Minnie Fisher Cunningham, woman suffrage leader and leading liberal Democrat, the daughter of Horatio White 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 Seventh Texas Legislature in 1857-58. He introduced her to politics by taking her to political meetings at Huntsville. After having been educated by her mother, Minnie passed a state examination to earn a teaching certificate when she was sixteen. She taught for a year before enrolling 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 "made a suffragette out of me." In 1902 she married Beverly Jean (Bill) Cunningham, a lawyer and insurance executive. His successful race for county attorney as a reform candidate was her first taste of the campaign trail, but the marriage was unhappy, in part because of her increasing political activity and his alcoholism.
The Cunninghams moved to Galveston in 1907. By 1910 she was elected president of the Galveston Equal Suffrage Association and toured Texas to speak for the cause. In 1915 she was elected to the first of four annual terms as president of the Texas Woman Suffrage Association (subsequently the Texas Equal Suffrage Association). The number of local auxiliaries quadrupled during her first year in office, largely because of her leadership. In 1917 she moved to Austin, opened state suffrage headquarters near the Capitol, and began a campaign that culminated in legislative approval for woman suffrage in state primary elections in 1918.
In 1919 Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, persuaded Minnie Cunningham to lobby Congress for the Nineteenth Amendment. When the amendment finally was passed and submitted to the states for ratification, Cunningham said she "pursued governors all over the west" and urged them to ratify it. That same year, she helped organize the National League of Women Voters and became its executive secretary. 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."
Minnie Cunningham was widowed in 1927 and traveled to Texas to settle her husband's estate. The following year she became the first Texas woman to run for the United States Senate. She challenged Earle B. Mayfield, the incumbent, with a platform that advocated prohibition, tariff reduction, tax reform, farm relief, flood control, cooperation with the League of Nations, and opposition to the Ku Klux Klan. She finished fifth of six in the primary, carrying only her home county, Walker. She then campaigned for Thomas T. Connally, the runner-up, who edged out Mayfield in the runoff.
From 1930 to 1939 Cunningham worked in College Station as an editor for the Texas A&M Extension Service. She returned to Washington in 1939 to work as an information specialist for the Women's Division of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is credited with having given her the nickname by which she later became widely known, "Minnie Fish." She resigned in 1943 to protest a rule impeding the flow of information to farmers.
In 1944, at the Democratic state convention, anti-Roosevelt forces elected "uninstructed" delegates to the national convention, effectively disenfranchising the voters of Texas. Outraged, Roosevelt supporters elected their own slate of delegates at a rump convention. When a coalition of liberal Democrats failed to draft J. Frank Dobie as a candidate for governor, Cunningham ran herself. Angry that the incumbent governor, Coke Stevenson, did not take a public stand on the split, she ran an outspoken campaign, calling on Stevenson to declare his views, and prevented his leading the anti-Roosevelt delegation to the national convention. Stevenson won the primary by a landslide. Nevertheless, in a field of nine candidates, Cunningham finished second.
In 1946 she retired to Fisher Farms in New Waverly to raise cattle and pecans, but she continued to campaign for the Democratic party and organized ad hoc committees to support liberal causes. When the board of regents fired the president of the University of Texas, Homer P. Rainey, she opposed the regents' decision and supported Rainey's unsuccessful bid for the governorship. In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education she supported civil rights on her local school board. In 1952 she stumped for Adlai Stevenson for president and Ralph Yarborough for governor. Prepared to mortgage her farm to ensure the continuation of a liberal voice in Texas journalism, she played a pivotal role in founding the Texas Observer in 1954. Also in the 1950s she helped start Democrats of Texas, an organization of liberals. In 1960, at the age of seventy-eight, she managed the campaign headquarters for John F. Kennedy in New Waverly. Minnie Cunningham died on December 9, 1964, and was buried in New Waverly.
Minnie Fisher Cunningham Papers, Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library. John Carroll Eudy, "The Vote and Lone Star Women: Minnie Fisher Cunningham and the Texas Equal Suffrage Association," East Texas Historical Journal 14 (Fall 1976). Patricia B. Nieuwenhuizen, Minnie Fisher Cunningham and Jane Y. McCallum: Leaders of Texas Women (Senior thesis, University of Texas at Austin, 1982). Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary (4 vols., Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1971-80). Texas Observer, November 21, 1958. Vertical Files, Barker Texas History Center, University of Texas at Austin.
Patricia Ellen Cunningham