On Christmas night 1877, women’s rights pioneer Susan B. Anthony made her mark on the area’s history when she gave a speech to a Rochester crowd, making the case that women should have the right to vote.
Anthony’s address took place at Heaney Hall, a long-forgotten building on the northwest corner of Second Street Southwest and Broadway where the old Dayton’s building used to be. Tickets cost 50 cents.
It must have been one heckuva speech, because a journalist for the then-Rochester Post described himself as “entranced” by Anthony’s eloquence.
It also gives you a sense what a long haul it was for women to win the right to vote: Another 43 years would pass before women would win that right with passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.
Now, with the 100th anniversary of the amendment’s passage a year away, a series of events is planned throughout the year as a build-up to the centennial celebration. It begins Feb. 24 at 2 p.m. at the History Center of Olmsted County with a program, “Looking Forward and Looking Back on Women’s Suffrage in Minnesota.”
Organizers are also hoping to build and expand on what is known about the local history of the suffrage movement.
In the years leading up to passage of the 19th Amendment, the effort to win women the right to vote had become a mass movement that reached into every city and town. In 1920, Rochester, a city of only 13,700, had its own figures at the forefront of the battle.
Amy Caucutt, a Rochester resident who has researched local history, said she is hoping families and people will come forward with their own ancestral stories of that time; stories that have been passed from generation to generation; stories found in old news clippings and photos.
“I’m trying to find those people,” Caucutt said. “Did your grandmother participate? Did you ever hear stories from your grand-aunt?”
Caucutt’s own research into old newspapers and archival materials has uncovered a trove of historical narrative, as well as a number of local women who made themselves part of the debate.
They include Sarah Burger Stearns, a Rochester woman who in 1869 held the first meeting in the state on women’s suffrage in her home; Amelia Hatfield Witherstine, who was the first woman elected to the Rochester School Board and the first woman to become board president; and Marion Sloan, who came to Rochester as a 10-year-old in 1856 when the city was a rough pioneer village and become an ardent supporter of women’s rights. She opposed the violent tactics advocated by some suffragists.
The Olmsted County History Center is offering multiple opportunities for people to share their stories and build upon the area’s oral history, said executive director Pat Carlson. One way is to call Carlson and say you want to make an oral or written history.
The center also hosts a Women’s History Circle the first Monday of each month at 5:30 p.m. People can come and tell their stories to the roundtable. They can also come and network at the Feb. 24 event at the history center, where plans for the centennial celebration will be outlined.
Caucutt fairly bubbles with stories about the local suffrage movement. The stories of the time reveal how the movement went through ups-and-downs, cycles of victory and defeat over decades. Before it became a constitutional amendment, advocates fought it out state-by-state.
In 1870, for example, Minnesota was a hair’s breadth from becoming the first state to give women the right to vote.
In that session, the Legislature approved the 15th Amendment giving black men the right to vote. It also passed a proposed constitutional amendment giving women the same right. But the women’s measure was vetoed by Gov. Horace Austin.
“If that had gone to the people and passed, we would have been the first to approve it,” she said.
Five years later, a state law was passed allowing women to vote in school board elections as a kind of trial run.
“They were going to try it out to see how they were going to do it,” Caucutt said. “Well, how much did you have to try it out? And then pressure kind of eased up, and it didn’t come back until the time of President Wilson during the First World War.”