything back. A frustrated Sarah Stearns wrote, “There is no justification for such a veto, and in exercising it Governor Austin displayed the single quality of mulishness. . . . A law of that character, leaving to the people a question as to the qualification of voters which they are perfectly capable of deciding for themselves, is one that a governor has no business to interfere with.” Still wounded weeks later she referred to him as “mixed” and “confused.”
She was not alone. Another angry writer from Minneapolis, stung by a sense of betrayal, posted in the “friendly” Democratic Daily Pioneer, “I do not propose to discuss [Austin’s] objections. They are not worthy of it, and unworthy [of] the position of the Governor, if not the man. They are simply the specious plea of a demagogue, whose egotism led him to believe that the ipso dixit would be accepted as positive truth. The fact is this bill did not attempt to give women the right to vote upon the adoption of the amendment, and the Governor knew it.”
More invective rained down on the governor. The pro-suffrage editor of the St. Paul Weekly Dispatch had been one of the first to react. “Governor Austin has vetoed the Woman Suffrage bill for the reason that it was to be submitted to women, who are not yet legal voters, and because public sentiment has not called for it. Now, it seems to us that the only method of determining positively whether public sentiment demands this or that reform, is to take a vote on it. . . . This suffrage bill, by virtue of its main provision, is simply a bill making women legal voters for a special occasion and purpose.”
For others, for the time, the veto was too much to bear. “Our excellent Governor has hurt the feelings of some of the ladies,” reported a reader to the Daily Press. “I know one of the most estimable of her sex who actually shed tears of vexation, when she learned that Governor Austin had refused his signature to the bill submitting the question of Woman Suffrage to the people. She could not perceive through her moisture-laden eyelids, the exact point of unconstitutionality, and could only murmur between her sobs, that they would ‘remember Governor Austin when they come to power.’ ”
Later, in a private letter to his irritated friend Mrs. Stearns, the governor rationalized his action. “Had the bill provided for the voting of the women, simply to get an expression of their wishes upon the question, without requiring their votes to be counted as legal in the adoption or rejection of it, the act would not have been vetoed, notwithstanding my second objection that it was premature.” In another letter, however, he indicated that his opposition was based on the political calculation that three-fifths of foreign-born Minnesotans were hostile to the measure.” In this, he and “Rochester” were similarly concerned with the disposition of this group of citizens. For both, women suffrage was an American issue, a Saxon issue, but not one embraced by immigrants, though “Rochester” felt the foreign-born women could be educated as to the benefits.
From Boston, the outraged editor of the recently incepted Woman’s Journal wrote, “The Woman’s Suffrage bill of the Minnesota Legislature was conceived in jest and born in frivolity. Even the author of the bill openly treated it as a joke. The whole thing was coupled disgracefully in levity and fun. [It was an un]worthy way for the people‘s representatives to spend their time and the people’s money. Under the circumstances the Governor’s veto was a merited rebuke; as by the Minnesota State Constitution, women are positively prohibited from voting.”
“Rochester” was just as troubled, but in the spirit of her unknown sisters in other parts of the state, she was less foreboding: perhaps, even hopeful. “News travels slowly through our snowdrifts. I dare say Eastern people learned before I did of Governor Austin’s refusal to sign the female suffrage bill.” And they knew of the churlish manner with which legislators acted. “Charity can hardly be stretched to cover the frivolity of our lawmakers in respect to the woman question. . . . Such a great joke it seems to them that women should wish to be free to vote or not, as the conscience of each dictates! What in the world have we mothers been about, from the days of Eve all the way down, that the men of this generation can mock at women so?” But it was important that she acknowledge the good men who worked on the issue. “There was some honest men at the Capitol, who voted sincerely for the female suffrage bill, and perhaps before another session of our Legislature, we may convince many more of the reasonableness of our claim, and of a growing desire of Minnesota women to have their freedom.”
But Dr. Mary Colburn from Champlin, fueled by a history of insult and rebuke from the legislative body that was longer than even Stearns, her closest colleague in the struggle, had experienced, furiously wrote upon learning of the news, “It seems like the trick of a mean and cowardly foe.” Seeing many of these same men casting votes for Negro suffrage reopened a wound and she directed her anger at men of both races. “If it was unconstitutional, that was reason sufficient for the veto, without that talk about little or no evidence or manifestation of any public sentiment [in] favor of the proposed change. What great evidence or manifestation of public sentiment was there when the negro suffrage bill, adroitly managed, forced an issue upon the question of amendment of the constitution? And pray how long and how loud must a woman clamor for political equality with the negro before her cry reaches the gubernatorial ear?” For her—as with Anthony, Stanton, and Stearns—the political equality of black men as a whole was tantamount to being spatin the eye.
The whole affair, it seemed, was an exercise in bad faith. “Many of our would-be politicians affect in ridicule and ignore arguments they cannot refute, and treat with dignified scorn the advocates of this reform. I opine the day is not far distant when men of this class, seized by the epidemic that rages in autumn, will be forced to make their best bow to the laundress and the kitchen maid, for the reason that Bridget’s and Kathleen’s votes will weigh as much as the votes of Patrick and Hans.” Colburn now threw down the gauntlet. “Let the friends of this cause remember that failure is not defeat. We have yet nine months in which to work before the Legislature will again assemble. Let the women see to it that womanhood suffrage be circulated in every county and town throughout the state, and every member of the next Legislature be made the bearer of such petitions as proof positive that the people are willing to meet the need.”
This was a call to arms for another legislative campaign, and it seemed supporters might be successful this time. Despite the scurrilous assault over the years on their dignity that suffrage leaders had endured from politicians and opinion makers, the women of the movement, many of whom were married to men who played dominant roles in the Republican Party, had reason to believe they might be successful this time. They had come so close. The campaign of 1871 would demand these men do no more than what they had done for the “illiterate and wretched” black laborer. But this was not to happen. The Fridley bill would be the last of its kind. There was, instead, to be a change in tactics.