by Johanna Ellison

March is Women's History Month, dedicated to honoring women who have paved the way for the next generation. In response to this tribute, we would like to recognize a few of the many women of Cokato who were and are pioneers.

Over a hundred years ago, opportunities for women outside of the household were limited. They could not vote, participate in sports, or hold political office. Single women or widows were able to acquire certain jobs, they could become housemaids, nurses, or school teachers, but were expected to stop teaching or working once they married and started raising their family. There were some exceptions. For instance, in 1901 Brita Bredeson (“Mrs. Bredeson” as she was identified by the Cokato Enterprise and official records) was employed by the Village of Cokato while her husband was ill and unable to work. She was tasked with lighting street lamps, sawing wood, cleaning the hall, and ringing curfew. These restrictions on women were soon to change. Women’s rights activists began challenging a woman’s expectations, redefining what it meant to be a “lady.”

In the early 20th century the Women’s Suffragist movement was in full swing and eventually, paid off with ratification of the 19th Amendment. As a result, on November 2, 1920, Caroline Reed became the first woman to vote in a presidential election in Cokato. She was 89 years old and a widow at the time. Her vote broke the barrier that had held women back from having a real say in the nation’s politics, and enabled women to participate in politics in a way they never could before.

Ida Sparks Clarke (seen at left) was the first and only woman mayor of Cokato, and the second woman mayor in Minnesota. Clarke was appointed mayor in 1921 and voted in as mayor later that year, serving her final term in 1922. Although she ran again for the 1923 term, she was beat out by two votes.

In 1925, Clarke ran for city council and was appointed. She served on the council until her sudden death in 1927. Since Clarke’s death there have only been three other women who have held council positions, Nancy Kern (1995), Mary Hasti (1997), and Janice Severson (2002). Politics was not the only avenue unveiling for women; business prospects outside of the norm were becoming available as well. For example, Maude Donahue became the first woman publisher at the Cokato Enterprise. Daughter of Ida Sparks Clarke, Maude began working in the newspaper business early in her life. In fact, she was employed by Duluth News Tribune when she met and married her husband William. In 1912, William purchased the Cokato Enterprise. Maude took over running the business, however, when William went to war and died in action overseas in 1918. Maude continued to own and run the paper until she sold it in 1928.

Marilynn Ring was the first woman employed by the Great Northern Railroad at the Cokato Depot. A Cokato graduate, Ring became employed by the railroad in 1945. According to the Cokato Enterprise March 22, 1945, Ring kept the books, made claims, and occasionally directed traffic when fast trains came through. She was also the only woman working in a depot in the whole Willmar division.

Peggy Carlson became Deputy Clerk for the City of Cokato in 1981. Since Cokato was incorporated as a village in 1878, there have been 28 clerks, counting Carlson. Of those 28 clerks, 27 were men.

According to the March 15, 1989 Enterprise Dispatch, Jean Paulson became the first woman assistant prosecutor for Wright County in the early 1970s. In 1981, she joined Nelson and Nelson private practice in Cokato. She was also one of the first women to be inducted into Rotary.

At one point and time some organizations were segregated by gender. Some clubs, such as the American Legion and Masons had a female counterpart--the Women’s Auxiliary and Eastern Star. Other clubs, however, were exclusively male or female. For example, Cokato women had organizations such as the Women’s Federated Club while the men had the Lions Club and Rotary. Eventually, some of these all-male clubs began integrating women into their organization. Cokato Rotary first accepted women into their group in 1988.

First organized in 1960 then receiving its charter from Rotary International in 1961, Cokato Rotary was, like the rest of the organization, a men’s club. By late 1987, Rotary International had opened its doors to women. In Cokato, it was Russ Johnson who invited both Jean Paulson and Caroline Holje to join Rotary. The two women accepted, and were later inducted as members in 1988.

Physical activities, in particular sports, were considered too strenuous for a woman’s delicate constitution. In Cokato in 1904, a group of girls challenged this theory. Mathilda Love, Monica Krienbring, Julia Larson, Agnes Swanson, and Clara Osterberg were members of Cokato’s first girls’ basketball team. According the Cokato Enterprise on March 26, 1904, Cokato girls faced off against Dassel’s girls team at Stevenson’s Hall, located on Third Street West between Broadway and Millard. When the final whistle blew, Cokato was victorious. According to Dan Conrad’s “Why did they take that game away from us?” unfortunately, their season was cut short, and Cokato girls did not play basketball again for their school until it was reinstated in 1918 by new superintendent Mr. N. N. Stevenson. However, Conrad states that the season was postponed due to the influenza epidemic, and the girls had to wait till the fall of 1919 to start playing.

The Cokato girls’ basketball team produced a mixture of winning and losing seasons until the program was dropped in 1931. No reason was given by the school as to why, but at that the time there was a nationwide movement to restrict girls’ athletics. Girls’ basketball did not resume as a varsity school sport in Cokato again until 1974.

After cutting girls’ basketball in 1931, one of the limited opportunities that girls had for participating in athletics was the Girls’ Athletic Association (GAA). Organized in 1932, the GAA was an organization in which girls met on Mondays to play sports like, basketball, tennis, volleyball, golf, and tumbling. However, the program bore little resemblance to the competitive sports we see today, and acted more as an extra gym class. Other than the GAA, cheerleading and tumbling were the only other athletic options for girls in school. As the 1960s came to a close, women began using the court system to fight for equal opportunities in athletics.

In 1972, Title IX was passed, requiring schools to provide athletic teams for girls, opening doors to a whole new generation of women athletes. According to the Cokato high school yearbooks, girls’ gymnastics and golf became sanctioned as a varsity sport in 1971. Softball followed in 1973, as did volleyball, basketball, swimming, and track in 1974. However, it wasn’t until 1998 that girls hockey was added to the roster of varsity athletics.

Women have taken strides in progress since the turn of the last century, and the women mentioned above are only a few of the many who have cleared pathways for the younger generation. While glass ceilings still exist for many women today, given Cokato’s history of strong, pioneering women it is only a matter of time before these barriers are also shattered.

This article first appeared in the February 2014 edition of In The Midst Of, (c), Cokato Historical Society.