How Civic Responsibility, Nativism, and World War I Gave Women in the Midwest the Right to Vote
Sara Egge, Associate Professor of History, Centre College
In June 1918, the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association (MWSA), led by Clara Ueland, sent letters to state legislators about their position on woman suffrage. It was part of a groundswell of activity for the cause. Since 1917, Ueland had pressed suffragists in Minnesota to build grassroots support. She had direct orders from Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) to secure presidential suffrage as part of Catt’s “winning plan,” which she issued in late 1916. Minnesota’s constitution was difficult to amend—every amendment required a majority of the votes cast in the election, not just on a single measure—so Catt and Ueland agreed that obtaining presidential suffrage was a better strategy as it required only legislative approval, not a statewide vote.
What Ueland and the rest of the MWSA wanted was to prove to legislators that their constituents supported woman suffrage. By sending letters, they aimed to discover those legislators who needed more persuasion than others. For the legislators and their constituents in Lyon County, a farming community in southwestern Minnesota, woman suffrage had not occupied much of their attention. In fact, since the late nineteenth century, most Minnesotans had viewed the prospect of women voting as a distant reality at best. Most voters believed woman suffrage far too radical. They considered gender distinctions to be legitimate limitations on political participation. In addition, Minnesotans, like many Midwesterners, entangled woman suffrage with temperance reform, proclaiming that women only wanted to vote to secure prohibition.
In other regions, suffragists found ways to downplay the connection with temperance. In the Midwest, however, the link was often direct. In some of these states, like South Dakota, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) also served as the de facto suffrage organization. In other states, like Iowa, the WCTU worked intimately with the state association. Suffragists often held leadership positions in both groups, which made it difficult to separate one reform from the other. Adding to the animosity were the ethnic and religious background of voters in the Midwest. Large numbers of immigrants from Europe had flooded the region after the Civil War, and the largest groups in many of these states were Germans and Scandinavians for whom alcohol consumption was a hallmark of their customs. Many of these immigrants considered calls for prohibition not just attempts to promote temperate living but overt assaults on their way of life. Many foreigners resisted assimilation, preferring to live in enclaves so as to maintain their ethnic customs.
The woman suffrage movement had faced decades of opposition in many Midwestern states like Minnesota. Petitions went unsigned. Lecturers faced hostile crowds. State legislatures rejected bill after bill to enfranchise women. It took a powerful message honed by midwestern suffragists and a massive global war to change Midwesterners’ opinions about woman suffrage. The message was “civic responsibility,” and suffragists claimed it out of decades of community development work. Most local midwestern suffragists were Yankees, identified by their Anglo-Saxon ancestry, Protestant Christian views, and kinship ties to the northeast. They arrived in the region with strong beliefs in civic engagement and community service, and they set to work during a critical period of settlement. Most places lacked basic municipal services, so Yankee women often filled the void. They raised funds for schools, roads, and other public institutions. Their civic work was public and powerful, and it introduced them to politics in extraordinary ways. Channeling this impulse to participate—helpfully amplified by Progressivism by the early twentieth century—Yankee women claimed the ballot not necessarily as a right but as a duty of responsible citizens. Their strategy also deliberately positioned native-born women against foreigners whom they believed purposely avoided their civic duties in favor of maintaining their ethnic cultural practices.
Claiming civic responsibility alone was not enough to win support for woman suffrage. It took World War I to stir up nativist fervor against immigrants to tip the scales. Many foreigners called the Midwest home by 1914, when World War I erupted, and of particular concern to native-born Americans were Germans, who were the largest ethnic group in the region at the time. When the United States joined the conflict in 1917, suffragists sensed a golden opportunity. To vote for woman suffrage was to endorse nativism, an immensely popular political position in the Midwest by 1918.
It is important to grapple with just how much difficulty and hostility midwestern suffragists faced before 1917 to understand the incredible political shift that took place in such a short period of time. By 1918, most Midwesterners endorsed woman suffrage without reservation. It is not clear how Clara Ueland, president of the MWSA, reacted when she began to receive replies from state legislators in the summer of 1918, but she had to feel at least some disbelief. In letter after letter were positive responses from legislators from across the state. The three men who represented Lyon County, John Gislason, K. Knudson, and Fred Norwood, each answered “yes” to the question, “May we expect your support?” with Norwood even including a handwritten note, “I most surly [sic.] stand for the ratification of the suffrage amendment, first, last, and all the time.” That Norwood represented a county that had little appreciable activity for the cause was noteworthy.
By August 1918, Lyon County exploded with grassroots momentum for woman suffrage. Four women canvassed the area, securing about five hundred signatures of men and women on petitions endorsing woman suffrage. The numbers are impressive considering that the Spanish flu outbreak that fall placed a quarantine on many small towns in the county. In addition to petitions, local groups also sent resolutions in favor of the cause to MWSA headquarters. There were nine organizations—five social clubs, three Red Cross auxiliaries, and one ladies’ aid society—that sent resolutions from Lyon County. Those resolutions joined resolutions from state-level associations from a variety of fields, including the State Dairyman’s Association, the State Local Option Association, the State Letter Carriers’ Association, and the Farmers’ Grain Dealers Association, among others.
Woman suffrage’s surge in popularity in Minnesota in such a short amount of time speaks to the power of nativism and World War I to redefine midwestern ideas about citizenship. War capitalized on suffragists’ claims of civic responsibility. Mobilization demanded responsible citizens who were willing to sacrifice for the war effort. It also fostered loyalty to a narrow “American” identity while stifling resistance to assimilation that many immigrants to the region had enjoyed for decades. It may not come as a surprise that many midwestern suffragists eagerly led “Americanization” efforts by publishing propaganda in local newspapers, teaching at “suffrage schools,” and leading surveillance efforts of their foreign-born neighbors.
Woman suffrage victories occurred in states across the Midwest in 1918 and 1919. Women in Michigan and South Dakota won full suffrage when voters came out strongly in favor of state amendments in 1918. State legislatures in North Dakota, Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Ohio, along with Minnesota, worked to secure presidential suffrage during their 1919 sessions. In the spring of 1919, the Minnesota House and Senate passed presidential suffrage. Historians have pointed out that grassroots mobilizing, especially petitions and resolutions, were effective at increasing public support for woman suffrage. While suffragists’ ground game improved, it was an extraordinary moment that combined a winning argument—civic responsibility—with wartime nativist hysteria to give midwestern women the right to vote.
Egge is an associate professor of history at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. Her book, entitled Woman Suffrage and Citizenship in the Midwest, 1870-1920, was published by the University of Iowa Press in 2018. Learn more at: https://www.uipress.uiowa.edu/books/9781609385576/woman-suffrage-and-citizenship-in-the-midwest-1870%E2%80%931920.