The Progressive History Of The Upper Midwest: Why You Shouldn’t Be Surprised That Minnesota And Iowa Have Marriage Equality Before Your State

Photo of St. Paul, Minnesota by Fibonacci Blue

As Minnesota voted to approve marriage equality last week, most  people in my circles celebrated. Some tried to shame New Jersey and California with comments on social media to the tune of, “Minnesota has gay marriage, but New Jersey still doesn’t. New Jersey should be ashamed.”   While I agree that New Jersey should be ashamed of its marriage equality record -- not to mention The Situation and Real Housewives of New Jersey -- the underlying implication offends me. I’m an Iowa native and when I hear people ask how Iowa and Minnesota can adopt marriage equality before New Jersey and California the subtext that I hear is, “How do those rubes in the Midwest manage to give rights to gays, but the sophisticated coastal states can’t get their acts together?”     It’s a backhanded compliment at best.

The problem is that many of my friends, who have spent their entire lives in places like New York City or coastal California, don’t really know much about the middle of the country. Remember that New Yorker cover that famously depicted the US map from a New Yorker’s point of view? It pretty much hits the nail on the head. They know a lot less about the “flyover” states than people in the middle of the country know about them.   I’ve lived in New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles. They are wonderful, diverse, culturally rich places, but they aren’t THE ONLY places. And they aren’t the only places that are progressive. A quick glance at the electoral map demonstrates that the Midwest is a big place and the upper-Midwest does its own, blue-state thing.

New Yorker cover art by Saul Steinberg

Growing up in Iowa, I always knew that the state had a progressive history as well as proud legacy of high educational standards (in recent years the state has slipped a bit in the education rankings). In junior high I won a national speech competition where the theme was “My State” and I chose to focus on Iowa’s stellar public education. I’ll never forget a comment from one of the national judges, “You seem to suggest that Iowa is the only place intellectuals come from.” Huh? I didn’t imply that in the least. Besides, I wasn’t supposed to talk about other states, the theme was "MY State." Nevertheless, the feedback smacked of coastal - or at least big city - superiority.   When I went to college in New York City I had to field numerous, ridiculous questions about being from Iowa and the Midwest. People were surprised that my dad was a lawyer and not a farmer, they couldn’t believe we had professional theater and one friend was so taken aback when I told him that the state had high standardized test scores (in response to his snarky remark about Iowa) that he countered with, “Well, they aren’t higher than myyyyyyy SAT scores!”   Or higher than your ego, apparently.

Photo of Iowa City, IA by Alan Light

Why all the thin-skinned feelings about the Midwest? Most folks don’t like having their preconceived notions challenged -- especially when it takes away their ability to feel superior.   The Midwest is a big place.   Making sweeping statements about the region is not any different from making sweeping statements about the eastern seaboard. Would you seriously lump New York and South Carolina into one category? No? Then don’t paint Kansas and Wisconsin with the same brush, either. And for God’s sake don’t lump us in with the south - not the same at all.

As I mentioned before, the upper-Midwest has a long history of civil rights achievements. It didn’t start in 2009, with the Iowa Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling, Varnum v. Brien, which legalized same-sex marriage.   It started long before that.

Here is a sampling of civil rights achievements in Iowa compiled from Council Bluffs Community Alliance and the City of Dubuque:

1846: Iowa demonstrated its acceptance of religious minorities by allowing safe passage of the Mormons through western Iowa who were fleeing religious persecution in Illinois.
1851: Iowa became the second state to legalize interracial marriage… a century before the rest of America.
1851: Iowa legislated that the property of married women did not vest in her husband, nor did the husband control his wife’s property.
1857: The University of Iowa became the first state university in the nation to open its degree programs to women.
1860: The Iowa State Supreme Court ruled that a married woman may acquire real and personal property and hold it in her own right.
1894: Iowa became the third state in the nation to give women the right to vote (after Wyoming in 1869 and Colorado in 1893). Women could vote if candidates were not involved (such as bond issues). Note: Utah gave women the right to vote in 1870, but then rescinded it soon thereafter. It did not give that right back to women until 1895.
1934 — First Mosque in North America Constructed in Iowa.  “The first permanent mosque in North America was built in Cedar Rapids. It became known as ‘The Mother Mosque.’
1984: Rich Eychaner, a Republican, became the first openly gay man in the U.S. to run for a voting seat in Congress, running for Iowa’s 4th congressional district.


Amelia Jenks Bloomer, early feminist and Iowa native

Minnesota has a larger population and is a little more complex, but it’s a fairly reliable Democratic state in presidential election years. It also has a long history of producing arts talent (think Garrison Keillor, the Guthrie Theater or the MST3K guys) and liberal politicians (Mondale, Humphrey).   While I find Steve King (R. IA) and Michele Bachmann (R. MN) horrible and embarrassing, it’s also important to remember that they are elected from specific, gerrymandered districts. Statewide, Minnesota and Iowa have also sent the likes of Al Franken and Tom Harkin to Washington.   Anyone who tries to pigeonhole these states into simplistic categories -- whether it’s to amuse Facebook friends or as a pundit on cable news -- risks looking like a fool. There is a long progressive tradition in the upper-Midwest and it may not be long before Illinois and Wisconsin (as soon as they get rid of Scott Walker) follow their neighbors by voting for marriage equality.

Still need convincing?

Check out Steven Thrasher’s moving New York Times Op-ed, Iowa’s Family Values.

Or watch Iowa’s Senate Majority Leader, Mike Gronstal as he blocks an attempt to overturn marriage equality in Iowa. He quotes his daughter, “You guys don’t understand. You’ve already lost....”

Another great view is Zach Wahls, the University of Iowa student who was raised by two moms. I swear this kid is going to president someday.