Meet some ‘Extraordinary Women’ and find inspiration in new History Center exhibit

28February 2021

Looking for a little inspiration? A little something to make you hopeful? (And who isn’t these days …) The Minnesota Historical Society suggests spending some time with “Extraordinary Women.”

Minnesota History Center exhibit developer Kate Roberts calls the women featured in the museum’s new exhibit “really, really ordinary people who found a passion and went for it.”

“Extraordinary Women,” which opens March 6 at the History Center, builds on an online exhibit from 2020, “Votes for Women,” that celebrated the centennial of women getting the right to vote. The new exhibit looks at women who fought for equal rights before and after 1920 through political activism, education and social justice work.

Here’s how the History Center describes some of the women exhibit visitors can walk among:

  • Nellie Francis, a St. Paul activist whose work for Black rights and woman suffrage reached beyond Minnesota. In 1921, following a sharp rise in lynchings of African Americans after World War I, she wrote and successfully lobbied for the passage of a state anti-lynching bill. Her bill is on display in the exhibit.
  • Ruth Tanbara and her family, who were granted permission to relocate from San Francisco to St. Paul during World War II instead of being sent to a U.S. incarceration camp. Tanbara’s brother, Paul, trained as a Japanese translator at Fort Snelling. Ruth remained in Minnesota and dedicated her life to public service. A painting that celebrates her life is on display in the exhibit.
  • Claire O’Connor, a white woman who joined Minnesota’s Freedom Riders in Mississippi in 1961, where they were arrested for protesting segregation. O’Connor went back to Mississippi in 1964 to register Black voters. Later, she became an educator, advocate and potter. A porcelain plate made by O’Connor, entitled “Our Children, Our Choice,” is on display in the exhibit.
  • Pat Bellanger, White Earth Ojibwe, who helped found the American Indian Movement (AIM). She also co-founded the Red School House in St. Paul, one of several survival schools in the Twin Cities.

There are lifesize drawings of these women and 17 others, along with their stories and artifacts in the physical exhibit, Roberts says. The stories of 22 more “Extraordinary Women” are online at mnhs.org. Due to COVID restrictions, the number of displays had to be smaller to allow for social distancing. Roberts calls it “spacious, but not terribly hands-on.” There’s a QR code at each display so visitors can use their phones to get more information.

“They really take center stage in a primary way,” Roberts said in an interview last week. “People can feel like they’re walking with these women – strolling among them.”

  • Katie McWatt is called “relentless” in her work to defend the Black community in St. Paul against housing and employment discrimination. (Exhibit drawing courtesy MNHS)

  • Nellie Francis was a St. Paul activist who wrote an anti-lynching bill. The bill is on display in the “Extraordinary Women” exhibit. (Photo courtesy MNHS)

  • Ruth Tanbara was a leader in the St. Paul Japanese community. (Photo courtesy MNHS)

  • Claire O’Connor is featured in the Minnesota History Center’s “Extraordinary Women.” She was a Freedom Rider in 1961 and arrested in Jackson, Miss., during a protest. (Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission Photograph)



A media piece in the exhibit is inspirational, Roberts said. “People can come and say, ‘Hey, I can do that, too.’ ”

Students in two honors seminars at St. Catherine University in St. Paul helped with the research. They also contributed to the media piece, with video messages about what the legacy of the suffragist movement means in their lives, Roberts said.

Online resources compiled as part of the “Votes for Women” exhibit last year tell the stories of Minnesota women and their efforts in areas including abolition, treaty rights, fair wages, racial justice, peace, gender equality, child welfare and more – ranging from familiar names such as former Minnesota Secretary of State Joan Growe and Pat Bellanger, co-founder of the American Indian Movement, to early suffragist Ethel Hurd and mother and daughter activist/suffragists Clara and Elsa Ueland.

Exhibit and online visitors will find that the women featured – such as Nellie Francis – rarely fought for just one issue, Roberts said.

The exhibit also has a table with free postcards at a table that seats one or two. The postcards say “You Are Extraordinary” and visitors can take a postcard and mail it to “whoever the exhibit made you think of,” Roberts said.

After the pandemic pushed the History Center’s “Votes for Women” exhibit online last year, the new exhibit was developed after staff considered what they museum might be able to do by this spring. “What can we do, not knowing where we’ll be in March and what people might be ready to see,” Roberts said.

“Extraordinary Women” exhibit

  • When: Opens March 6; hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays.
  • Where: Minnesota History Center, 345 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul
  • Tickets: Admission to “Extraordinary Women” is included with regular History Center admission of $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and college students, $6 ages 5 to 17; free age 4 and younger and MNHS members. Buy tickets online.
  • Info: mnhs.org

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