For the outside world, the life and leadership of Emily Anne Staples Tuttle is well documented in the public record, a resume of accomplishments over 83 years as an elected official, philanthropist, and activist. (A Google search turns up nearly 800 unique references.) Trailblazer. Philanthropist. Advocate. Strategist. Community leader. Beloved by family and friends. Mentor to many.
At the time of her passing on January 13, 2018, that list was long: first female DFL senator elected to the Minnesota State Senate (1977-1981); service on more than 50 boards; public advocate for women’s rights, health care policy, economic growth, and court reform; ardent supporter of the arts (music, theater, visual); and more. In a word: prolific.
To the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, Emily Anne was a founding mother. And like any good mother, she believed in us, supported us, and championed our mission. Gender equity was important to Emily Anne, and she lived those values. Example: when the Republican party she belonged to refused to support the Equal Rights Amendment, she left the party for the DFL (1974). She wasn’t afraid to take a stand, even when there was a cost. This earned her respect from both sides of the political aisle, enabling her to do the work she was elected to do for her district.
For 35 years, Emily Anne was a generous, steadfast donor-partner who shared our vision of a world where all women and girls have pathways to prosperity, lead safe lives wherever they are, and have access to leadership opportunities at all levels. And as a member of our Legacy Circle for Women & Girls, Emily Anne included the Foundation in her estate plans to ensure that her support for gender equity lives on for generations to come.
This year, we are delighted to amplify Emily Anne’s legacy by allocating $100,000 of her gift to launch a new Safety Fund. As we transform our role from catalyst (MN Girls Are Not For Sale) to partner, we will continue to invest in women’s safety and work with communities to end gender-based violence in all forms through research, policy, grantmaking, and increasing public awareness and engagement. Her generosity and leadership will live on — hopefully, inspiring others in the community to carry her commitment to gender equity forward.
Outside of the public persona and away from the spotlight, to the two women who knew and loved her best, Emily Anne Staples Tuttle was Mom. During this Mother’s Day week, we share a recent special conversation with her daughters, Kate Staples (Hudson Valley, New York) and Missy Staples Thompson (St. Paul) about their mom and her legacy.
What was it was like for your mom growing up in the 1930s?
(Kate) In Mom’s last few years, we were talking about writing a book about her life. So, I had the great opportunity to spend a lot of time with her interviewing her about her family and life. It was a very interesting project that ended up being less of a book and more of a family history. I [learned] about her perspective on her own life and [it gave] me more of a perspective of her as an adult, looking at her as a peer [rather] than this authority figure.
It also made me realize what an interesting childhood she had, which was very different from most kids her age at that time. I think she even felt a little bit like her childhood was special. Her father was a lawyer at the time she was born, which was during the Great Depression, so his law firm went out of business. He had all these skills as a writer and communicator, and he parlayed that into a job at the Minneapolis Journal as a court reporter.
She was his only child at the time, so he used to take her with him on assignments. She got this incredible view of the Twin Cities from his perspective covering various stories. What was the name of that strike, Missy?
(Missy) It was the Labor Strike in 1934, which was very violent. I remember Mom telling us how upset her mother was that her father would take her to a labor strike where there was actual tremendous violence, where people were seriously hurt. He took Mom along everywhere.
(Kate) One of Mom’s most vivid memories as a child was seeing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he was in town, his motorcade passing by, she on her father’s shoulders. Her father treated Mom as a sort of sidekick, and she got this amazing view of how the city worked. These are experiences that most girls would not have had access to at that time.
How do you think these experiences shaped your mom’s worldview and belief in what she could be and do as an adult?
(Kate) To a degree, her dad treated her as someone with limitless possibilities. He was an extremely curious person and believed that she should be, also. More than once, Mom remarked how her father often spoke to her more like a peer. The radio was always on. They would talk about history and current events — like when Pearl Harbor was bombed — and spoke every night about what was going on during the war (WWII). There was an expectation by both her parents that she would be informed and engaged about what was going on in the community and the world.
Her mother was Irish and traditional in a lot of ways. Family was very important, and they attended church regularly. Her mom volunteered at a Japanese internment camp at Fort Snelling for the Red Cross and was very civically engaged. This really helped shape my mom’s viewpoint and later formed the basis of her engagement, activism, and leadership in the community.
(Missy) Two things to add there that I really think are interesting, as well…the political aspect of it. Gramp (Grandfather) Mayer, Mom’s father, was quite politically active, particularly in municipal politics. He was secretary to Mayor Kline of Minneapolis in the 1940s, who was defeated by Hubert Humphrey. Gramp was involved in that political world, [and after] he left the Journal, he did public relations for the Minnesota Orchestra and Orpheum Theater. He brought Mom along with him to meet all of these celebrities who came into town.
I remember at my grandparent’s house in south Minneapolis, there were all these signed autographs of everyone from Tallulah Bankhead to Liberace — amazing artists who came through the Twin Cities on tour. There was this breakdown of any social barrier because she was engaged and exposed to the arts, politics, and union activities. I think that is what really exposed her to so much…there was nothing that she really didn’t want to be engaged with. So, you look at her life and the boards she was involved with and activities that she participated in, they ran the gamut because of her curiosity and because of that [early] exposure.
Because of these experiences, it sounds like your mom grew up feeling like she could do and be anything. Did she ever talk about the barriers she encountered to her leadership because she was a woman?
(Missy) The first woman elected to the Senate prior to Mom was Nancy Brataas, a Republican from Rochester. Nancy and Mom had been sorority sisters at the University of Minnesota. It allowed them to work across the [Senate] aisle. The two of them were powerhouses together. There were no mentors… the [male senators] didn’t feel comfortable mentoring them.
(Kate) It wasn’t that she didn’t feel welcome, but she did feel not as listened to as maybe her other male colleagues. At certain points, she would be cut off or not be recognized. More in that sort of “pat you on the head” way. She definitely felt that sexist vibe there.
Given what your mom was up against, I assume she exercised great skill in knowing who to talk to and how to talk to them…
(Kate) Those were the sorts of things she viewed as her strengths and what she was so great at. She would listen to everybody. She was not pushy with her views. She managed to get her way often without the other person really knowing how she did it.
That speaks to a brilliant strategist. Did she employ those same tactics as a parent?
(Missy) Wouldn’t you say yes, Kate?
(Kate) She did not really tell you what to do, but you ended up doing what she wanted you to do.
What is it you want our readers to know about your mom?
(Missy) She was always smiling. I mean, she was really known for her smile. It was such a welcoming smile that she drew you right in.
(Kate) She was curious about absolutely everything to the degree that she was curious about the culture and music we were growing up with. Just everything, from travel to the environment and music and all the arts. She had stacks of magazines and newspapers because she wanted to read everything. And not for any reason other than that she was intensely curious about things. This is what partly led to her being so involved and engaged in the community.
(Missy) Yes, and it played out in her philanthropy. One of the things I have been laughing about in a kind of teary way is that for the last year since her death, [all her mail] has been forwarded to me. In her support, she was very generous, so her philanthropy ran the gamut. She had a couple areas where she went deep, but she also made many small gifts. There were lots of organizations that she supported internationally, as well as nationally and locally. She felt that she had to support with either her resources or her talent.
Philanthropy was clearly important to your mom. Was giving back a family value, either through volunteering or financial support?
(Kate) We were encouraged to volunteer from a very young age. [Mom’s] philanthropy is well known, and she encouraged us. I remember talking to her about the organizations I was supporting, and again, she was engaged and curious about it. I feel like we grew up with this belief that you reach and get involved with community and try to make it a better place.
(Missy) I think that we were fortunate in having [philanthropy] as a family trait, both on my mom and dad’s side. Grandparents on both sides were very engaged in the community. Great-grandparents were involved in the community. It was just something that was part of our heritage…kind of like the air we breathed. You just gave back to community whatever way you could. You found your own areas, your niches, but you went deep where you could.
What about your mom’s support for gender equality and the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota?
(Missy) There were these extraordinary women of that time – Mary Lee Dayton and Sandy Butler, there are a number that can be listed. These were women who came out of community volunteer backgrounds, because that is what you did in the 1950s and even into the early 1960s. Through that, they recognized the gaps in our community, particularly for women.
So, they bonded together and so much came out of that – the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, Women Winning, support of Planned Parenthood, some of the work that has been done with the hospitals, Abbott Northwestern, and others.
These were women who put their smarts and their dollars behind changing the world and making the world better for women. The Women’s Foundation was a piece of that [mission] and Mom was front and center, along with a lot of her friends, many of whom we have lost in the last couple of years.
What is your mom’s legacy?
(Missy) Recently, I saw the play, Roe, over at Mixed Blood Theater, the story of Roe vs. Wade as seen through the eyes of two integral women, the attorney and the plaintiff. It demonstrates that the law and arc of history, from 1972 to where we are right now and how we are all worried about what’s going on, [takes time.]
I think Mom’s legacy was persistence, because it does take a long time to change things. Her generosity to the community and her belief that the world can change if you put your time, treasure, talent, and energy toward nurturing the next generation.
(Kate) My take on my mom’s legacy [is] more personal. She instilled in me this belief that I could do whatever I wanted to do, and that the world is a friendly, engaging, really interesting place that demands to be explored. [In return,] my obligation is to try to affect it in positive ways. Whether it is the world itself or my community, my engagement with it is built into me — to be engaged and try to make it a more hospitable and fairer place.
What do you want people to remember about her?
(Kate) I would like people to remember that [what] she accomplished in her political life, community engagement life, and social and cultural life [was] at a time when women’s roles were much more limited. She didn’t think anything was out of her reach. She never saw limits, [even] at a time when there really were limits [and barriers for women.] She just worked her way past them without [upsetting] people, which was remarkable.
(Missy) Over [Mom’s] last couple of years, her health was severely diminished. She lost much of her sight and had issues with her back, and so it could have, for a lesser person, really limited her scope and view of the world. And one of the things that was impressive is that she just powered through all of it. When she couldn’t see, she got a huge magnifying device where she could very slowly read the newspaper daily. She continued to listen to books on tape and the radio.
She was [still] out and about with friends and family, still going to a lot of the events that she had known so well, and [still] participated in and supported organizations she loved. [Mom’s] breaking through physical limitations was [aligned] with who she was. A lot of people still remember that. [Her friends tell me they remember] the smile on her face when you knew she was in pain and really frustrated, but she never let down.
If your mom was here right now, what advice would she give to her peers who have the resources, influence, and ability to act and give in the ways that she did to support the organizations and causes they care about?
(Kate) As Missy mentioned, so many of her peers are gone, but I think the advice that she might give would serve for all generations. [Mom] was involved with all sorts of philanthropic causes, from international women’s rights groups to small local theaters. She gave in alignment with her interests, which were widely varied. But contrary to a more recent trend in philanthropy, she did not try to bend issues and causes to her will, but to find those organizations she believed in and support their mission.
(Missy) And I think she’d encourage continual assessment of changes in our community and the importance of maintaining a balance between time-tested philanthropic support and new creative ways of addressing needs. Mom was all about finding your passions, doing your research, assessing how best to support, and having fun!
What would she say to this generation?
(Kate) There was a great amount of burbling cynicism that she saw at the end of her life. I think she would tell this generation to not give into [it or] be divided into camps. [We] are all here together to make our lives and those around us better.
(Missy) I think she would be encouraging people to find consensus, to find common points where we can come together, and to recognize life and community is made of change. [In] her lifetime, she saw demographic changes and cultural changes in the Twin Cities community and throughout the world. [Mom would remind this generation] to realize the nature of life is change. You can either fight it or embrace it, so go ahead and embrace it!