University struggles with the women’s movement

by Krista Poplau

During the 1910s, The Minnesota Daily played a pivotal role in the women’s rights movement by advancing women one step forward and two steps back.
The Daily released a “feminist edition” in 1915, ostensibly to help women move one step forward in society. But the Daily also held women back in two instances by objecting to women holding student government positions and with its use of the word “girl” in reference to women.
The special edition, printed in yellow and black to symbolize the suffrage movement, included articles written by and for women. The Daily used an all-female staff to produce the edition. Prior to the feminist edition’s publication, the Daily was almost entirely staffed by men, with only two women holding news department positions.
Today, women comprise nearly half of the Daily’s staff.
The feminist edition used a mix of “girl” and “woman” references to female students. The Daily referred to college-age women as “girls” at the time.
Such references in past Daily issues doesn’t surprise University history professor Sara Evans. She said the use of “girl” was a common term in newspapers well into the 1950s. Today, “woman” is the proper term for females over the age of 18.
The 1910s also marked an increase in campus activities involving women’s issues, particularly the suffrage movement. Evans said the activities correlated to an increase of women attending college.
“Women on campus had a sense of entitlement to participation,” she said. “The generation before had to persuade themselves that it wasn’t unreasonable to ask for the right to vote.”
The University Suffrage Association campaigned and won women’s rights to vote for University athletic board positions in 1911. At the time, the association championed equal voting rights on campus as a step toward equal voting everywhere.
By mid-decade, the association amassed 100 members, including 20 men. University President Marion LeRoy Burton joined the association as well.
In August 1920, the government ratified the 19th Amendment, giving women voting rights, and thereby ratifying the University women’s work for equal suffrage.
Women’s campus involvement also expanded beyond the suffrage movement.
University women requested an ice hockey team in November 1910. The University granted the wish more than 80 years later with the establishment of the Gophers women’s hockey team in 1997.
Although University faculty supported most women’s involvement in campus activities such as the ice hockey team, the student body objected to women’s involvement in student politics.
A controversy arose on campus in December 1917, when the Daily reported a female student might become senior class president.
Muriel Fairbanks, female editor of the campus-based Minnesota Magazine, was the only senior nominated.
The article blamed the World War I draft for causing an absence of male candidates. It also described the position using masculine pronouns, insinuating Fairbanks was unfit for the position.
Directly after naming Fairbanks as the only candidate, the article listed the job responsibilities.
“He is the spokesman for his classmates and represents them to the public; his appointive powers are great … he is the chairman of the Academic Student Council; he takes a leading part in the graduation arrangements and in presenting the senior class.”
The next day, two men joined the list of nominations. The Daily then made an about-face in its coverage.
“By far the most noteworthy addition to the list of candidates, however, is the name of Muriel Fairbanks. The breaking of precedent and rule by permitting a girl to run for president has been sanctioned by the academic council, and in view of the present conditions, Miss Fairbanks’ name is a fitting one with which to establish a new practice,” read a Dec. 14, 1917 Daily article.
The eventual election led to an academic review because the results were so close. A new election for senior class president was ordered.
Three men were the remaining candidates. The Daily did not mention Fairbanks, who withdrew from the election.
Despite the election results, opportunities for women increased across the country. Featured speakers on campus throughout the decade encouraged women to master business and technical skills in order to secure future jobs.
Evans said women experienced increased visibility in occupational roles, taking them out of factories and into the office.
“The actual experience as well as the image of women being independent and forward was becoming respectable,” she said.
That burgeoning respect laid the foundation for a women’s movement that continues even today. Though inequality still exists, opportunities for University women have expanded exponentially throughout the century.

Krista Poplau welcomes comments at [email protected] She can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3221.