Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Josephine Sarles Simpson, 1862-1948

By Andrea Jule Sachs, history faculty, St. Paul Academy and Summit School, St. Paul, MN

Josephine Sarles Simpson was born in Necedah, Wisconsin in 1862 and died in Pasadena, California in 1948. After earning a Bachelor of Laws degree, summa cum laude, from the University of Wisconsin in 1884, she married David F. Simpson and moved to Minneapolis, where she raised three sons and participated actively in a wide range of civic and political organizations. A newspaper article once described her as “a lady of commanding presence, an easy, graceful, impressive speaker, who frequently and without effort rises to the heights of oratory.” Like many reform-minded women of the Progressive Era, she built a strong network of friends and colleagues through her membership in various clubs and her work on several city commissions. Simpson's commitment to civic reform led her to the women's suffrage movement and the fight for full political equality. Her leadership experience, organizational talents, and public speaking skills helped her contribute generously to the suffrage movement.  

Simpson's work embodies what historian Anne Firor Scott calls “municipal housekeeping,” Progressive women's ability to pursue new public roles by couching them in the language of traditional domesticity. Her status as an educated middle-class woman, combined with her husband David's position as Minneapolis city attorney and later Minnesota district court judge, provided ample opportunity to translate her values into tangible action. She was part of a tightly networked group of Twin Cities women whose work in Minneapolis and St. Paul formed the nucleus of statewide organizing efforts. Central to her activism were her close ties to Clara Ueland, a prominent leader of the Minnesota suffrage movement. Simpson and Ueland joined forces in a decade-long lobbying effort that culminated in 1905 when the Minneapolis public schools established a free kindergarten system. Simpson also served on the Minneapolis Pure Water Commission and Social Survey. As a charter member of the Minneapolis Woman's Club (founded in 1907) and leader of its Social Economics Department, she researched and lobbied on behalf of a range of public health issues. Suffrage was not unanimously endorsed by the members of the Woman's Club, and in 1912 Simpson was passed over for nomination as club president because of her vocal and unequivocal support for suffrage.

As the fight for suffrage intensified during the 1910s, Simpson leveraged her organizational and public speaking skills to mobilize supporters and lobby state and federal lawmakers. During her three years as second vice president of the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association, she spoke at events throughout the state. She also put her oratorical talents to work in New York, where she traveled between 1915 and 1917 to speak at suffrage events. In June 1916 Simpson was part of a contingent of Minnesota suffragists that traveled down the Mississippi River by steamboat to demonstrate at the Democratic National Convention in St. Louis. There she stood among five thousand suffragists to form a silent twelve-block “Golden Lane” to exhort delegates to adopt a suffrage plank. Simpson did not remain silent, however, and she delivered impassioned speeches to energetic crowds during her visit to St. Louis.

Simpson served on the board of NAWSA from 1918 to 1920, during the final push toward the Nineteenth Amendment. When Minnesota became the fifteenth state to ratify the amendment in September 1919, she said, “I feel today as one who has come into a great inheritance after being a political pauper; I have such a feeling of comfort and power and dignity.” The contributions of Simpson and twenty-four other leaders were publicly recognized in 2000, when a monument to Minnesota suffragists was built on the grounds of the State Capitol in Saint Paul.


Bauer, Heidi, ed. The Privilege for Which We Struggled: Leaders of the Woman Suffrage Movement in Minnesota. St. Paul: Upper Midwest Women's History Center, 1999.

History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 6 (1922). [LINK]

Kasprick, Kathleen. Culture and Reform: The Women and Work of the Woman's Club of Minneapolis, 1907-1914. Minnesota Historical Society, 1997.

Leonard, John William, ed. Woman's Who's Who of America: A Biographical Dictionary of Contemporary Women of the United States and Canada, 1914-1915. New York: American Commonwealth Company, 1914. [LINK]

Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association records, 1894-1923. Minnesota Historical Society.

Minnesota Woman Suffrage Memorial, Cedar Avenue at Martin Luther King Boulevard, Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Political Equality Club of Minneapolis records, 1883-1921. Minnesota Historical Society.

Scott, Anne Firor. Natural Allies: Women's Associations in American History. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Stuhler, Barbara. Gentle Warriors: Clara Ueland and the Minnesota Struggle for Woman Suffrage. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1995.

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