Mary McFadden

Mary McFadden, from a 1907 image from the Duluth News-Tribune, quality compromised by microfilm conversion. Images of McFadden are rare. (Image: X-Comm)

Along with all the moneymakers who roared into town during the boom times at the turn of the century, there were those who followed the money, eager to live in what was expected to be the next great city—the “Pittsburgh of the North,” say, or even as great as Chicago or New York. Duluth’s central location on the continent, nestled against the greatest of the Great Lakes, made its future the talk of the nation.

In honor of Women’s History Month, let’s take a look at an intrepid young woman who made her way to the Zenith City to find success and fame during those heady times, only to disappear from the collective consciousness within a generation.

In 1874, a little Irish girl named Mary McFadden was born to immigrant parents in New Brunswick, Canada. Within a few years, her parents became pioneers in Graceville, Minnesota, where she grew up. Tragically, when Mary was seventeen her mother died giving birth to her thirteenth child. As had happened to many other young women of her day, Mary seemingly faced years of drudgery as a substitute mother to her siblings, yet a year later she enrolled at the University of Minnesota. While the university has no record of her graduating, by 1898 she was a reporter at the Minneapolis Times and had found work as a stenographer at the state capitol building in St. Paul. Contrary to societal expectations, she remained unmarried.

In 1903, now 28, McFadden headed north to become the first full-time female reporter for the Duluth News-Tribune. But, upon arriving in the Zenith City she was struck down with typhoid, and her career was delayed as she spent months in the hospital flirting with death. Against the odds, she rallied and was released on February 1, 1904.

Her subsequent un-credited reporting on events like the sinking of the Mataafa during the deadly November storm of 1905 was so good that she soon earned a weekly column with a byline, called “Sabbath Diversions.” Its minimizing title belies its wide-ranging impact. The columns were a series of brief comments on the news of the day, interspersed with McFadden’s own and others’ poetry and witty aphorisms. In a way, McFadden was a popular “Tweeter” long before the age of Twitter. Soon enough, her column went daily, and the title changed to “News and Comment,” becoming slightly more serious in its discussion of politics.

It’s probable that these columns were part of her reward for becoming associate editor, and then editor. In an article notifying readers of a trip west “in search of health,” she is described as enjoying “the distinction of being the only woman who has ever been detailed to report the proceedings of the legislature for any metropolitan daily in Minnesota…. When Colonel Flagg, former editor of the [Duluth News Tribune] died last fall, Miss McFadden was appointed editor, and during one of the most bitter campaigns in the history of the state conducted the editorial department and wrote all the editorial leaders….”

There’s Something About Mary

McFadden took advantage of the freedom her columns afforded her, commenting frequently on women’s issues as well as more general politics, especially putting forth a pro-suffrage message. On December 17, 1905, she wrote, “There is some talk of forming a woman suffrage club in this city and masculine protests are vigorous.” This may well have been the beginning of her suffrage activism, which soon became a central focus of her life.

McFadden obviously found her role as a woman in a mostly male profession frustrating, and she didn’t censor herself from commenting upon it. In 1906, she wrote, “As soon as a woman demonstrates that she can sharpen a pencil correctly, she begins to be feared by men.” She frequently challenged the men reading her column to see the folly of opposition to suffrage: “Actions of ‘suffragettes’ have been criticized as unwomanly. Just how a woman can do anything unwomanly isn’t quite clear to the analytic members of the sex.”

But McFadden also displayed hints of her personality, writing that “Women encourage vanity in men, in order that they may be amused at the innocent display of it. Some women have a really wicked sense of humor.”

A poem by Mary McFadden that appeared in her Duluth News-Tribune column. (Image: X-Comm)

Amongst Duluth’s many boosters, McFadden was a central cheerleader, repeatedly extolling the beauty of the region, its citizens’ ready access to wilderness, and even the weather—in all seasons. But she also took the opportunity to chastise litterers and layabouts. And she definitely displayed a conservative bent, worrying about teenaged girls “idling” on Superior Street in the evening, and writing whole columns condemning the “bad manners” of Duluth’s young people, what with their “slang and chewing gum.” She also placed herself in alliance with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, who pushed for the prohibition of alcohol.

Other than suffrage, McFadden notably championed the fight against the tonnage tax,—instrumental in the creation of the Minnesota Steel Plant and Morgan Park, which J. P. Morgan’s U.S. Steel built to avoid paying the tax. She felt the tax placed an undue burden on the regional iron ore industry.

McFadden’s love of nature is a primary focus in her writing. Her verse is almost entirely focused on natural subjects, and she wrote an extensive feature article about the wonders of the new Itasca State Park, in which she waxed poetic about majestic trees, deer and beaver. But in a jarring aside to a modern environmentalist eye, she advocated for the extermination of “obnoxious animals” like foxes, wolves, and mink, who “are seldom seen and of little interest to people.”

That’s Suffragist; Not Suffragette

By 1909, in addition to Mary McFadden’s duties as a Duluth News-Tribune editorial writer, she had become a leading lobbyist in the state legislature and also served on the board of the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association (MWSA) as the legislative committee chairman. That same year she achieved one of the few victories leaders of the suffrage movement could point to, gaining support for their cause from the State Editorial Association.

One can imagine the smoky room of grandly bewhiskered fellows, grumbling as they granted this mere woman their “generous” time of five or six minutes. She rose to the occasion with an eloquent and lengthy speech, including this choice quote:

Some of you have said that you are in favor of suffrage when the women want it. What women? I am here representing women—wives and mothers, teachers and working women, professional women and artists, useful citizens—and we want the right to vote! I might say in passing that we do not advocate compulsory voting, and no shrinking woman will be torn from the strong and protecting arms of her husband and forced into a booth to cast a ballot, even if we are successful in winning the right….

After McFadden was finished, one of the newspapermen made a motion for approval, and the vote was unanimously in favor of suffrage for women, which brought enthusiastic applause. But the victory could not go without a cringe-worthy comment by Mr. H. C. Miller of the St. Peter Free Press, who said, “The vote upon this motion was announced as being unanimous and I was just wondering whether this proposition will be supported so unanimously when the editors get home!” This quip garnered him much laughter, to which the president of the association answered, “That is beyond our jurisdiction.”

For the next few years, McFadden graced numerous stages across Minnesota, giving speeches and organizing fundraisers and petition drives. In 1910, she shared the annual Chautauqua stage in Akely with Charles A. Lindbergh, Sr.. (Notably, the speech didn’t take place on “Women’s Day” but on “Market Day”—Saturday, when her audience would be greater.)

Wherever suffrage was to be debated in the region, McFadden was there, supporting the prevailing idea amongst her fellow activists that they needed to “be spectacular, which is possible without being outlandish.” She frequently voiced her belief that radical actions taken by a new age of suffragists—such as chaining themselves to gates—were out of bounds, and unnecessary in the United States.

McFadden’s tireless campaigning did not win the day, however, and suffrage in Minnesota continued to be elusive. In 1911, women failed to gain the vote because two state senators refused to yield.

Grabbing the Bully Pulpit

It’s unclear when McFadden finally moved away from Duluth. Some sources claim it was as late as 1914, but it’s clear she was rarely present in her Duluth boarding house during the time she worked the legislative beat as either a writer, lobbyist or suffragist. She doesn’t appear in the 1911–1912 Duluth city directory. In 1912, the “Duluth Girl” became the editor and owner of her very own magazine, The Courant, noting within its pages that her home was now St. Paul.

The Courant was at the time an organizational mouthpiece of the Northwest’s women’s club movement. It began in 1899 as a weekly Minneapolis rag publishing art, literature and current events. By the time Mary McFadden stepped forward to save the magazine from financial ruin, it was a monthly.

McFadden’s new leadership transformed it into a seasonal propaganda arm of the regional suffragist movement, which did not go without some critical comment from its readers. But she was undaunted, declaring from the very first page in the Thanksgiving edition of 1912 that “its editor was born of suffragist parents and drank in the spirit of liberty in infancy.”

The congratulatory letters for her success rolled in from fellow Minnesota newspaper editors. The Mesaba Ore wrote, “… She has already too long wasted her time, efforts and ability working for other people. Besides, she will fit in better as a ‘country editor’ than she did as a daily scribe—though she has always seemed to be one of them.” Even Duluth, Missabe & Northern Railway president William A. McGonagle sent her a note, endorsing the magazine with a subscription.

From her first issue, McFadden reveled in her now unfettered authorship. She reprinted her poetry on the inside cover, and reprised her “News and Comment” column. She offered her privately printed book of poetry, “Rhymes of the Trail and Road” for sale, and even reprinted her feature on Itasca State Park.

In the magazine’s editorial pages, she came out strongly for a living wage for women and against “white slavery.” She lamented the new generation of suffragists and their disregard for the traditions of the old guard. And she echoed a common refrain amongst suffragists, who declared the unfairness of “ignorant black men” being given the right to vote, and thus making them the superiors of educated white women. McFadden was not immune to the grossly mistaken ideas of her time, supporting the idea of miscegenation laws—she felt the marriage restrictions were “for the good of both races”—and the forced sterilization of the “mentally unfit.” International politics didn’t escape her pen either, as she advocated Irish Home Rule.

The Courant stopped publishing in 1914. Perhaps it was because of McFadden’s strength of opinion and subsequent loss of readership, or perhaps it was her advertising policy, which disallowed ads from patent medicine hawkers or businesses that didn’t pay a living wage to women. In any case, McFadden moved on.

Mary Goes to War, Takes on Manhattan

This purse was stolen from Mary McFadden in 1909. it was found in 1989 and is now part of the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society (Image: Heidi Bakk-Hansen and the State Historical Society)In 1915, just as the suffrage movement in America was really heating up, Mary McFadden went to Europe as an independent war correspondent for six months. She sent back dispatches on the state of women’s lives in Belgium and Germany, and reportedly met up with the Irish Brigade, which was training in Germany for the impending 1916 uprising.

On December 6 of that year, McFadden sent a letter to her sister, saying she’d be home for Christmas. Instead, she disappeared for the next seven weeks, out of all contact with newspapers and relatives. Local papers anxiously reported that she was considered “missing.” She turned up soon enough, dismissing people’s concerns, and saying little of what she’d been up to. She arrived by ship back in New York City on February 9, 1916, saying she’d stay a while and then return to St. Paul.

That stay in New York must have made quite an impact, because between 1916 and 1920 Mary picked up stakes and moved to New York City to become a freelance writer and a poet. She published a few articles in publications like Scientific American, and her poetry was published in various professional journals,including the International Journal of Medicine and Surgery. Mostly, however, she dropped off the radar into the bohemian world of Greenwich Village. When she died of a heart attack in 1944, the New York Times and newspapers from the Twin Cities and Duluth noted the loss only briefly, mentioning that she was a “nationally known newspaper writer of three decades ago” who was “active in the tonnage-tax fight” and “took a prominent part in the campaign for women’s suffrage.”

Most of what we know about McFadden’s later life only comes to us because of a freak incident that started in 1909 and ended in 1989. While she was on a pre-campaign train journey in Spokane, Washington, with Minnesota Governor and presidential hopeful John A. Johnson, her purse was stolen. No fuss was made, and no reports came to light at the time. But in 1989, a woman looking for her cat inside the wall of a Spokane carriage house found it stuffed beside a chimney. The finder researched its origins and tracked down a descendant of McFadden’s. That descendant donated the purse to the Minnesota Historical Society.

The purse is a perfectly preserved Mary McFadden time capsule, including bank receipts, telegrams, boldly penciled notes, and small, carefully clipped pieces of newsprint containing stories with her as the subject:

“It is reported that Mary McFadden has resigned her position on the Duluth News Tribune, again, and that she will leave the state. Don’t believe it. Mary, like all of her sex, gets the pouts now and then and quits, and then when she “gets over bein’ mad” she gathers up the shears, paste pot and pencil and begins grinding out better stuff than ever. Mary’ll stay, because this end of the state belongs to her and she can’t find anything else like it anywhere in the Union. A newspaper woman that’s a right good fellow is a scarcity in the business and Mary fills the bill.”

“Is Mary McFadden taking a vacation, has she quit the Duluth News Tribune, or what is the matter with the Zenith City newspaper? Whenever Miss McFadden is not on the job in the N.T. office the editorial page of that paper is even as bread without salt—and there’s been nothing saline about it lately.”

“The press of the state is wondering if the News-Tribune has said ‘so long Mary’ to Miss McFadden, whose name has adorned the News and Comment column in Duluth’s excellent morning paper for these many months. The newspaper boys don’t want to lose sight of Mary.”

McFadden never noted from which papers the stories were clipped, even though they were obviously important enough to her to keep them tucked close by at all times. Whether she did this for her own bemusement or encouragement it is impossible to tell, but knowing what we do know about Mary McFadden, it isn’t hard to surmise that it was more than likely both.

Story by Heidi Bakk-Hansen; originally appeared on Zenith City Online March, 2013.



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