OF ALL THE LABELS THAT MINNIE FISHER CUNNINGHAM ACQUIRED DURING a lifetime in politics, the one that captures her best was bestowed posthumously by Texas Monthly magazine in a December 1999 retrospective on the most important twentieth-century Texans. It profiled Cunningham under the caption ‘Agitator of the Century”1 In the accompanying 1928 photograph she stands with two friends, hatted, gloved, and impeccably ladylike, next to a “Cunningham for US. Senate” sign. By then, she had already led the Texas woman suffrage movement, chaired the Congressional Committee of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, been the first executive secretary of the national League of Women Voters (LWV), and served as resident director of the Woman’s National Democratic Club and acting head of the Women’s Division of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). In the decade that followed, she would become a New Deal activist, director of the “women’s division” of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, and, in the DNC staff’s judgment, the South’s best female political organizer.
Cunningham was part of a remarkable cohort of American women. Born in the 1870s and 1880s, they were only the second generation of women to attend college, and they went on to invent careers as social workers, labor investigators, public health nurses, and settlement house residents. They were the “municipal housekeepers” of the Progressive Era, who prodded city governments to install sanitary sewers, clean up water supplies, and pass pure food and milk ordinances; Cunningham did her part through the Women’s Health Protective Association in Galveston. They took up the languishing woman suffrage crusade by the thousands, transforming it into a mass movement. (p.4) After winning the vote in 1920, they built women’s political organizations, ran (usually against heavy odds) for public office, and pressed against male resistance for party positions. In the 1930s they staffed—and sometimes headed—New Deal relief agencies, carrying forward the reform tradition of the Progressive Era as they helped shape the modern welfare state.2
It is as a middle-class suffragist and women’s advocate that Cunningham is remembered. She entered politics through voluntary associations, and social reform led her into suffrage. After women won the vote she lobbied, as part of the Women’s Joint Congressional Committee, for the Sheppard-Towner and Cable Acts. She counted Carrie Chapman Catt, Julia Lathrop, Emily Newell Blair, and Eleanor Roosevelt among her friends and was part of the Washington, D.C., female political network. But Cunningham also had another identity, as a left-liberal grassroots activist, that cast her in the role of an outsider. This one grew out of her upbringing in rural East Texas where, as a child in the 1890s, she listened to Populist Party orators describe how farmers and workers were economically squeezed and politically ignored. Realizing that the oppression of women could not be disentangled from class and racial exploitation, she fought against the power structure that upheld all three.
This blend of feminism and left politics can appropriately be called “left feminism,” although Cunningham and her female political allies in the 1940s and 1950s did not refer to themselves as feminists.3 By then feminism was firmly associated in the public mind with the National Woman’s Party (NWP) and its decades-long crusade for an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The NWP drew support from middle-class and professional women, and its leadership combined ERA advocacy with a right-wing politics that Cunningham and other left feminists abhorred.4 Although the NWP’s ERA campaign has been portrayed as the link between the suffrage movement and 1960s feminism, the conservatism of NWP leaders fits awkwardly with the left-of-center outlook of the feminists who launched the second women’s movement. Feminist historians thus have urged a réévaluation of the role women on the Left played in maintaining the tradition of women’s political activism between 1920 and 1960.5
Cunningham’s life is evidence of this alternative story, an example of how suffrage activism blossomed into left feminism. As the national women’s movement declined, she devoted herself to helping build a political Left in Texas, becoming the “very heart and soul of Texas liberalism.”6 She ran for governor in 1944 against the anti-New Deal incumbent, explaining to Eleanor Roosevelt that her candidacy was “one part of the great fight which the little people of this state are making all along the line” for New Deal ideals.7 The “little people”—farmers, organized labor, women, and minorities—made up the membership of the left-liberal organizations that Cunningham helped (p.5) found to press for expanded democracy and fundamental social change. The women’s groups in which she worked during the 1940s and 1950s were not national organizations like those of the 1910s, but they used the same tactics: grassroots organizing, publicity campaigns to arouse public opinion, legislative lobbying and monitoring.
As a southerner, Minnie Fisher Cunningham belonged to the generation that grew up while racial discrimination and segregation were being written into law during the late nineteenth century and grew old as the civil rights movement peaked in the twentieth. In the Jim Crow South, liberals like Cunningham were reviled as troublemakers by the conservative, white supremacist cliques whose hold on power had to be continually shored up with racial demagoguery Challenges to racism and sexism exposed the vulnerable seams that held together the political order. Cunningham learned early in her public career that even the mildest expression of racial tolerance gave conservative politicians a weapon with which to beat down reform. In the 1910s the cry was that woman suffrage would bring “Negro domination”; in the 1940s and 1950s it was that civil rights activists were Communist subversives.
The politics of white male supremacy impeded the growth of the southern suffrage movement and kept leaders like Cunningham perpetually on the defensive. As head of the Texas Equal Suffrage Association, she was compelled to sidestep the issue of voting rights for African American women. But she was one of the very few southern presidents to negotiate partial suffrage from a state legislature before 1920, despite white supremacist opposition, and the only one who left documentary evidence of how she succeeded: by taking shrewd advantage of a split in the state Democratic Party. She was also astute enough to keep quiet about the bargain she made with her male allies, allowing them to claim — and historians mistakenly to assume — that suffrage succeeded because the legislators finally recognized the justice of the women’s cause. Her extensive papers from the suffrage years are a window on local organizing and its relationship to the national movement, a subject about which historians know relatively little.8
Racial politics always constricted the space within which southern liberals could act. Cunningham took her opportunities to oppose inequality and racism where she found them, leaving no manifestos and gently criticizing the idealism of northern friends who advocated more forceful confrontation. “To my mind,” she wrote, “the choice lies plainly between doing the work or making the noise.”9 Doing the work meant pragmatic action as an individual. She was a committed and well-liked chair of the LWV’s Negro Problems Committee in the 1920s, and during World War II hired Frances Williams of the NAACP to work with her at the National Defense Advisory Commission’s Civic Contacts Unit. She welcomed and defended the Supreme Court decisions that outlawed segregated schools and struck down the white primary, (p.6) regretting only that white supremacist candidates offered black citizens nothing to vote for.10
Working without noise, she stayed below the radar of the race-baiters, but also largely outside the historical record. Frustratingly incomplete glimpses appear in her correspondence. There is a passing reference to having, with her sister, rescued a black youth from a mob in Galveston, with no hint of the circumstances or at what time during her fourteen-year residence the incident occurred. She mentions having been called names (“only a coward could lose a moment’s sleep over that”) for having spoken at an unidentified conference, apparently with an interracial theme or audience.11 The details are unrecoverable, and there is no way of documenting the full extent to which she may have challenged white supremacy.
Minnie Fisher Cunningham s life illuminates, and at the same time complicates, the story that historians are constructing of women in post-suffrage politics. She was among the few leaders of the woman suffrage movement— at least among those prominent enough to merit an entry in Notable American Women—who went on to become party activists.12 But she does not fit easily into the paradigm that separates into divergent groups women who sought influence within the political parties from those who opted to continue the tradition of nonpartisan pressure group lobbying. Cunningham worked for political change through the Democratic Party, through women’s organizations, and through mixed-gender groups (some of which she founded herself), and at every level, from Washington, D.C., to her home county in Texas. She was partisan and nonpartisan, separate and gender-integrated, and always in motion.
Cunningham’s forty years of activism after gaining the vote illustrates in bold relief the obstacles women encountered in politics, notably the difficulty of winning office and marginalization within the parties. Equally important, her story helps fill in the still-emerging narrative of women’s political activism between the demise of the first women’s movement after 1920 and the rebirth of feminism in the 1960s. Much of women’s struggle to define political roles for themselves after suffrage remains invisible and unrecorded because it has been played out at the local level, where the barriers to participation are lower. “The study of women and politics,” Jo Freeman emphasizes, “is the study of grassroots political activity.”13
Cunningham, who never missed a precinct meeting, would have agreed wholeheartedly. Just as turning a local lens on the Progressive Era has uncovered the social welfare and municipal housekeeping agendas of female reformers, a closer examination of women in state politics may reveal a new paradigm for the post-suffrage era. The central role of Cunningham’s female network in sustaining the liberal wing of the Texas Democratic Party suggests that other stories of women’s grassroots political influence wait to be discovered, (p.7) and historians’ understanding of post-suffrage politics will be incomplete without them.
Cunningham’s experience as part of the first generation of women who ran for Congress after suffrage likewise invites a closer look at female candidates. Little is known about how they campaigned, the opponents they faced, or how audiences responded. Cunningham’s unsuccessful race for the US. Senate suggests that women have been shut out of high elective office not only by sexism and lack of campaign funds but also by ambivalence over adopting the aggressive style and ambition-driven values of male political culture. She faced a dilemma with which women candidates still contend: the gendering of politics and the need to be perceived as “tough” in order to be taken seriously.
Politics was Minnie Fisher Cunningham’s life. She had no children and her unsuccessful marriage is nearly a blank; there are no letters between husband and wife and no domestic confidences to friends. Not given to introspection or even reminiscence, she left no diaries, scrapbooks, or autobiography to illuminate a private self. But the public activist who emerges from her correspondence is combative, forthright, and funny, with a talent for friendship and a gift for motivating others. Cunningham had remarkably little ego; as long as an organization got the work done, her own role, whether as president or untitled strategist, seemed not to matter. Indifferent to building a personal legacy, she always faced forward, toward the next challenge. It never bothered her that the opposition was more numerous and better funded, or that the odds were against her side. What mattered was airing the issues and being part of the fight—and fight was a word she used frequently. She would have been delighted to be memorialized as an agitator.
(1.) Texas Monthly, December 1999: 139.
(2.) On the ‘generation of 1880,” see Susan Ware, Beyond Suffrage: Women and the New Deal (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981).
(3.) Our use of the term “left feminism” is derived from Ellen Carol DuBois, Woman Suffrage and Women’s Rights (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 243.
(4.) Leila Rupp and Verta Taylor, Survival in the Doldrums: The American Women s Movement, 1945 to the 1960s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).
(5.) Ruth Rosen, The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America (New York: Penguin, 2000), 34.
(6.) Chandler Davidson to Harold Smith, 24 February 1998, reporting on his interviews with Texas liberals active prior to 1960.
(7.) MFC to Eleanor Roosevelt, 12 July 1944, box 1717, folder 100, ER Papers, FDR Library.
(8.) Anne Firor Scott, “Epilogue,” in Votes for Women: The Struggle for Woman Suffrage Revisited, ed. Jean H. Baker (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 191.
(9.) MFC to Dorothy Brown, 29 April 1921, box 8, folder 243, Dorothy Kirchwey Brown Papers, SL.
(10.) MFC to J. Frank Dobie, 4 April 1944, box 2P363, Alexander Caswell Ellis Papers, CAH-UT.
(11.) MFC to Jane McCallum, 27 July , box G, McCallum Family Papers, part I, AHC-APL.
(12.) Jo Freeman, A Room at a Time: How Women Entered Party Politics (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), 5, 242 n. 11.