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Polar explorer Ann Bancroft, Judy Garland and Ilhan Omar among influential women on Minnesota list

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 8/14/2020 Lisa Schwartz, St. Cloud Times
10 influential women in Minnesota’s history © USA TODAY Network illustration 10 influential women in Minnesota’s history

There are Minnesota women alive today whose grandmothers were born with no right to vote. These women’s mothers needed a husband’s or father’s signature to obtain credit or permission to take a job. And their daughters still fight for pay equity.

And yet, Minnesota women have spent the 100 years since the 19th Amendment codified their right to vote in exceptional ways: They hold jobs outside the home at among the highest rate in the nation. They earn more associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees than their male counterparts, and they are running for -- and winning -- political offices at an increasing pace.

A century on from the historic suffrage amendment, America is taking stock of women’s contributions in setting the course of our nation. To mark the milestone, the USA TODAY Network has named 10 women from each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia as Women of the Century.

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The nominees came from expert panels and the public. You will know some of their names. You probably won’t know others – and that’s part of the point, to surface the achievements of women who have broken barriers in business, science, civil rights, the arts, education, law, entertainment, media, politics, sports and philanthropy. Not all of the honorees have lived perfect lives, but all have made significant achievements in their sphere of influence.

Minnesota’s corps of women of substance is large – 10 is not enough. Some of the state’s most accomplished women didn’t quite make it to the top 10, or didn’t qualify for another reason: they died before 1920, when the 19th Amendment was ratified, their accomplishments were achieved as part of a larger group, or they were born in or spent much of their lives in another state.

 Among the contenders: astronaut Karen Nyberg, who has spent 180 days of her life off-planet; Eugenie Anderson, the first female U.S. ambassador; Patty Berg, golf pioneer and LPGA founding president; Patty Wetterling, child-safety advocate; Mary Gibbs, conservationist and the first woman state park superintendent in the nation (also the youngest) who faced down a gang of loggers to save Itasca State Park; and the Willmar 8, who risked their jobs, community and family relationships to stand up for equal pay in 1977, a campaign that put them on picket lines for two years – sometimes in 70-below-zero wind chills.

Minnesota’s USA TODAY Network Women of the Century embody each of them, representing the spectrum of excellence and influence of Minnesota women.

Ann Bancroft

Athlete

(1955- )

Ann Bancroft posing for the camera © Photo: IVAN SEKRETAREV, AP, Illustration: USA TODAY Network Ann Bancroft

Born in Mendota Heights, raised in West St. Paul and her adventurous spirit nurtured on the edge of the million acres of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Ely, explorer Ann Bancroft’s life and achievements are intertwined with Minnesota.

In 1993, Bancroft led three other women on the American Women’s Expedition to the South Pole. Traveling on skis, their journey took 67 days and covered more than 650 miles. On that trip, Bancroft became the first woman to reach both poles “across the ice” — on skis, foot or dogsled. In 2001, she teamed up with Norway’s Liv Arneson to become the first women to ski across Antarctica, a 94-day trip. Those accomplishments were built on the experiences of her 1986 journey as part of fellow Minnesotan Will Steger’s dogsled expedition to the North Pole, making her the first woman known to have reached the North Pole across the ice.

Her explorations did not stop at the poles, however. In December 2016, she led an all-woman crew on a source-to-sea expedition of India’s Ganges River. She founded the Ann Bancroft Foundation in 1991 to inspire girls and women to reach further. A member of the National Women’s Hall of Fame, she has also been a Ms. Magazine and Glamour Magazine Woman of the Year and was featured in the 1998 book “Remarkable Women of the 20th Century.”

Coya Knutson

Politician

(1912-1996)

The daughter of immigrants, Coya Knutson’s political career grew out of her work on behalf of farmers during World War II.

A teacher, wife and mother, she became active in community affairs and won a Minnesota House of Representatives seat in 1950. Four years later, in defiance of party leaders and her husband’s wishes, she ran for Congress and defeated a six-term incumbent to become Minnesota’s first woman in Congress. In Washington, she fought for farm price supports and championed education as the nation’s top priority.

But in 1958, Knutson’s husband endorsed a primary challenger. He released a letter to the national press asking his wife not to run for re-election (some say at the prompting of state party leaders, others say those party leaders actually wrote the letter): “Coya, I want you to tell the people of the 9th District this Sunday that you are through in politics. That you want to go home and make a home for your husband and son. As your husband I compel you to do this. I'm tired of being torn apart from my family. I'm sick and tired of having you run around with other men all the time and not your husband. I love you, honey.” The letter launched an opposition campaign slogan – “Coya, Come Home!” She was defeated in 1958 by 1,390 votes.

LaVerne, Maxine and Patty Andrews

Vocal group

(1911-1967; 1916-1995; 1918-2013)

a vintage photo of Patty Andrews, Patty Andrews, LaVerne Andrews posing for the camera: The Andrews Sisters: Maxene, Patty and LaVerne. © Photo: Associated Press, Illustration: USA TODAY Network The Andrews Sisters: Maxene, Patty and LaVerne.

The iconic voices of wartime America, The Andrews Sisters were among the most successful vocal groups of the 20th century. Their wholesome image and close harmonies not only helped sell an estimated 100 million records, but they are widely credited with aiding the war effort by boosting morale on the fronts and homefronts alike.

The Andrews Sisters hit the singles charts 113 times between 1938 and 1951. Their optimistic, cheerful style propelled them to their highest success during the World War II years. Their signature hits were “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” and “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me).” “Strip Polka” hit the top 10 in 1942, "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive" made the top 10 in 1945 and “Pistol Packin’ Mama” sold more than a million records in 1943. They launched the “Eight To The Bar Ranch” radio show on the ABC network in 1944 and appeared in 17 studio films.

Joan Kroc

Philanthropist 

(1928-2003)

a person looking at the camera: Joan Kroc © Photo: Lenny Ignelzi, AP, Illustration: USA Today Network Joan Kroc

Born in West St. Paul, Joan Kroc met McDonald’s mogul Ray Kroc while playing the organ at the Criterion in St. Paul in 1957. They crossed paths again at a corporate conference in 1969, eventually divorced their spouses and entered a marriage that would last until Ray Kroc’s death in 1984.

Her philanthropy included not only major gifts to medical research, the Salvation Army, nuclear disarmament efforts and hospice centers in California, but a $15 million gift to the cities of Grand Forks, North Dakota, and East Grand Forks, Minnesota, after devastating flooding in 1997. (She intended the gift to be anonymous, but the source of the relief was quickly leaked.) She left a $225 million bequest to National Public Radio, $50 million each to the University of San Diego’s Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice and the University of Notre Dame’s Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, $10 million to the San Diego Zoo and $1.5 billion to the Salvation Army. 

Peggy Flanagan

Politician

(1979- )

Peggy Flanagan wearing glasses and smiling at the camera © Photo: Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY, Illustration: USA TODAY Network Peggy Flanagan

When Peggy Flanagan was elected Minnesota’s 50th lieutenant governor in 2018, she became only the second Native American woman to be elected to a statewide executive office in U.S. history.

A member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, she rose to the executive position after training political activists with Wellstone Action, leading the Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota and serving in the Minnesota House of Representatives from 2015-2018. In 2016, she became the first Native woman to address the Democratic National Convention from the podium as an official speaker. Her work has included a successful drive to raise Minnesota’s minimum wage, service on the Minneapolis School Board and organizing urban Native Americans in the Twin Cities.

Leeann Chin

Entrepreneur

(1933-2010)

a person posing for a photo: Leeann Chin © Photo: Minnesota State Historical Society, Illustration: USA Today Network Leeann Chin

Born in China, Leeann Chin immigrated to the United States in 1956 and settled in Minnesota where her entrepreneurship took root and blossomed. Working as a seamstress and selling clothing out of her South Minneapolis home, she hosted dinner parties for customers — which led to requests for cooking classes, then catering. Food, not fashion, is where her future unfolded.

She launched her first Leeann Chin pan-Asian restaurant in Minnetonka in 1980, followed by a second and third location in 1984, reportedly backed financially by Sean Connery and Robert Redford. The following year, General Mills bought the business name and restaurants, keeping control for 3 years until she regained it. By the time she retired in 1999, the chain had more than 40 locations with more than 50 locations today.

She hosted cooking shows with her daughter, including “Double Happiness” on PBS and “My Country My Kitchen – Eat Drink Mother Daughter” on the Food Network in addition to penning cookbooks including “Everyday Chinese Cooking,” “Betty Crocker’s Chinese Cookbook, Recipes by Leeann Chin,” and “Betty Crocker’s New Chinese Cookbook, Recipes by Leeann Chin.” Chin supported the Children's Cancer Research Fund and Organization of Chinese Americans.

Amy Klobuchar

U.S. senator

(1960- )

Amy Klobuchar posing for the camera © Photo: Olivia Sun, Des Moines Register, Illustration: USA TODAY Network Amy Klobuchar

A native of Plymouth, Amy Klobuchar graduated from Yale and the University of Chicago Law School. Early in her career, she attained partnerships in two Twin Cities law firms and eventually became Minnesota's first elected female U.S. senator.

She ran successfully for Hennepin County prosecutor to lead criminal cases in the state’s largest urban area, producing a prosecutorial record that later came under scrutiny during her future political campaigns. Klobuchar said she was motivated to seek public office after she was sent home from a hospital just 24 hours after giving birth. She testified before the Minnesota Legislature to advocate for 48 hours, which eventually became Minnesota and federal law, changing the birth circumstances of millions of Americans.

She was elected as Minnesota’s first female senator in 2006, earning recognition as a legislator who was willing to work across party lines and who was effective in passing legislation. In 2019, she announced a campaign for the presidency, ending it in March 2020.

Judy Garland

Award-winning singer and actress

(1922-1969)

a vintage photo of Judy Garland © Photo: AP, Illustration: USA Today Network Judy Garland

A tragic icon, Judy Garland was born Frances Ethel Gumm in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. She began a vaudeville career before she entered her teen years on her way to a career that would include two Grammys, two Academy Award nominations, a Golden Globe, a Tony, an Academy Juvenile Awards and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. She became an iconic voice of her generation, as well as the star of the beloved “Wizard of Oz.” Other notable screen appearances include “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “A Star is Born.”

Garland struggled with substance and alcohol abuse most of her life, succumbing to the pressures of Hollywood stardom at such a young age. She died of an overdose at just 47. 

Ilhan Omar

First Somali American elected to Congress

(1982- )

Ilhan Omar posing for the camera © Photo: Hannah Gaber, USA TODAY, Illustration: USA Today Network Ilhan Omar

A native of Mogadishu, Somalia, Ilhan Omar became the first Somali American, the first naturalized citizen from Africa and the first non-white Minnesota woman elected to serve in Congress. She shares the distinction of being the first Muslim woman to serve in Congress with Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.

Omar arrived in the U.S. as a refugee with her family at about age 10 and became a U.S. citizen at 17. She graduated from the University of North Dakota and was a policy fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

She served one term in the Minnesota House of Representatives (2017-2019), then campaigned to represent Minnesota’s 5th District in Congress, defeating two other candidates in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor primary. She won the Congressional seat by beating her GOP opponent with 78% of the vote. While her place in history is claimed by her “firsts” in Congress, her legislative legacy is still being built on a series of progressive issues including health care, immigration, affordable housing and student-loan forgiveness.

Lindsey Vonn

Olympic gold medalist

(1984- )

a person posing for the camera: Lindsey Vonn © Photo: Sebastien Boue, USA TODAY Sports, Illustration: USA Today Network Lindsey Vonn

A four-time Olympian and three-time Olympic medalist, St. Paul native Lindsey Vonn’s path to skiing history began at age 2 and developed in the early years at Burnsville’s Buck Hill. Now, her 82 World Cup victories are the record for any woman, and second only to one man – the legendary Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden.

She is one of only two women to earn four World Cup championships — in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012 – and one of only six women to have won World Cup races in all five downhill skiing disciplines: downhill, super combined, slalom, super G and giant slalom.

She was named the US Olympic Committee’s Sportswoman of the Year in 2010 and the Laureas Foundation Sportswoman of the Year award the same year. She established the Lindsey Vonn Foundation to provide scholarships to girls, fund camps and provide inspiration to girls. She retired from skiing in 2019.

Sources used in the Women of the Century list project include newspaper articles, state archives, historical websites, encyclopedias and other resources. 

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Polar explorer Ann Bancroft, Judy Garland and Ilhan Omar among influential women on Minnesota list

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