The Human Rights Warrior

Jennifer Prestholdt

Jennifer Prestholdt
Minneapolis, Minnesota,
February 25
Human rights lawyer, wife, and mother of three. (Not necessarily in that order.) I write about my experiences in fighting for human rights and how I am trying to bring those lessons home to my kids. Join our journey at, Humanrightswarrior on facebook and @JPrestholdt on Twitter. All material on this blog is © Jennifer Prestholdt, 2011, 2012


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FEBRUARY 7, 2012 12:54PM

My Suffragette Grandmother

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Scandinavian Women's Suffrage Association 
Minneapolis, May 2, 1914 
It's primary day in the North Star State.  There may be only one choice on my Democratic precinct caucus ballot, but you can bet that I'm going to cast my vote.  I'm doing it for my Grandma Lillian.

My Grandma Lillian was raised by her grandmother Thorina Melquist, a Norwegian immigrant whose oldest daughter died of typhoid fever just weeks after she gave birth to my grandmother. Thorina weaned her youngest child in order to nurse my grandmother, who had also contracted typhoid but miraculously survived. Thorina was a suffragette who participated in demonstrations in Minneapolis for the right to vote for women. Women received full suffrage rights in Norway in 1913, so Norwegian immigrant women (along with their Finnish, Swedish and Danish counterparts) played a notable role in the suffrage movement at the local level in Minnesota and other states with large Scandinavian immigrant populations.

Grandma Lillian grew up as a suffragette.  She was still pretty young in 1919 when the Nineteenth Amendment was passed by Congress and ratified by Minnesota. Women's suffrage became national law on August 18, 1920 when Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the Constitutional amendment.

In some ways, it is surprising to think that less than 100 years ago, women in America could not vote.  I was a toddler in Louisiana when that state ratified the 19th Amendment in 1970 - 50 years after initially rejecting it.   Mississippi didn't ratify the 19th Amendment until 1984!  Now the right to participate in government is one that we Americans take for granted - so much so that less than half of the population votes unless it is a Presidential election year.  In 2008, the voter turnout was 63%, a high water mark that is low in comparison with most countries.  In U.S. local elections, the voter turnout is even lower.  Many of the mayors of major U.S. cities are elected with single-digit turnout.  

I love to vote.  I always try to bring my kids with me when I vote, so they can see that having a voice in the democratic process is something both important and valuable.  When I'm standing in the voting booth, I feel my Grandma Lillian and Great-great-grandmother Thorina are there with me.  But there are also others with me - everyone I've ever met who risked everything to secure their right to participate in government.

The young Haitian asylum seeker, for example, who was beaten by police at a polling place in order to discourage him from voting for Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1990.  He held his own, though, and stood there bleeding and bandaged for several hours before he finally had the opportunity to put his check next to Aristide's rooster symbol on the ballot.  It was the first time he had ever voted and, he told me, "It was a very good day."


 Village meeting about 2004 elections in Kono District, Sierra Leone

When I was in Sierra Leone, I met many people whose hands or arms had been amputated with machetes by members of the Revolutionary United Front.  Some of them had been targeted during an elections so that they couldn't vote by leaving their fingerprint mark on the paper ballot.  I also heard that the RUF hacked off hands during one election because the government's slogan was "The power is in the hands of the people."  

I visited Sierra Leone in 2004,  just prior to the first post-conflict elections.  As I traveled through the countryside, I saw people coming together for meetings to discuss the upcoming elections.  In spite of the horrors that they had endured, they were coming together in villages big and small, to exercise their right to participate in their government.   


 Girls in an upcountry village, Sierra Leone

Although my grandmother gained the right to vote, she was never able to go to college.   She was certainly smart enough, but her family couldn't see the point in wasting good money on educating a girl.  Grandma Lillian never expressed bitterness about this to me. But one afternoon when I was in high school, I stopped by to say hello and to get her thoughts on my top college picks.  I remember sitting in my grandparents' darkened living room.  A mantel clock ticked and the air conditioner hummed.  It now seems impossibly calm and quiet, so different from my current raucous and messy living room. My Grandma Lillian spoke to me gently,  "You can do whatever you want to with your life. Be what you want to be.  But never forget those of us who weren't able to follow our dreams. Follow your dreams for us."  

 So that's why I am going to vote tonight.  I'm doing it for my Grandma Lillian.  And for everyone else who can't follow their dreams.  

  The photo at the top is of the Scandinavian Women's Suffrage Association marching in a parade in Minneapolis in 1914.  

I keep it in my office in honor of my Grandma Lillian.  

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Thanks for this insightful post. I have lived in Germany for almost 40 years now, and you are right about most other western countries having far better voter turn out than in the USA.
I have tears in my eyes. For Grandma Lillian and for those extraordinary people who have had hands hacked off to keep them from voting.
Thanks so much for your comments!
Wonderful tribute to your grandmother and all the other women who made it possible for women to vote. It is a scared right.
Thank you for this wonderful recollection, and re-commitment to our right to vote. This should be required reading for all middle and high school students in government classes. Do you volunteer? This would make an excellent storytelling opportunity for girls in schools. ... What a great family legacy!
A beautiful tribute to your grandmother as well as all the people who had dreams left incomplete. We take for granted for what others have lost their limbs. How sad and unjust! Thank you for putting a focus on a right and a privilege.
Deborah, that's a great idea! I work for a non-profit and do a lot of speaking about human rights, but I don't think I have told this story yet. My oldest son did bring my photo of the Scandinavian Suffrage Association to show his 6th grade history class when they were studying the American suffrage movement last semester. Thanks for reading!

Fusun, as always, thanks for your lovely words!
Great post, Jennifer — rated. A very minor quibble: it's my understanding that pro-suffrage women called themselves "suffragists:" "suffragette" was a belittling term used by the opposition.
Good point, Brunhilde! Thank you for making it. For whatever reason, my grandmother used the term "suffragette", which is why I did as well. Thanks for reading and commenting.
Norway achieved its independence in 1814, and granted women the right to vote in 1913. That's a pretty nice achievement!
I really love this. Wonderfully written, too. I love that you keep that photo in your office.
My mom always took us kids into the voting booth with her. She would point at the levers and let us pull them down. Then she would lift one of us up to help her pull the big handle across. She instilled in us our duty to vote.
Hi dianaani! The Norwegian Constitution was signed May 17, 1814 and that date(Syttende Mai) is celebrated as the national "independence" day after 400 years of dominance by Denmark. But Norway was in a union with Sweden (the other choice was war) and didn't become fully independent until 1905. Finland wins the prize though - 1906 for women's suffrage. Thanks for reading!
Thanks for the great read! [r]
Your ancestors surely handed you down great honor and you certainly have made them proud. I would like to think of this as a story of honor. Beautiful post. R
Your grandmother would be proud....Thanks for sharing the little known details of the front runners of this movement.

___♫♥____Love____ ♥
____♫♥ Happiness ♥♫
Very inspiring. You had a powerful grandma.

I can't help but find the term "suffragette" jarring. I know it's commonly used, but it was originally a slur. The same term applies to any person who advocates for universal voting rights. It is "suffragist." Loved the post anyway.
This was so moving, informative - and important. My friends and some family members in the States laugh when I tell them I cast my vote from here in France, via absentee ballot (only for major elections, since as a non-resident I don't believe I should have a say in local ones). I'm pretty sure those votes end up in the trash. But I do it out of respect for the women - like your grandmother - who fought so hard for the right to vote today. Reading about these other people who still have so much to stand up for in order to cast a vote, just inspires me all the more. Thank you for this post.
Wonderful tribute to your grandmother. Thanks for sharing this story with us.
Beautiful post, thank you for sharing your story.

I am always appalled at the young women in my office who never vote. How can their voices be heard? How long will they stand by and let others make decisions for them?

Thank you -Firechick, profkeck, Thoth, Algis, Sirenita, Alysa, Erika, Witchywmn - for your kind comments and for taking the time to read this post.

Sirenita, I totally agree that "suffragist" is a better term. I'm not sure why my grandmother choose to use the term "suffragette", but that's the term she used so that's why I used it in this post. Thanks for bringing up the point!
Beautiful. Thank you. She probably used "suffragette" because that was the word the British women used, the ones chaining themselves to fences, and throwing rocks, the ones called "militants" by the U.S. It did become a slur here, though. My work is about putting ALL the women back into the suffrage story, not just the "stars" and not just the WASPS-- I didnt know about this at all.
Thank you, Louise, and nice to meet you! What fascinating work you must do. You should check out the archives of the Minnesota Historical Society.
The 19th amendment of 1920 is when full sufferage was granted to all women in the US regardless of which state they lived in. Voting rights for women varied across the US by state before the 19th amendment. Many states had already granted women voting rights well before 1920.

Women in the Wyoming territory gained full voting rights in 1869. Wyoming made women's voting rights a condition of their admission as a state in 1890. The men of Colorado voted to extend full sufferage to women in 1893. Utah granted women full voting rights, then Congress took them away, Utah got them back in 1895. Idaho gave women the vote in 1896.
Women had full sufferage in 13 states west of the Mississippi and 3 east of it in 1920. Another 13 states allowed women to vote in presidential elections.
A great map showing the state of women's voting in 1920,_1920.svg
Fascinating! Thanks so much for your comment and the link to the map.
Thanks so much for sharing this family legacy left to you by your Grandma Lillian and great-grandma, and for the reminder of what it means to be able to vote, or not be allowed to vote. Those amputations you describe are horrific, hard to fathom. Your grandma and great-grandma must be so proud, wherever they may be, that their hopes and dreams live on in you.
I love stories shared by descendants of suffragists. As the granddaughter of a suff, I share stories too about grandmother Edna Kearns and collect tales from other suffrage descendants on my blog: Hop a ride with me on the "Spirit of 1776," Grandmother Edna's suffrage campaign wagon that is expected to be exhibited at the NYS Museum in Albany, NY during 2012's Women's History Month. Making the link between the past and today is so important. Thank you, Jennifer and Grandmother Lillian!
Hi clay ball! Thanks for your kind comments. My grandmother died when I was in college, but I do think she would be proud. My grandfather always gave her credit for my choice to become a human rights lawyer.

Marguerite, that is so cool! Thank you for posting the link. I can't wait to read your blog and learn more about Edna and the suffrage wagon. Thanks for sharing the info about the exhibit!
Thanks for your comment, Rw005g!
VERY inspiring piece. I'll do it for your Grandma Lillian too.

Oh and here's your Valentine's Day gift:
Thank you so much, Beth! Love the ding scene!