Minnie Elizabeth Brewer was born on 28 July 1898 in Water Valley, Mississippi, to Earl Leroy and Minnie Marian Block Brewer. When she was three years old, the family moved to Clarksdale after her father’s appointment as district attorney for the 11th Judicial District. The family lived in Clarksdale until Earl Brewer’s inauguration as governor in 1912. At fourteen, Minnie was sent to Hollins preparatory school in Virginia, and the next year she enrolled in Hollins College as an “irregular” student, a status she retained throughout her college career. She studied briefly at the University of Virginia, Millsaps College, and the University of Wisconsin but never earned a degree because she would take only courses that interested her—primarily English and writing courses. “Why would I want to know about bugs?” she asked.
With the coming of World War I, Brewer joined the ranks of young women who volunteered to patrol the shores of the eastern United States to look for enemy ships. She was not happy sleeping among the sand dunes, however, and her father got her out of her commitment. She went home and contributed to the war effort by knitting scarves for the soldiers.
By this time the Brewers were back in Clarksdale, where Earl Brewer had built a house replicating the governor’s mansion and made a fortune in cotton and land speculation. Minnie went on a two-month grand tour of Europe in 1920 with a group from Hollins College. Back in Clarksdale she lived the life of a flapper, with hosts of suitors and at least three broken engagements.
In April 1922 Brewer went to Baltimore for the third annual convention of the National League of Women Voters, the organization that replaced the National American Woman Suffrage Association after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. More than one thousand women were in attendance, including prominent suffrage leaders such as Carrie Chapman Catt and Emmeline Pankhurst. Women were pinning their hopes for progressive social change on their newly won right to vote.
Brewer went home from Baltimore determined to start a political newspaper to educate the women of Mississippi as voting citizens. With her father’s encouragement and money, the first issue of the Woman Voter appeared on 3 August 1922. The paper was published for two years, carrying news from women’s organizations and nuts-and-bolts articles on the workings of government by such political women as Nellie Nugent Somerville and her daughter, Lucy. While the newspaper and the woman’s vote did not spark the revolution for which Brewer had hoped, women’s votes played an important factor in the election of Henry Whitfield, former president of Mississippi State College for Women, as the state’s governor.
At one point Brewer moved the headquarters of the Woman Voter from Clarksdale to Jackson, and while she claimed that the paper was distributed into every county in the state, still it did not pay its way. In January 1924 Minnie decided to leave the paper in the hands of Joe Howorth, a young Jackson lawyer, and to accompany her younger sister, Claudia, to the University of Wisconsin. She wanted to strengthen her skills as a journalist and to prepare for the Democratic National Convention in June, to which she was a delegate. In April 1924 the Woman Voter ceased publication, primarily because of Earl Brewer’s financial ruin. Minnie and Claudia had to return to Clarksdale in January 1925 and go to work.
Until 1939, Minnie worked in a dress shop, ran a boardinghouse, and became increasingly eccentric. In the spring of that year, her father had her committed to the Hospital for the Insane at Whitfield, where she lived for nearly forty years. Her initial diagnosis was “psychosis due to syphilitic meningo encephalitis” although “she lacks some of the symptoms.” If she had contracted syphilis from a World War I soldier, as one report indicated, and the condition had gone untreated until 1939, it seems unlikely she would have lived until 1978. An unconfirmed report indicated that she was among the patients smuggling out letters about the living conditions at Whitfield, an action that sparked a legislative investigation and brought about improvements in patient care.
Whatever the facts of her last forty years, Minnie Brewer was a pioneering feminist whose newspaper is a valuable resource for those interested in Mississippi’s history.
- Brewer-Howorth Correspondence, Somerville-Howorth Papers, Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe College
- Brewer Papers, Clarksdale Public Library; Earl L. Brewer and Family Papers, Mississippi Department of Archives and History
- Vinton M. Prince Jr., Southern Studies (Winter 1980)
- Dorothy Shawhan, in Mississippi Women: Their Histories, Their Lives, ed. Martha H. Swain, Elizabeth Anne Payne, Marjorie Julian Spruill, and Susan Ditto (2003)