Minnie Fisher Cunningham

During the twentieth century, Minnie Fisher Cunningham (1882-1964) worked as a leading reformer on women’s issues, including voting rights and equal pay. Born near New Waverly, Texas in southern Walker County, Minnie was raised by her parents, Horatio and Sallie (Abercrombie) Fisher, to be an educated, politically-minded young woman. She earned her state teaching certificate at age sixteen, but chose to further her education at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. In 1901, she became the first woman in Texas to earn her Graduate of Pharmacy degree. She began and ultimately ended her pharmacy career in Huntsville’s downtown drug store, however, where she earned less than half of what her male counterparts made. It was this experience that she credited with “making a suffragette out of me,” and once she married B.J. Cunningham in 1902, her medical career came to an end.

Cunningham first became politically active in local volunteer organizations in Galveston, where she and her husband relocated in 1907. She began her speaking and lobbying career, while volunteering for the Women’s Health Protective Association (WHPA) and helped to found Galveston’s Equal Suffrage Association (GESA). As a delegate of GESA, she participated in the creation of the Texas Woman Suffrage Association (TWSA) and helped link it to the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). In 1915, she was elected president of TWSA, soon called the Texas Equal Suffrage Association (TESA), and it was in that role that she worked for the passage of a state bill that would allow women to vote in political primaries. Although the bill ultimately failed to pass in 1917, Cunningham and her organization used their considerable influence to help impeach the sitting governor of Texas, James E. Ferguson, for corruption. When Ferguson decided to run for governor again, despite being banned from doing so, Cunningham negotiated a deal with State Representative Charles Metcalfe and Governor William Hobby to allow women to vote in the state's primary, promising that the female vote would support Hobby in his bid to remain governor.

Despite her success during the election of 1918, Cunningham and her forces were unable to secure the passage of an amendment to the Texas Constitution that would have allowed women to vote in the state. Cunningham did not give in, however, but instead worked diligently for the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. She was part of the team that convinced Woodrow Wilson to openly support it during World War I, and she actively lobbied the Texas Legislature for immediate ratification in 1919. Following the successful campaign to secure women’s voting rights through the Nineteenth Amendment, Cunningham became the first executive secretary of the League of Women Voters and became active in progressive political causes, joining the Democratic Women’s Advisory Committee at the suggestion of Eleanor Roosevelt. She later became the first woman to run for the Senate in Texas, and though she lost in the primary, she later became the first woman to run for governor as well. In that latter race, she came in second out of nine candidates having been defeated by the incumbent, Coke Stevenson in the primary. She worked tirelessly for the implementation of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies and was late in life a supporter of John F. Kennedy. She died in her hometown in 1964 of heart failure.

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Cheryl Spencer on Minnie Fisher Cunningham
Librarian Cheryl Spencer reads the biography of Minnie Fisher Cunningham. ~ Source: Musings from Sam Houston's Stomping Grounds, Newton Gresham Library, Sam Houston State University
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