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The Story of St. Paul Woman Clara Hardenbrook, Who Tried (and Failed) To Vote in 1914

Clara and her daughters

Carolyn Griffith remembers a lot about her maternal grandmother, Clara Hardenbrook. She remembers her massive vegetable garden. That she liked to sing and play the piano, and that she often wore her thick hair in a braided knot at the back of her head. She remembers that she baked fresh bread nearly every day, and that her house always smelled of yeast and wood smoke.

But until she was contacted for this story, Carolyn Griffith did not know that her grandmother was a bold pro-suffragist who tried to vote in St. Paul before the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920. When she was tossed out of her polling place, Hardenbrook pressed the issue through the courts and eventually took her case all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court in 1914.

“My mother always made a really big deal about voting when we were growing up,” says Griffith, who lives in Marine on St. Croix. “She worked as an election judge and drove people to the polls. But I had no idea that that came from our grandmother, that she actually sued the city of St. Paul over not being able to vote.”

Clara Eva Sheeks was born in Minnesota in 1877, the eldest of eight children born to a hardscrabble pioneer father and a Swiss-born mother. When she was three years old, her parents bought some land near a North Dakota railroad town and moved the family by oxcart and covered wagon. From the time she was just a girl, Hardenbrook did hard manual labor around the ranch, and soon became adept at breaking horses and herding cattle.

In 1898, she married an aspiring Methodist minister, Harry Hardenbrook. In 1909, she moved with him to St. Paul so he could take a job as a streetcar conductor. In 1914, when Hardenbrook made her big stand for suffrage, she was living on St. Paul’s rough East Side neighborhood, in a whitewashed frame house that Harry built himself. That year, they had all seven of their kids at home: Hope, 14, Lila, 11, Myrtle, 8, Laurence, 7, Fern, 5, Alice, 3, and little Clinton, 1. “They were a working class family,” says Clara’s grandson, John Hardenbrook, who lives in White Bear Lake. “I think the truth is, they scratched to get by most of their lives.”

On May 7, 1914, Clara Hardenbrook walked into her precinct polling place and asked for a ballot. She had pre-registered under the androgynous sounding name “C.E. Hardenbrook.” But when she showed up, it was plain to the three male election judges that they were dealing with one of those types, those loud, indiscreet suffragette women who think they need to vote right alongside men. Hardenbrook was escorted out of the polling place and told not to come back.

There are no records of Hardenbrook being a member of a pro-suffrage group, but at some point, she must have become acquainted with Emily Dobbin, the St. Paul activist. In addition to being an important suffragist, Dobbin was a University of Chicago-educated astronomer who taught high school math in St. Paul and ran a weekly newspaper called the Minnesota Socialist. She also ran an organization called Minnesota Social Reform Union, that agitated in favor of building a women’s prison in Minnesota. Records housed at the Minnesota Historical Society indicate that Dobbin knew Hardenbrook was going to try to vote on May 7; Dobbin hired a sympathetic lawyer, Gustavus Loevinger, within 48 hours of Hardenbrook getting thrown out of her polling place. Dobbin paid all his legal fees, possibly out of her teacher’s salary.

Loevinger, the lawyer, was a German-born progressive who was a charter member of Minnesota Men’s League for Woman Suffrage. He would later be appointed district court judge by Minnesota Governor Floyd B. Olson. But in 1914, he was just an inexperienced lawyer with a toddler son at home. Loevinger had tried a few small cases, but nothing like this.
He built the heart of the case around Article 7, Section 8 of the Minnesota Constitution:
“Women may vote for school officers and members of library boards, and shall be eligible to hold any office pertaining to the management of schools or libraries. Any woman of the age of twenty-one years and upward and possessing the qualifications requisite to a male voter, may vote at any election held for the purpose of choosing any officers of schools or any members of library boards, or upon any measure relating to schools or libraries, and shall be eligible to hold any office pertaining to the management of schools and libraries.”
That article, ratified in 1898, partially enfranchised some of Minnesota’s women. Whether or not women were actually allowed to vote depended on if they were living in a city where school and library board members were directly elected, such as Minneapolis, or in a city where the mayor appointed those boards, such as St. Paul. With his case, Loevinger went right for the jugular. He argued that because Clara Hardenbrook had been denied the vote in St. Paul, the city’s entire election should be deemed anti-democratic and the results thrown out.

Hardenbrook quickly learned how fraught this whole voting business could be. The May 7 election--the one her lawyer had proposed be thrown out-- included a major win for Gilded Age progressives. In that midterm, the (all-male) voters overwhelming approved of a new populist city charter. The new charter included means of citizen power never before seen in the city: the right to recall public officials, such as the mayor; the right to vote on major bond proposals; and the right to offer up referendums for popular vote. Hardenbrook and Loevinger did make a few allies, however. Five conservative anti-charter businessmen signed onto Hardenbrooks’ case as supportive “intervenors”. That’s when the St. Paul newspapers really did backflips.

The editor of the St. Paul Daily News decried a “conspiracy between suffragettes and big business.” One unnamed source, quoted on the front page of the Daily News complained, “The plan to attack the charter has been brewing for several months and Mrs. Hardenbrook’s name is being used to keep the real parties at interest from being known.”

And it’s not like mainstream suffragists were jumping for joy over Hardenbrook’s case, either. The leaders of the moderate Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association (MWSA) were already shocked at the hard-line tactics on display in Washington D.C. Militant suffragist Alice Paul and her followers were chaining themselves to the gates at the White House. More than 200 women had been beaten bloody there during the March for Suffrage in 1913. In just a few short years, Alice Paul herself would be force-fed raw eggs through a tube at the Occoquan Workhouse.

To the MWSA, such radical maneuvers only fed ammunition to the anti-suffragists, who liked to flap about how the vote would corrupt and masculinize women. To undercut that sentiment, MWSA chapters tried to lobby in a distinctly womanly fashion. They hosted social teas and luncheons and automobile parades and dress-up “Pioneer Day” parties on Susan B. Anthony’s birthday. They certainly did not burst into polling places and demand ballots, à la Clara Hardenbrook.

Tension rose for two weeks until Judge Hascal Brill denied Loevinger’s motion on June 1. But Hardenbrook would not be deterred. Four days later, she appealed her case to the Minnesota Supreme Court. Her case was argued for a full day during Thanksgiving week, with Loevinger repeatedly hammering on Article 7, Section 8 of the Minnesota constitution.
The final decision came down just two days before Christmas: Hardenbrook’s appeal was firmly and finally quashed. Justice Phillip E. Brown wrote the opinion, just weeks before his death in February 1915:
“We do not think there is foundation for the position that women have the right to vote for offices of municipalities merely because their functions pertain in some degree to educational matters. No greater departure from established ideas has heretofore been suggested than that no elective officer in this state whose duties touch the domain of education can be validly chosen without according women the right to vote for him. Yet relator’s argument, followed to logical conclusion, leads to that result which furthermore would require re-adjustment of the entire electoral system of the state if, indeed, any plan could be devised which would effectuate the suffrage amendment as thus extended, and at the same time keep within the bounds of other provisions of the constitution.”

In other words, all the charter cities in Minnesota would have to be completely reworked to comply with article 7, and that would be a giant headache.

With her court case dead, Clara Hardenbrook went quietly back to her life on the East Side of St. Paul. In 1918, her husband, Harry, was diagnosed with tuberculosis and placed in a sanitarium. Clara Hardenbrook was allowed only a certain number of visits to the clinic, and never missed a single one. Harry died of TB three years later, in 1921. After the family lost Harry’s streetcar income, Hardenbrook did piecemeal work as a bookkeeper and substitute teacher. She also sold homemade bread in a few shops, including Cossetta’s. She died of a stroke at age 59 in 1936, and is buried next to her husband in St. Paul. Today Clara Hardenbrook has more than 100 living descendants in the Twin Cities metro.
Alyssa Ford is a Twin Cities freelance writer.

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