Persistence Exhibition: Lesley Walton

Persistence: Continuing the Struggle for Suffrage and Equality, 1830-2020

Artist: Lesley Walton

Chosen Suffrage Leaders:
Katie McWatt
Sylvie Thygeson

About the artwork for Katie McWatt:
About the artwork for Sylvie Thygeson:

Artist Statement

My main focus as an artist is portraiture. When I see a face I see an inner beauty that intrigues me and I begin to wonder about their story.  I strive to bring all that out through my artwork to create a connection between the subjects I draw and the individuals who view my work.  Whether working from life or from photographs of days gone by, my drawings are technically accurate renditions with an emphasis on each individual’s spirit.  And even though each viewer will feel or take away something different, I hope they can see beyond just a portrait and feel something impactful.

Upon hearing of this exhibition I instantly knew I wanted to be part of something so important and relevant even yet today.  I feel it’s important to pay tribute to these amazing Minnesota women who believed and fought for what was right, despite the many barriers they must have endured.  And in today’s political climate women’s rights are still being challenged, this exhibition celebrates 100 years of women’s rights; let’s not erase history and all that these amazing women accomplished throughout the years.

Artist Statement: Katie McWatt Portrait

I’m very proud and honored to represent Katie McWatt for this exhibition.  I believe that Katie embodies “Persistence” through her tireless effort toward making positive change in her lifetime.  Growing up in Minneapolis, Katie experienced racism early as a first grader who was the only African American in her elementary school.  Her parents and Grandmother helped her overcome threats she received with love and support.  Katie and persevered through her desire to change the way the world works.  In 1964, frustrated by the housing discrimination in the City of St. Paul, Katie McWatt decided to run for City Council.  This was a difficult task during the time period, not just being a female, but even more of a challenge as an African American female.  Although she was not elected, her advocacy on behalf of African American people grew even more.

In my research for this exhibit I was disturbed that the tireless work so many women gave throughout the years is now being threatened in our current culture—how can we allow this?  Why is everything Katie fought so hard against still an issue?  Her story should never be forgotten, and the fight for equal rights still needs attention now more than ever.  I admire Katie so much for all she stood up for and for all those she stood up to—she fought a good fight for the community that she loved so dearly.  Just prior to her death in 2010, she told her friend Josie Johnson, “I want my people to know I loved them and I loved doing the things I did for them.”  I want people to look at my drawing of Katie and see her beauty and the powerful love she carried with her throughout her lifetime for people.

Artist Statement: Sylvie Thygeson Portrait

I’m very proud and honored to represent Sylvie Thygeson for this exhibition.  I am so impressed with Sylvie, not just because she was an early pioneer in Suffrage with the Women’s Welfare League, founded in St. Paul in 1912—but her fearless commitment to do what was right and impactful for her generation and future generations to come.  She defied the law just before 1917 taking on birth control, which at the time was illegal to even discuss.  She fought so hard for the Suffrage movement and then risking arrest fought for the right for women to practice birth control.  Her story hit me immediately when I realized that this is all being threatened with our current culture and administration—her work and story shouldn’t be lost or forgotten.  Oh, and then there is her face, that beautiful face that spoke to me.  I hope my art conveys her spirit through every pencil stroke used to draw her beauty shaped by over 100 meaningful years of life.

Lesley Walton Biography

Lesley Walton is an artist living and working in St. Paul, MN who specializes in drawings and paintings. Her focus is creating portraiture that allows her to express her love of people and their character seen through a single expression.Lesley’s graphite pencil portraits are drawn not only to provide an accurate rendition of each subject—but to also capture their spirit and soul. Her paintings are colorful, fun, and bold concentrating on nostalgic times. Reinventing black and white snapshots from years past with colors that make each personality come to life as she sees them.
Lesley attended the Cleveland Institute of Art while living in Ohio—concentrating on painting, drawing, and silversmithing. Her work has won numerous awards and has been featured in multiple publications including The New Creative Artist, a book by Nita Leland, and the May 2014 issue of Minnesota Women’s Press magazine that not only highlighted her work on the cover, but also included an artist interview with Lesley.

Kathleen “Katie” Curry  McWatt Biography

In 1964, frustrated by the amount of housing discrimination in the City of St. Paul, Katie McWatt decided to run for City Council. She was unsuccessful in this bid for elective office, but this became a blip in her lifetime of activism and advocacy on behalf of African American people.

Born in 1931, Katie grew up in Minneapolis and was a graduate of Minneapolis public schools. As a first-grader, and the only African American child in her school, she was followed home by a group of white children who threatened to lynch her. With the support of her parents and grandmother (who told her she would make “chicken soup” out of them someday), she overcame this, and found in herself the desire to change the way the world worked.

After earning a B.A. in Speech from the University of Minnesota, she went on to the University of North Dakota, studying Counseling and Guidance. This led her to her lifetime of activism, which included stints at the St. Paul Chapter of the Urban League, and 17 years at Central High School, where she worked primarily with minority students, encouraging them to stay in school, and providing mentoring. Katie was a board member of the St. Paul Chapter of the NAACP. She was an excellent and energizing speaker, leaving her audiences eager to find a place for them in whatever project she was currently championing.

She fought discrimination through all means available to her. She was not afraid to take direct action, as when she donned a hard hat and jumped into a construction ditch on a city sewer project, to protest the lack of black workers on the project. One of her last battles was to increase the number of stations on the Central Corridor (Green Line) light rail project in St. Paul. Her thinking was that with miles between stations, individuals in the neighborhoods immediately adjacent to the line would be disadvantaged, as if the system was not designed to serve them. An action against General Mills corporate hiring practices found her and others dumping large quantities of the company’s products on its front lawn in Golden Valley. This led the company to change its hiring practices and diversify their workforce.

Just prior to her death in 2010, she told friend Josie Johnson, “I want my people to know I loved them and I loved doing the things I did for them.”

Sylvie Thygeson Biography

Sylvie Thygeson came to suffrage through the Woman’s Welfare League, an organization founded in St. Paul in 1912. She was also involved with an early—and illegal—birth control clinic. A lot of her suffrage work was in small groups, not at big events, but that work was also important in building support for the cause.

Thygeson grew up in a large, white-collar family in a small town in Illinois.   Her father was a small-town lawyer with few clients. Her mother married at 15 and raised eight children. Thygeson credited her parents with encouraging their children to be open-minded and value learning. Thygeson’s mother was interested in woman suffrage, but had little spare time. She loved reading the classics; sometimes dinner was late because of it. Thygeson’s father read the Chicago newspaper and discussed what was going on in the world with the children. The children all did well in school, which Thygeson said helped them survive being different in a small town: their parents were atheists.

Thygeson’s father died when she was 16. After the funeral, her uncle took her back to  St. Louis to live with his family. He was an appellate court judge, and in the two years she lived there, Thygeson learned shorthand and typing to help him with his legal papers and opinions. She looked back at those years as her intellectual and cultural awakening.

After two years, Thygeson was reunited with her mother and some of her siblings in St. Paul, where she got a job as a stenographer. It was after she married that she became interested in social problems and got involved in suffrage through the Woman’s Welfare League. This organization was formed to “protect the interests and promote the welfare of women” and was a major organization working for woman suffrage in St. Paul. It was affiliated with the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association.

As a member of the Welfare League, Thygeson found her niche talking to small groups of women at neighborhood teas. This kind of activity doesn’t leave much trace in the historical record, but it shows there were many ways to be involved in suffrage work that didn’t include speaking in public or organizing large events. Thygeson saw her work as educating people about suffrage, one on one, and was rather modest about her contribution when interviewed in 1972 at age 104.

“I had no feeling that I was important in any way. We just met. It was a very nice, interesting social time for meeting people and enjoying ourselves. I don’t remember anything but being very happy about it and feeling that when I went out and spent an afternoon that it was worthwhile. It was what I could do. I couldn’t have gone out on the lecture stage.”
Oral history interview

She also acted as hostess for visiting speakers. The Woman’s Welfare League gave luncheons for a hundred women on Saturdays and would bring in speakers from out-of-town. Many speakers were prominent people like Sara Bard Field, a nationally-known suffragist from the West Coast who had worked on suffrage campaigns in Oregon, Nevada, and California.

“I toted her around. I had a seven-passenger Cadillac car. I toted all the suffrage people around from one place to another. Then we had big banquets. There might be a hundred persons at the banquet.”
Oral history interview

Thygeson’s other cause was birth control. At that time it was illegal to share or even possess information on birth control. She and two friends, Alice Bacon and Grace Keller, established a birth control clinic in St. Paul. They were risking arrest or other legal consequences by taking this step. Looking back on this as an old lady, she said that their husband’s prominence in the community as professional men meant that the authorities would leave them alone.

“I was written up editorially, written up detrimentally as being the head of the birth control movement. As long as my husband didn’t mind it I didn’t mind it. They couldn’t say anything really bad. They wouldn’t have done it on account of my husband’s prominence. I didn’t have anything to fear. I had no social position I was wrecking.”
Oral history interview

Sylvie Thygeson was president of the Minnesota Birth Control League sometime just before 1917, even though birth control was illegal at the time. Following the winning of suffrage for women, many of the leaders of the suffrage movement took on birth control as their next important issue. To that end, they formed the Motherhood Protection League (MPL). This was a little bit of a problem, given that birth control was not entirely legal in the United States yet. The 1873 Comstock Act made it illegal to send birth control information or supplies through the mail or to import a contraceptive device. Many states, Minnesota included, had similar laws.

There was one loophole: doctors could prescribe contraception for the cure or prevention of disease, making contraception accessible to privileged women with private doctors, but certainly not to poor or working class women. In 1931, MPL brought a petition to the Minnesota Council of Social Agencies asking the board to allow the distribution of birth control information to women in need of it. The Council tabled the petition without comment.

After failing to convince any social service agencies to create a birth control clinic, the renamed Minnesota Birth Control League (MBCL) opened its own clinic in the fall of 1931 quietly, with one physician, a nurse, and a secretary. Three-quarters of the clinic’s patients were referred by social service agencies, and many came by word-of-mouth. Because of the times, the clinic only accepted married women who were living with their husbands as patients. The clinic was supported entirely by the MBCL.

By 1935, Minnesota had four clinics: two in Minneapolis, one in St. Paul, and one in Rochester. Despite the need, MBCL had difficulty keeping its clinics in business, due to the fact that the Catholic Church consistently blocked efforts to get charitable contributions through the local Community Chest. MBCL, therefore, raised the money it needed to fund the clinics year after year. In 1935, Archbishop Murray ordered all Catholics in the Archdiocese to withdraw their membership from any birth control or sterilization group or face excommunication. This opposition continues.

In 1936, the illegality of birth control devices began to life when a federal court decision United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries allowed the devices to be imported into the country. By 1937, the American Medical Association recognized contraception as “legitimate medical practice.” This may have taken much longer to happen had it not been for a group of suffragists who took on what they considered to be the next logical step in female emancipation. Planned Parenthood, the successor to the MCBL, today faces many of the same issues that earlier clinics faced.

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