Persistence Exhibition: Mary Younkin

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

Artist: Mary Younkin

Chosen Suffrage Leader: Myrtle Cain


Artist Statement

My paintings stare back at you, they invite you to revel in their stillness, like a moment captured. They are observed objects and they also become observers, reflecting back our own vulnerabilities and relationships.

I am obsessed with interpreting things around me, collecting and arranging objects and transforming subjects with implicit authority. Paintings of personal talisman, interior spaces, and portraiture reflect a personal feminist narrative. Each painting is a lens into a scene.

This portrait of Myrtle Cain, aka “the flapper legislator” reimagines an image of her as a confident woman walking down the street. Perhaps this is the street she walked down after standing up to the KKK by passing a bill making it a misdemeanor for people to hide their identity in public. Maybe she is thinking about her advocacy for equal rights. By imbuing a black and white image of Myrtle with a contemporary and vibrant color palette, the painting contemplates what her presence would be like in today’s climate.


Myrtle Cain, 1924. “The youngest woman legislator in the country, Farmer-Labor Rep. in the Minn. Legislature, who is in Wash. to secure pledges from the progressives in Congress to vote for the equal rights amendment.”

Myrtle Cain Biography

Myrtle Cain was one of the first four women elected to the Minnesota legislature. She was born in Minneapolis to Irish immigrant parents and spent her entire life in Minneapolis She worked actively for suffrage, and then, equal rights for women, and rights for women in the trades. She served one two-year term in the Minnesota House of Representatives, right after the 19th amendment was ratified. During that term, she wrote Minnesota’s anti-Klan law, which passed, and introduced a Women’s Bill of Rights, legislation promoted by the National Woman’s Party. It did not pass. She was defeated in her re-election bid by nine votes. She remained politically active, though, and in 1926 she and three other representatives from the NWP lobbied President Coolidge in favor of a federal equal rights amendment.

Cain was president of the Women’s Trade Union of Minneapolis and led a strike with the Telephone Operator’s Union in 1918. She was a member of the Women’s Trade Union League of Minneapolis, and the National Women’s Party. Towards the end of her life, she worked on Eugene McCarthy’s staff in Minnesota. McCarthy was a key sponsor of the Equal Rights Amendment proposed in 1970, and some people noticed the similarity between the ERA amendment and the original proposal Cain made in Minnesota.

When Cain took her seat in the Minnesota House, she was dubbed the “Flapper Legislator” by the press, because she was young, stylish, and wore her bobbed hair in the current style. No doubt they trivialized her to weaken her, portraying her as witless. Governor Theodore Christiansen, who served with Cain in the Legislature, however, characterized her as “a quiet and painstaking worker who shunned the limelight consistently.”

In 1970, when the ERA had been passed by the Congress and sent to the states, Cain was interviewed and had this to say about eliminating discrimination: “It’s most important to eliminate discrimination in the law. So many states discriminate against women on the basis of common law that it would take several lifetimes to take the cases on one at a time.”

In 1973 the Minnesota House and Senate voted to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. As Minnesota became the 26th state to ratify ERA, Myrtle Cain was there as a special guest of the legislature. She called the opposition’s claim that it needed more time to study the possible side effects “ridiculous.” Senator Allan Spear (DFL) pointed out that Cain had first introduced the bill in the house in 1923. He challenged the senators who wanted to postpone action to “look Myrtle Cain in the eye and tell her we haven’t had enough time to study it.”

There was a strong push nationwide to ratify the ERA between 1972 and 1982. Congress passed the amendment in 1972 and it was sent to the states for ratification. Three-fourths (38) states were needed to ratify the amendment. Unlike other proposed constitutional amendments, ERA included a deadline of March 22, 1979, for states to consider ratification. Only 35 states ratified ERA. The amendment has been reintroduced into Congress every year since 1982.

The fight to pass the Equal Rights Amendment has taken on new life with the three state strategy, with nationwide organizing to try to get the necessary 38 states to ratify. In 2017 Nevada ratified ERA and in 2018 Illinois followed suit. However, four states have rescinded their earlier ratification. If another state ratifies the amendment, and if Congress repeals the original deadline, the case will still probably end up in court.

Women in Minnesota have been part of this national effort. Betty Folliard founded ERA Minnesota in 2014. The goals of this organization are to get an equal rights amendment to the state constitution put on the ballot and to memorialize Congress to lift the deadline for ratifying the federal amendment. Once again, women in Minnesota are educating, lobbying, and rallying in their quest for greater equality.

The amendment to the Minnesota constitution was introduced in both the House and Senate in the 2019 session. The text of the amendment reads: Equality under the law shall not be abridged or denied on account of gender.

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