By Cecelia McKeig
"It wasn't all serious business"
Even before the bells and whistles heralded the passage of the 19th Amendment extending suffrage to women, the women of Beltrami County had organized a unit of the League of Women Voters. In June 1920, a group headed by Mrs. Homer Baer held a two-day organizational meeting at the City Hall and a “school” of political education. The reception committee consisted of Mrs. H. C. Baer, Miss Emma Grant, Mrs. D. J. (Elsie) Moore, Mrs. D. F. (Lenore) McCann, Miss Donna Lycan, Mrs. Roland (Cora) Gilmore, and Mrs. (Carrie) M. W. Deputy. It wasn’t all serious business though. The event featured an automobile ride, a tea hosted by Miss Margaret Troppman, and various musical entertainments including a visit from the Men’s Glee Club.
Even before the bells and whistles heralded the passage of the 19th Amendment extending suffrage to women, the women of Beltrami County had organized a unit of the League of Women Voters.
Women had asked for the right to vote since the founding of the state with little success. By 1900 they could vote only for the members of school and library boards. At last in 1919, the state allowed women to vote for president. Interestingly, Mrs. H. C. Baer was elected in the First Ward to participate in the County Convention for the presidential election of 1920. She was the only woman chosen to participate.
It is probably fair to note that Estelle Baer, Lenore McCann, Elsie Moore, and Cora Gilmore all lived on Lake Blvd. Carrie Deputy lived at 1121 Bemidji Avenue, and Donna Lycan lived with her parents at the Markham Hotel. They were women who were financially comfortable and able to devote time to the cause. To their credit, and to the many others who joined the League, they worked diligently and spent many hours devoted to making Bemidji a better place to live.
The League Instructs the First Women Voters
Granting women full voting rights was very controversial, but there was a steady push for achieving the goal. Finally on August 18, 1920, the women (and their male supporters) met with success. Shortly before noon on August 28, the Bemidji group distributed handbills around the downtown district announcing that a formal ceremony would be held at noon. Factory, church, and school bells rang at noon and accompanied a conservative demonstration for the victory. Telephones were immediately put into action and numerous queries were made as to "where is the fire” and "what's going on now." Several parties, upon learning the cause of the sudden outburst, casually remarked "Let 'em suffer."
A few months later, “Women and the Vote” was staged by members of the local League at the Carr Lake School for the purpose of instructing women on how to vote in the 1920 presidential election.
Telephones were immediately put into action and numerous queries were made as to "where is the fire” and "what's going on now." Several parties, upon learning the cause of the sudden outburst, casually remarked "Let 'em suffer."
The first organization under the chairmanship of Miss Mable Rice, teacher at the college, faltered and stuttered to a stop. Mrs. Cassie Bridgeman made an attempt to reorganize the group in October 1926. With the help of Donna Lycan, a group of about 30 women were contacted with the hope of reaching a broader base. But this did not prove successful. Instead, women formed a study group which then evolved into an active organization again in 1929. The league did not support or oppose any party or candidate. Instead, it took positions on issues which its members had studied and agreed to tackle.
On March 26, 1930, Bemidji celebrated the 10th anniversary of Votes for Women at the Bemidji League of Women Voters’ Luncheon. The centerpiece were birthday cakes with ten lighted candles.
In the early 1930’s, businessman Morris Kaplan and Alderman, had this suggestion: “Have women put up a full field of candidates for all the political offices -- Mayor, Chairman of the Council, and Members of the Board of Aldermen. Think of the prestige and the advertising we would get. We wish to advertise Bemidji? Here is an additional chance to do so. ‘Bemidji elects full Women Board of Officers.’ Good advertising and good business. How about it?” Of course, it didn’t happen, but he might be amused and delighted at the election of the first woman councilman, Mrs. James “Cameron” McMahon in 1971.
The League Takes on Additional Causes During Wartime
Besides encouraging voting, the local group were involved in many areas of local government. In the area of health, the League worked for pasteurization of milk, and for rat control which was an issue in Bemidji in the 1940s.
In 1942 the League helped with the first draft registration. The women conducted housing surveys in 1949 and 1968. The League prepared and distributed the “Bemidji – All American City” booklet in 1958 and prepared and distributed a booklet on the City Plan for Bemidji in 1968. Hazel Hoganson and Barbara Powell were co-editors of the 1958 booklets.
Bemidji was chosen as one of eleven “All-America” cities throughout the nation by the National Municipalities League in cooperation with Look magazine in 1952. This was a direct result of the passage of a bond issue for the building of the J.W. Smith School and the adoption of a council-manager form of city government. It was through the efforts of the League that the material was compiled and submitted to the judges for consideration for the award.
The League Ramps Up their Civic Activism
In the 1960’s, the local League consisted of three units that met once a month. Units I and III met in members’ Homes. Unit II met at Bridgeman’s Driftwood Room or at “Mug n’ Muffin” on Midway Drive. Some meetings were held in the Federal room of the Markham Hotel. Membership seems to have varied from 15 to 60.
It was Mrs. Mabel Sattgast’s whole-hearted belief in the program of the League that led her to resign her leadership in the political party of her choice and become President of the League for the five and a half year. During that time, she initiated an environmental program in local League work that led to active participation in the city’s sewage treatment plan.
In 1962, a return to voter registration climaxed a several month fight spearheaded by the League of Women Voters to restore the registration system that had been abandoned by the council the previous year when census figures disclosed that the city had fallen below 10,000 in population and no longer required registration. City attorney Tom Hilligan advised the council that it would be necessary to re-register all voters in the city since the system had been legally abandoned.
Along with the Bemidji Jaycees, the League members made a concerted effort to register as many voters as possible. A total of 16 league members spent 90 hours in registration booths set up in the city’s supermarkets -- Hartz, Heathman’s and National Tea -- on three consecutive weekends.
Over the years, several local women achieved honors for their work with the League. Among them were Mable Parker, Henrietta Britton, Mabel Sattgast, Hazel Shimmin, Ardie Olson, Dr. Mary Ghostly, Barbara Powell, and Olive Leikvold.
The work of the League is closely linked to the history of Bemidji. There are at least four boxes of archival materials on the League at the Beltrami County Museum. Perhaps someone should write a book!