I believe our success was largely, if not wholly, attributable to our studied failure to agitate the question.
Sarah Burger Stearns, 1875
In March 1875, when President Ulysses Grant signed into law the Civil Rights Act, which banned discrimination in public areas, few blacks and opinion makers in Minnesota took note. In a state with a small number of black citizens and, as it was conventionally viewed by white people, no explosive displays of racial tension, mob violence and terrorism were perceived primarily to be Southern phenomena. Even when stories infrequently appeared recounting flare-ups between blacks and whites on the streets of Minnesota cities and towns, the incidences tended to be seen merely as isolated, unfortunate, and rare, and the prevalence of poverty among black Minnesotans was considered more a matter of character than circumstance. In one of the most enlightened states in the Union, at least in terms of black-white relations, intelligent white Minnesotans justifiably felt they had done all they could and should for the black man—indeed, that they had done their part. But the virtue of some of that work was dubious, for citizenship was not based on education, or even intelligence, but simply and exclusively on manhood. The Civil Rights Act did nothing to change that. Unlike with black suffrage where white men worked to achieve the vote, Minnesota’s women would largely have to attain suffrage by their own efforts. Nine years after Sarah Stearns began her campaign for women’s rights, the fruit of her labors would become evident.
In late 1875, as the day approached for the decision by the voters of Minnesota to determine whether women should get the right to vote, Sarah Stearns, “wishing to make sure of the votes of the intelligent men of the State,” sent a telegram to the editor of the Pioneer Press, the leading paper of Minnesota, begging him to urge his readers to do all in their power to secure the adoption of the amendment.
The time, as she later related the plan to be, was right. Since earlier that year the legislature had enacted the bill putting the women’s suffrage question to the voters, proponents intended to stay quiet throughout the intervening months so as to lull opponents into indifference. The success or failure of the central issue—women’s suffrage—would not be decided directly by the voters of Minnesota, as had been the case with black suffrage in 1865, 1867, and 1868; less controversially, voters were to decide whether the state constitution should be amended to authorize the legislature to extend suffrage rights to women. That their suffrage would be limited to electing school board members and running for a seat on the school board, a right that other states by then had already established, further seemed to minimize the level of rancor. Many men who opposed women voting on “masculine” issues of the day, it was believed, felt less concern if women were seeking leadership roles in nurturing the educational welfare of children, considered yet another aspect of a woman’s appropriate place.
Nonetheless, women’s suffrage in Minnesota had always been a tricky matter. Nothing should be taken for granted. Men, even so-called enlightened men, simply did not see women as equal to themselves and even, at times, crudely rebuked them for their efforts. In supporting black suffrage, women leaders felt it incredible that Republican leaders, their so-called allies, and in some instances, husbands, had deemed “even the lowest, most ignorant of black men” to be their political equals. To them, Frederick Douglass was one of a kind. But this too was the nature of ignorance that would have to die out in the fullness of time with the passing of each generation. It was this very thing that well-situated intelligent women could change by leading the effort to elevate the quality of public education and, in doing so, improve all of society. This, too, was women’s work. To do all of this, they needed to get the votes in the November election.
Just as opponents, it was hoped, would ignore the issue, so too might potential “friends.” Timing was of the essence. Inspiring them to vote in the affirmative while not provoking opponents to vote in the negative was like threading a needle. But Stearns’s hand was steady when she, at the optimum moment, put pen to paper to get the editor to act. In a private letter, he later thanked her, saying that even he “had quite forgotten such an amendment had been proposed.” It was precisely where she had wanted Minnesota to be. Mass unawareness was the key, for there had been no debate of the issue that consequently, according to Stearns, created the opening to victory. “I believe our success,” she later reported, “was largely, if not wholly, attributable to our studied failure to agitate the question.” The opposition, without agitation from proponents of the question, had simply forgotten the whole matter existed, so that it was possible that even “the ignorant classes who could not, or did not read their ballots, voted unthinkingly for the measure.” The notice in the Pioneer Press, the state’s record of note and organ for the Liberal Republican-Democratic Party, a reflection of how much the politics of the day had changed, made it all possible when it triggered the organizations in both parties around the state to print “affirmative wording of all the tickets of both parties.” Men following the endorsements of their party bosses—Republican, Democratic, Anti-Monopoly—only knew to circle “Yes” next to the otherwise cryptic phrase, “For the amendment of Article VII, relating to electors.” Knowing the implication of doing so was not important.
The simple question of whether the legislature should be empowered to make that decision was a significant shift in tactics, and one that was ultimately successful. When Election Day came on November 2, the relatively innocuous amendment was carried by a vote of 24,340 to 19,480. With the amendment now a part of the constitution, proponents needed only to focus on a handful of legislators, some of whom were spouses or friends. Such was the nature of the political shift of politics in Minnesota by the mid-1870s. The following legislature passed the necessary law, and at the spring election of 1876, the same year when African Americans and liberal-minded whites gathered at Lincoln Park in the nation’s capital to dedicate a monument commemorating their martyred president and the Emancipation Proclamation, the women of Minnesota voted for school officials and, in several cases, were elected as directors.
Seeing women at the polling booths, seeing women’s names on ballots: it was a start.