Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Minnie Fisher Cunningham, 1882-1964
By Judith N. McArthur and Patricia Ellen Cunningham
This entry has been republished with special permission from the Handbook of Texas Women, a project of the Handbook of Texas Online, Texas State Historical Association. <https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fcu24>. Accessed September 15, 2019.
CUNNINGHAM, MINNIE FISHER (1882–1964). Minnie Fisher Cunningham, woman suffrage leader and leading liberal Democrat, the daughter of Horatio White Fisher and Sallie Comer (Abercrombie) Fisher, was born on March 19, 1882, on Fisher Farms, near New Waverly, Texas. Her father was a prominent planter who served in the House of Representatives of the Texas legislature in 1857–59 and 1879–81. He introduced her to politics by taking her to political meetings at Huntsville. Educated initially by her mother, Minnie attended secondary school in Houston and New Waverly. She passed a state examination to earn a teaching certificate when she was sixteen but changed her mind about teaching and enrolled in the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. In 1901 she became one of the first women to receive a degree in pharmacy in Texas; she worked as a pharmacist in Huntsville for a year, but she later said that inequity in pay led her to suffrage. In 1902 she married Beverly Jean (Bill) Cunningham, a lawyer and later an insurance executive. His successful race for Walker County attorney as a reform candidate was her first taste of the campaign trail.
The Cunninghams moved to Houston in 1905 and to Galveston in 1907. There she joined several women's voluntary associations, including the Women's Health Protective Association (WHPA), through which she became part of the Progressive Era's municipal housekeeping movement. She chaired two WHPA committees and took part in its long campaign to force the city to adopt and enforce a pure milk ordinance. Like many of her fellow activists, she moved readily from social reform to woman suffrage and became a founding member of the Galveston Equal Suffrage Association in 1912 and served on its executive committee. In 1914 she was elected to the first of two terms as its president. Energetic and talented, she quickly became a leader. Annette Finnigan, president of the newly-revived Texas Woman Suffrage Association (subsequently the Texas Equal Suffrage Association [TESA]), recruited her as a field organizer and legislative lobbyist. When Finnigan retired in 1915, Cunningham was the chosen successor and easily elected.
During four terms (1915–19) as president, Cunningham built the TESA to a membership of 10,000, with a ground organization in every state senatorial district and a strong lobbying presence in Austin. One of the very few southern suffrage presidents to wrest any form of suffrage from their conservative legislatures, she took shrewd advantage of a split in the state Democratic party to negotiate a bill in 1918 which granted Texas women the right to vote in state primary elections. As a consequence, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) called her repeatedly to Washington, D.C., to help lobby the U. S. Congress for the federal suffrage amendment and selected her to lead a delegation to President Woodrow Wilson. Late in 1918 she returned to Washington as NAWSA's Congressional Secretary to lobby full time for the Nineteenth Amendment. After it passed in 1919, NAWSA dispatched her to help rally support for ratification in the western and southern states.
In 1920 Cunningham helped organize the National League of Women Voters (LWV) and was one of four Texas women elected a delegate-at-large to the Democratic National Convention. From 1921 to 1923 she was the LWV's executive secretary in Washington, D.C, and lobbied Congress for its bills, including the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act, the nation's first social welfare measure. Twenty years later Eleanor Roosevelt recalled that Cunningham's address at the league's second annual convention made her feel "that you had no right to be a slacker as a citizen, you had no right not to take an active part in what was happening to your country as a whole." In 1924 she was elected second vice-president of the LWV and directed its national Get-Out-the-Vote campaign. Late in 1925 Cunningham was hired to revive the temporarily-closed Woman's National Democratic Club (WNDC) in Washington, D.C., of which she had been a founding member. As executive officer and resident director she was the WNDC's spokeswoman and in de facto charge of women's work for the Democratic party. She stabilized the club's finances, expanded its programming and outreach to state Democratic women's clubs, and oversaw the purchase of a permanent headquarters building.
Cunningham resigned from the WNDC in 1928 to return to Texas and become the first woman in the state to run for the United States Senate. She was appalled that Earle B. Mayfield, the incumbent, had been elected with Ku Klux Klan backing and regretted not challenging him at the time. Like others in the first generation of women to run for U. S. Congress, she was handicapped by inadequate funding and lack of male endorsements. Her resolve to reject crowd-pleasing personal attacks and run an issues-focused, League of Women Voters-style campaign won more praise than votes. She finished fifth of six in the primary and carried only her home county, Walker. Her husband, from whom she had been separated for a decade, died during the campaign.
From 1930 to 1939 Cunningham worked as an associate editor and then editor for the Texas A&M University Agricultural Extension Service, through which she became involved in New Deal anti-poverty programs. She wrote the script for a documentary film on a local work relief center that was used by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and sent a copy to Eleanor Roosevelt, who showed it at the White House. She went back to Washington in 1939 to work as senior specialist in the Information Division of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA). The agency released her temporarily in 1940 to be chief of the Civic Contacts Unit of the Consumer Division of the National Defense Advisory Council and reclaimed her in 1941. As an AAA employee, she planned outreach and education for women on New Deal farm policies, organized rural-urban women's conferences in twenty-five states, and initiated a field woman project to organize the wives of farmers participating in AAA programs. She channeled information on rural women to Eleanor Roosevelt, which the First Lady used in her "My Day" column and radio broadcasts. After anti-New Dealers gained control of Congress in the 1942 elections, AAA employees were prohibited from speaking in favor of the government's agricultural war program; Cunningham resigned in protest in 1943 and returned permanently to Texas.
In 1944 she was the prime mover in founding the Texas Social and Legislative Conference, which brought together farmers, labor, and progressives and functioned as the political action committee for the Texas Left. At the Democratic state convention that year, anti-Roosevelt forces elected "uninstructed" delegates to the national convention, ignoring the popular vote. Cunningham, who chaired the Walker County delegation, and other outraged Roosevelt supporters, elected their own slate of delegates at a rump convention at which she was one of the officers. Afterward, she was prominent in a coalition of liberal Democrats that tried to draft J. Frank Dobie as a pro-Roosevelt candidate for governor against the incumbent, Coke Stevenson, the leader of the Texas delegation. After failing to persuade Dobie, she entered the race herself, explaining to Eleanor Roosevelt that her candidacy was "one part of the great fight which the little people of this state are making all along the line" for New Deal ideals. Stevenson stayed home from the national convention to campaign, which Cunningham considered a victory; she finished second in a field of nine candidates. After conservatives turned their animus to the University of Texas and succeeded in firing the president, Homer P. Rainey, she organized the Women's Committee for Educational Freedom to protest. When Rainey ran for governor in 1946, she organized women to campaign for him.
For the rest of her life, Cunningham was an activist, organizer, and campaigner for the left-liberal wing of the state Democratic party. She and labor lawyer Robert Eckhardt founded the People's Legislative Committee in 1946 to push back against corporate influence in politics and white supremacy—abolishing the poll tax was one of the committee's goals. In the 1950s, when Governor Allan Shivers controlled the party's conservative wing and urged Democrats to vote for Republican presidential candidates, Cunningham helped found the Loyal Democrats of Texas to oppose the "Shivercrats." At the request of U.S. House Speaker Sam Rayburn, she and her women's network ran a state campaign for Adlai Stevenson in 1952. After his defeat, she established the Texas Women's Democratic State Committee to support the party's national candidates. In 1954 she organized women for Ralph Yarborough's gubernatorial campaign. In return she and her ally Frankie Randolph, one of Yarborough's financial backers, insisted that he endorse the United States Supreme Court's school desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which they considered a moral imperative. After Yarborough's defeat, she played a pivotal role in founding the Texas Observer in 1954 as a voice for liberalism. She and Randolph were also part of the coalition that formed the Democrats of Texas to oppose the establishment forces that took control of the party machinery in 1956; Cunningham served on its executive board. In 1960, at the age of seventy-eight, she managed the campaign headquarters for John F. Kennedy in New Waverly and carried Walker County for him. She died on December 9, 1964, and was buried in Hardy Cemetery in New Waverly.
American National Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). Minnie Fisher Cunningham Papers, Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library. Minnie Fisher Cunningham Papers, University of Houston Library Archives. League of Women Voters Papers, Library of Congress. Judith N. McArthur and Harold L. Smith, Minnie Fisher Cunningham: A Suffragist's Life in Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). Marjorie Spruill Wheeler, ed., One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement (Troutdale, Oregon: NewSage Press, 1995). Jessica Brannon-Wranosky, Southern Promise and Necessity: Texas Regional Identity and the National Woman Suffrage Movement, 1868-1920 (Ph.D. dissertation, University of North Texas, 2010).