A portrait of the Minnesota suffragist Sarah Burger Stearns. Image courtesy of MNopedia.

The 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment is an opportunity to remember the women who fought hard to gain the right to vote. Many claims were made about the suffrage movement with no evidence, much like how our public conversation is saturated with “fake news” today. 

“Fake news” is a very prevalent phrase, especially these last few years. However, the meaning behind it is ancient. Fake news is defined as falsified news stories created to promote a viewpoint. Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, sharing falsified stories online wasn’t possible, but stories were shared through word of mouth, postcards and newspapers. 

Stories of that time period were not labeled as false, as there was no fact checker involved. These days, websites like Snopes do the heavy lifting in determining whether a news outlet is reporting accurate information. False claims about the suffrage movement often went unchallenged. 

One of the claims made by anti-suffragists was that women were already sufficiently represented because of their influence over men. Anti-suffragists, particularly men, felt that women would have too great an influence if they could vote, since they already were “in charge of” households and raising the children. The vote would give women too much control. 

The truth was that most women had very little influence. Women may have had control of the household and the children, but the man of the house decided if the children went to school and where. Only men were allowed to vote, own property and attain a higher education. 

For evidence of the lack of influence women held in the late 1800s, look no further than the example of Minnesota suffragist Sarah Burger Stearns. Seeking to increase her ability to influence society in 1855, Stearns organized a group of women who were prepared for higher education. These women coordinated to apply to what is now known as the University of Michigan together, only to be told that “admitting ladies would be inexpedient” or impractical, as stated in A Woman of the Century

The experience of Stearns and her fellow female college hopefuls provides a verified fact check on the influence of women before they got the vote. The control and influence they had over their own lives, much less over society and public policy, was severely limited prior to the passage of 19th Amendment.

Another claim made by anti-suffragists was that women were too foolish to be able to handle voting. “Women are silly creatures” was written in a pamphlet called “The Nonsense of It” in 1866, stating reasons why women shouldn’t get the vote. Being too “silly” to handle the seriousness involved with voting was a justified argument back in the late 1800s, as women were seen as very emotional and not serious enough to handle something as serious as voting. 

However, once again the accomplishments of Sarah Burger Stearns challenge this claim about the “silliness” of women. The cleverness and guile of Stearns are significant factors in how women in Minnesota gained the right to vote in school board elections in 1875. As recorded in an early history of women’s suffrage composed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage, and published in 1886, in 1875 the Minnesota State Legislature permitted a public referendum on the issue of whether women over the age of 21 should be allowed to vote on public measures related to schools.  

Stearns cleverly urged suffragists not to agitate in favor of the amendment so as not to arouse attention from organized anti-suffragists. Instead, Stearns and suffrage supporters in the legislature arranged that the question on the ballot would be printed so that to vote against women gaining suffrage in school elections, opponents would have to scratch out “yes” and write “no.” This clever ballot design caused many men who were actually opposed to suffrage to unwittingly vote yes.  This strategy, along with the support of the editor of the Pioneer Press gained via the urging of Stearns, caused the amendment to pass.

This historical incident provides a fact check on the “fake news” story of women being too silly to handle voting. In fact, the silly lack of attention to the ballot paid by Minnesota men in 1875 was a likely factor in women gaining partial suffrage via referendum. 

A third claim made against women getting the vote was that women who were taking proper care of their household had no time for politics. Men believed their work days were much harder than the women’s job of taking care of the household and children. Men argued that participating in politics was a “burden” they were carrying. If women were invested in politics, they would be overwhelmed, their houses would be disasters and the children would be unkempt.

Once again, Sarah Berger Stearns was an example of the ridiculousness of this claim. Stearns was in the housekeeping profession while she was lecturing to various institutions. She also advocated for suffrage at the same time. Participating in a variety of tasks deemed “burdens” like schoolwork and advocating for suffrage was likely difficult, but Stearns managed to keep everything under control and well kept. 

Many claims were made against suffragists and suffrage, much like many “fake news” stories are perpetuated today. Though fake news seems to be a fairly recent term, the concept behind it is anything but. All in all, women like Sarah Berger Stearns endured many claims as to why they shouldn’t have received suffrage, but challenged these claims via their actions and example.

Watch the Minnesota Experience documentary, Citizen, which explores the multigenerational march of Minnesota women and all they hoped would come with the vote. 

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Editor’s note: This story – and others in the collection, Then & Now: Reflections on Women’s Suffrage – was written by a St. Catherine University student in the Public Relations Writing class held in the spring of 2020. The piece has been minimally edited to preserve the integrity of the student’s perspective. We hope you enjoy discovering what the next generation of writers, historians and activists has to say about the impact of the women’s suffrage movement then and now. 

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This story is made possible by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and the citizens of Minnesota.

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As Minnesotans look for ways to show their support for healthcare workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, we took a look back in time to celebrate the contributions that four women – all named Ruth – made to the state’s public health system. 

Just 39 words in length, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave women the right to vote when it was passed on June 4, 1919 and enacted on August 26, 1920 – but its passage was fraught with decades of legal challenges and intense demonstrations in which women activists sometimes put their lives directly on the knife’s edge. Explore a timeline contributions of Minnesota women to the passage of the 19th Amendment.