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Minnesota Women's Legislative Timeline

Significant Legislation Passed by the Minnesota Legislature Since Suffrage

1921 - Women Jurors 

Synopsis: In 1921, Minnesota eliminated all gender qualification from jury service. (Laws 1921, Chapter 365)

Legislative History: Trial by jury, as an idea, dates back to the Magna Carta in 1215, which specifies that only men could be jurors. While a few American states allowed females on juries before women's suffrage, most did not. The approach of states to the issue of female jurors was varied. Some states allowed women on juries, ipso facto, along with suffrage. Other states required a constitutional amendment to change the law.

Most states, including Minnesota, used the legislative process to add women to the pool of potential jurors. Minnesota was one of a group of eight states that promptly passed female juror laws after the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified. In 1921, Minnesota passed a law allowing women to act as petit jurors and grand jurors; it stated that all jury laws apply to both men and women and 'all sex qualification is hereby removed.'

However, many legislators felt women should not be required to serve in all cases. Senator Harlow Bonniwell was quoted in the Minneapolis Morning Tribune,'I have too high a regard for the women of Minnesota to use my vote in this Senate to force them to sit in court and listen to the filth that often is served up in testimony and then be locked up in a room with a lot of men to discuss such a mess of nastiness.' A law was passed allowing the court the discretion to excuse women from jury duty upon request. (Laws 1921, Chapter 370)

A third 1921 law allowed the courts to appoint a female bailiff when juries of both men and women were chosen. (Laws 1921, Chapter 369)

Historical Context: Jury service was one of the first big tests of women's newfound strength after the Nineteenth Amendment was enacted in 1920. Although you might assume that the right to serve on juries would have come automatically with the right to vote, this was not the case in most states. While Utah was the first state to allow limited jury service for women, in 1898, states such as Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Florida did not permit females to serve on juries until the mid-1950s-1960s. In 1968, the Federal Jury Selection Act prohibited discrimination in jury service on the basis of gender, and in 1975, the US Supreme Court overturned its own 1961 ruling (in Hoyt v. FL) which upheld the right of Florida to require women to essentially request permission to serve on juries. The thoughts behind excluding women from jury service included: taking women away from their small children would be detrimental to the children; women might be more sympathetic and tender-hearted toward criminals; women on juries posed practical problems when it came to sequestration; and women should be shielded from the 'salacious and revolting' cases dealing with sex offenses.

Selected Resources
Matthews, Burnita Shelton, 'The Woman Juror.' Women's Law Journal, Volume 15, Number 2, April 1927. Includes comments from the Minnesota Attorney General on women jurors.

Nipp. Mary. Blackduck History 1920-1940. A Guide to Minnesota Communities. Includes an excerpt from the Blackduck American newspaper, 'January 1922: At the February term of court Beltrami County women will take their place with the men both as grand and petit jurors. Mrs. H.E. Douglas of the village has the distinction of being the first woman drawn on the grand jury.'

'Senate Agrees to Pass Woman Jury Measure,' Minneapolis Morning Tribune, April 8, 1921. (Proquest link)

This is a joint project of the LCC Office on the Economic Status of Women and the Legislative Reference Library.  The project is made possible by the Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on Nov. 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.

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