If it weren’t for a young wife, mother, and suffragist who came to Minnesota in the mid-1850s, the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts might not exist today.
This trailblazer’s name was Mary Elizabeth Partridge. She was born in 1832 in New England, and in 1855 she married a man named George. After their marriage, the newlyweds settled eight miles outside of Medford, Minnesota, in a “small log cabin with bark floors,” as she’d recall decades later. Between 1856 and 1859, she gave birth to three babies.
After the Civil War broke out, George went to fight for the Union, leaving Mary to raise the children and manage their farm alone. She watched helplessly as crops withered and died for lack of manpower to tend them. Catastrophe struck in January 1865, when Mary received a letter saying that her husband had been gravely injured and was convalescing in Kentucky. It took her two weeks to reach the hospital. When she got there, she found that he had died and been buried before her arrival. This loss might have broken a weaker woman, but Mary fought to rebuild her life. She took courses by mail and ultimately became a teacher herself.
Not surprisingly, she was drawn to social movements that supported and empowered women. Toward the end of her life, she was included in the 1914 edition of the “Woman’s Who’s Who of America.” Her entry read in part: “Teacher many years… Favors woman suffrage; always a suffragist.” Mary’s eldest son George – named after his late father – became a wealthy man, ultimately securing a partnership with the Minneapolis-based dry goods wholesaler Wyman Partridge and Co. This shift in status signaled an opening of possibilities for the family. George Partridge married and had four daughters, including, fatefully, Charlotte in 1887.
Charlotte, a longtime member of the Schubert Club, inherited her grandmother’s social conscience and tendency toward industry and self-improvement. As a teenager, she acted in local amateur productions and studied vocal performance. She never appeared professionally as a singer, but she did solo in a charity performance of the operetta “The House That Jack Built” in the spring of 1909.
The Star Tribune wrote after her performance that she “was recalled a number of times after her solo… She was showered with many large bouquets of roses, violets and lilies of the valley.” Starting in 1903, Charlotte began attending the prestigious Spence School in New York City. She graduated in 1906 before returning to the Twin Cities to be “formally presented to society,” in the words of the Minneapolis Journal. In December 1909 she married John G. Ordway, and between 1910 and 1920 she gave birth to four daughters.
Even as a young mother, Charlotte Partridge Ordway remained active in the arts and activism. No doubt spurred by the example of her grandmother, she used her influence to advocate for various pressing issues of the day. One particularly noteworthy event occurred at the Ordway home on Summit Avenue in December 1912, when Charlotte hosted a “suffrage tea.” As the Star Tribune reported, “The tea was the first of a series to be given this winter to interest the younger set in the sufrage [sic] cause.” The image of suffragists taking tea, with the ritual’s connotations of domesticity and refinement, was meant to suggest to skeptics that women getting the vote didn’t necessarily mean abandoning all traditional ideas about femininity.
Mary and Charlotte’s love of the arts and their community was passed down to Charlotte’s daughter, Sally Ordway Irvine. Sally was a strong and effective advocate for the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in 1985. It’s easy to think of monumental achievements like the Nineteenth Amendment as having been somehow inevitable, but it was only made possible by generations of sustained activism. The women in the Partridge and Ordway families – women whose unsung histories are woven into the very DNA of the Schubert Club, the Ordway, and the state of Minnesota itself – stand as inspiring testament to that.
© 2019 by Emily Hogstad
This article was originally published in An Die Musik in 2019
Portrait of Charlotte Ordway
Program from the 1981 Schubert Club Museum opening ceremony at which Charlotte Ordway and her Schubert Club friends were honored