Minnesota’s “Mrs. Peter Oleson is Mrs. Peter Oleson.”

“Mrs. Peter Oleson,” Anna Dickie Olesen

Upon ratification of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote, overnight the electorate doubled and the political landscape changed forever. Here now was a huge community, organized, and finally enfranchised. Because of this the history of women’s first foray into politics is a fascinating tale of evolving gender norms, coalition politics, and renewed activism on the local level. What is sometimes overlooked, though, are the practical issues raised by this sudden shift in American politics. For example, while researching in the Library of Congress’ digital newspaper archives, I came across one “amusing complication from the entry of women into political affairs.”

In the early 20th century it was not uncommon for women to identify with their husband’s full name and so when women started running for public office it raised an interesting question – how should their names be listed? In Minnesota this question was answered when, in 1922, DNC-member “Mrs. Peter Oleson,” Anna Dickie Olesen, announced her candidacy for U.S. Senate. In what would be the state’s first direct election of a senator with a full electorate, it was an open question which name would appear on the ballot. At last, the attorney general stepped in. As reported in The Evening World (“Where Peter Counts,” April 21, 1922, 34):

Mrs. Peter Oleson, wife of a schoolmaster in the little town of Cloquet, plans to oppose Senator Kellogg in his campaign for re-election. The Attorney General has ruled she must make the race as Annie Dickie Oleson. If this ruling is upheld it will prove a serious drawback to Mrs. Oleson. She is well known all over Minnesota as Mrs. Peter Oleson. Minnesota has thousands of Olesons, probably hundreds of Peter Olesons. But Mrs. Peter Oleson is Mrs. Peter Oleson and would be so identified. The other Mrs. Peter Olesons haven’t ventured into public life. … It is a question of a woman’s right to choose and use the name under which she has become best known to the public.

(That’s right, in 1922 “a woman’s right to choose” meant whether she could use the name of her husband on the ballot).

While campaigning in her Ford sedan, Anna Dickie Olesen was soon endorsed by the Minnesota Democratic Party thus making her the first woman to receive such support (although she was not the only one that year). By her own account she had not sought the endorsement but “Now that I am nominated I will do the best I can for the party. It is for the common people I stand, the true democracy of the land.” In a three-way race against incumbent Republican Frank B. Kellogg and Farmer-Laborite Henrik Shipstead, Olesen placed third but not after being thrilled she could “pioneer a trail for women in politics.”

I presume she meant more than the name thing.

Primary Sources

  • “Where Peter Counts,” The Evening World, April 21, 1922, 34.
  • “Woman Nominated for U.S. Senator,” The New York Times, June 21, 1922.

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