Mary McFadden

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

Mary McFadden was 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, McFadden was born to immigrant Irish 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.”

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. Here’s a romantic view of Duluth she published in the News Tribune in 1907:

Canoe Song

The low song of winds in the pines is atune
To the witching night hour and you;
The lake is asheen in the light of the moon,
And here is a waiting canoe.

Out in the light
Of a summer night,
On the shining inland sea;
Away with you
In my light canoe—
Who would not envy me?

A bonfire flares at Oatka, and gleam
The light points at Allouez bay;
The soul of the night is as bright as a dream,
And the little canoe drifts away.

The low winds croon
Beneath the moon,
And the shadowy pines reply.
Under its beams
On a sea of dreams
We are drifting—you and I.

(from “Sabbath Diversions,” Duluth New Tribune 5.19.1907)

McFadden 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.”

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Story by Heidi Bakk-Hansen. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Heidi Bakk-Hansen.