Minnie Fisher Cunningham
Suffrage Advocate, Political Activist and Candidate
Political campaigns today usually involve electronic media but in the 1920s candidates toured widely—to personally address the voters—even in small communities. This was the case in 1928, when one of the candidates for the U.S. Senate came to the small East Texas community of Athens, and proved distinctive because of her gender. This was because Mrs. Minnie Fisher Cunningham was the first Texas woman to run for the U.S. Senate. Moreover she could then appeal to women voters because the Woman’s Suffrage Amendment had been recently ratified.
According to the July 12, 1928 Athens (Texas) Weekly Review, on her visit to Athens, Mrs. Cunningham “…met a large number of the business men and made arrangements to speak to the voters of this county on July 17.” She was scheduled to speak from either the bandstand [possibly on the courthouse square] or in a district court room.”
A native Texan with a long interest in women’s suffrage and other causes, Mrs. Cunningham was running against six candidates including the incumbent Earle B. Mayfield. Ultimately she finished fifth out of the six in the primary and carried only her own Walker County. As one source put it, “…she was handicapped by inadequate funding and lack of male endorsements.” Another defeating factor was that her campaign was focused on issues and perhaps because she followed her “resolve to reject crowd-pleasing personal attacks…”
Yet despite this loss, Mrs. Cunningham’s interests went beyond just women’s suffrage and also beyond Texas, as she had a very large role and influence in other issues of the time. As an associate and personal friend of many of the important activists and progressive figures of her time, she served a lifelong role in what she believed in.
Born in 1882 near New Waverly, Texas, Minnie Fisher was the daughter of a prominent farmer with political connections. After studying at local schools then in Houston, she was briefly a teacher but then decided to try a new field. She enrolled in the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, then went on to became the first woman, to achieve a degree in pharmacy in Texas. She worked as a pharmacist for a year, but her experience with the reality of pay inequity turned her interest to working toward politics, and specifically the acquisition of the vote for women. She first married a lawyer and later an insurance executive Bill Cunningham in 1902. They lived in Houston and then later in Galveston. During this time she joined and became active in several activist organizations created in the progressive era of the time. However, these new interests combined with her husband’s alcoholism made it a difficult marriage and they eventually separated. Then in 1907 she became associated with various state and local women’s suffrage organizations, an effort that culminated in the 1918 Texas legislature’s approval of women voting, in state primaries.
Eventually her efforts in the Texas suffrage movement drew attention from national groups, enabling her to spend time in Washington lobbying the U.S. Congress, to promote the national women’s suffrage amendment. During the political effort to obtain ratification of the women’s suffrage amendment, she toured nationally, seeking to influence political leaders to support their cause. She also served as executive secretary of the new national League of Women Voters, formed to educate and organize women, with their new political rights. In this capacity she became acquainted with Mrs. Franklin Roosevelt, who at the time was just beginning to develop, her political and progressive persona. They remained political associates, even after Eleanor later became First lady, since Mrs. Cunningham was also involved in the Democratic Party.
At the time of Mrs. Cunningham’s 1928 Athens visit, the Review reporter explained some of her political platform. She supported Prohibition, as well as strict law enforcement and was “opposed to secrecy in governmental affairs ..” such as Senate executive sessions.
After her unsuccessful Senatorial campaign, during the 1930s, Minnie Cunningham worked in College Station with the Texas A&M extension service, and in 1939 she returned to Washington to work in a government agency. She left that position in 1943 over a policy disagreement.
During her tenure in Washington, Mrs. Cunningham worked in the Information Division of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), then she then worked in another position. However, she continued to implement and encourage enactment, of the various New Deal agricultural programs.
By directing information about rural women to Eleanor Roosevelt, Mrs. Cunningham provided material for the First Lady to use in her national My Day newspaper column, as well as for her radio broadcasts.
She had an unsuccessful candidacy for Texas governor in 1944, where she finished second, among the nine candidates in that race. Then she retired to live in New Waverly but continued to campaign for local and national Democratic candidates.
She also wrote a regular column titled Countryside and Town in Texas media outlets, where she hoped to provide coverage of the platforms and activities, of what she saw as important politically and socially. In fact, when the publisher sought to sell the newspaper in 1954, she offered to mortgage her home property to buy it. However, when the seller refused to agree to a sale, she arranged with others to accomplish a merger that obtained the sale. Then in 1958 the Democratic Party sponsored statewide events to commemorate Mrs. Cunningham’s efforts.
Mrs. Cunningham remained active in political causes, operating a Texas campaign for 1952 Democratic Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, and later for John F. Kennedy’s Texas candidacy in 1960. She died in 1964 and was buried in New Waverly.
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.