Minnie Fisher Cunningham's Organizing Prowess
Minnie Fisher Cunningham became a leader of the Galveston women who wished to improve themselves and their storm-damaged island, and to help some of those less fortunate. Her inclusion in the Wednesday Club and elsewhere was based on her prestige as the wife of an executive in one of Galveston’s most important insurance companies. Minnie chafed at the confines of polite society, believing t
hat full participation in politics was the path women must take to change society, and arguing that “...the American housewife has delegated her legislative right too long.” Minnie Fish learned how to inspire and persuade those who were shy and class-bound with the idea that the only way women could control the well-being of their households and communities was to gain political clout and that the vote was their gateway to power. She was tailoring Jane Addams’ rationale for women’s power to appeal to middle-class, urban, Southern women. As a Southern woman, Minnie already knew that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and she honed her charm and persuasiveness on the women on Galveston Island and the surrounding county. Minnie had the instincts of a politician, nurtured perhaps by watching her father campaign in East Texas. She was gifted and persuasive at speaking both publicly and privately. In The Galveston Equal Suffrage Association (GESA) Minnie Fisher blossomed as a political organizer and propagandist. Working out of her buggy, Minnie not only gave speeches, she also learned how to “clinch” a meeting and convince women to form their own suffrage societies in their hometowns. The GESA continued to raise money and spread propaganda in a conventional way—at its booth at the summer Cotton Carnival and its Opera House entertainments, and by 1914, its membership had grown to 175 women. Still, Minnie yearned for more direct action and less gentility, wishing to take the GESA out of the parlor to the beach where people of all kinds gathered. She failed to clinch the GESA with that goal.
For mentoring and a sympathetic ear, Minnie turned to Annette Finnigan, a Houston heiress, businesswoman, art collector, and suffragist who had with her two sisters founded the Houston Women’s Political Union. Finnigan was president of the Texas Woman Suffrage Association (TWSA), and she recognized Minnie’s talents, her endless capacity for hard work, and her successes in Galveston. With Finnigan’s backing, and a small name change, Minnie was elected president of the Texas Equal Suffrage Association (TESA) in 1915 and held that position until the Nineteenth Amendment was passed. At TESA, Minnie worked on the whole state of Texas as she had Galveston Island. She generated petitions to the legislature, got women to send letters to elected representatives, created publicity at every opportunity so that everybody in Texas would know that the suffragists were pressing for the vote and why. She made speeches and oversaw the creation of TWSA chapters in towns and cities big and small, in Nacogdoches and Palestine, Fort Worth and Houston.
Minnie’s instincts, experience, and energy were a brilliant match with the Winning Plan devised by Carrie Chapman Catt, president-elect of the NAWSA in 1915. The Winning Plan was grassroots organizing envisioned on a grand national scale, simultaneously organizing from the smallest chapter on up, exerting pressure on the elected officials and male voters of each state, and not letting up until a constitutional amendment giving women the vote was passed by every state and by the federal government.
Author: Laura Furman
Photo Credit: Austin History Center