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An early view of the University of Texas.
The women's tennis club at the University of Texas.
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Profile: Minnie Fisher Cunningham
Minnie Fisher was born on a plantation near New Waverly, Texas. She was home-schooled by her mother, and her father took her to his political meetings in Huntsville. At age 17 she enrolled at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and earned a degree in pharmacy. She later said that the pay inequities she faced as a young pharmacist "made a suffragette out of me." In 1902 she married attorney Beverly Jean "Bill" Cunningham. The marriage was not a happy one, in part because of her activism but also because of Bill's alcoholism.
In 1914 Cunningham became president of the Galveston Equal Suffrage Association and began to tour the state as a lecturer. In 1915 she became president of the Texas Equal Suffrage Association. She quadrupled the membership. In 1917 she opened a state headquarters in Austin, and spearheaded the drive that culminated in women obtaining the right to vote in state primaries in 1918. She then became a lobbyist in Washington during the push for the Nineteenth Amendment and toured the West during the ratification process. She helped organize the League of Women Voters in 1919. Twenty years later, Eleanor Roosevelt would recall how Cunningham's address at an early league convention had inspired her to take an active part as a citizen.
In 1928, Cunningham became the first Texas woman to run for the U.S. Senate. She finished fifth in a field of six. She worked as an editor for the Texas A&M Extension Service through the 1930s, then took a job in Washington with the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, one of the New Deal agencies. President Roosevelt is credited with giving her the nickname, ""Minnie Fish."
In 1944, Minnie Fish became outraged at Governor Coke Stevenson's plans to lead an anti-Roosevelt delegation to the Democratic National Convention against the wishes of Texas voters. She ran against him in the governor's race, and although she finished a distant second, she prevented his move. Cunningham retired in 1946 but continued to be an active supporter of liberal causes until her death.
Prints and Photographs Collection, Texas State Library and Archives Commission. #1996/36-2.
Jim Ferguson vs. The University of Texas
Governor Jim Ferguson (later known as "Pa" Ferguson) was one of the most colorful, dominant, and controversial figures in the history of Texas politics. In general, he stood for everything that most of the women suffragists were against. A Bell County attorney, he had jumped in the governor's race in 1914 with a "wet" (anti-prohibition) stance. Possessed of a captivating personality and speaking style, he pledged to be "Farmer Jim," a people's governor who would spank the establishment and make the government work for the common man.
He was reelected in 1916 despite rumors that bribery and embezzlement were the way business got done in the Ferguson administration. But the seeds of Ferguson's undoing were already sown. In October 1916, he had declared war on the University of Texas, showing up at a meeting of the UT Board of Regents to demand the firing of several professors he deemed personally objectionable. Ferguson gleefully promised "the biggest bear fight that has ever taken place in the history of the state of Texas." Ferguson considered the university an elitist institution that took money away from the "country boys" at rural schools and at Texas Agricultural & Mechanical College (Texas A&M). As for his justification for firing the professors, he accused them of misdeeds from disloyalty to financial mismanagement to freeloading, then declared, "I don't have to give reasons, I am the Governor of Texas." For much more about Ferguson, see Portraits of Texas Governors.
Austin suffragist Jane Y. McCallum spoke for most in the suffrage movement when she compared Ferguson with Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. With the resignation of one regent in the fall of 1916 and the expiration of the terms of three more in January 1917, Ferguson was able to gain control of the Board of Regents and begin to dismiss faculty members and control spending at will.
Ferguson was right about one thing. The biggest bear fight in the history of Texas was about to take place. And the women suffragists would be in the thick of it.
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