“A child should not be punished for what is no fault of his own. I want to do all I can to improve the lot of these poor children because I am one of them. I am an illegitimate child. I know what it means.”
—Hanna Jensen Kempfer
Born this day in 1880: Hanna Jensen Kempfer (1880–1943), popular legislator who served in the Minnesota state house of representatives for nearly 20 years
Kempfer was born at sea, the North Sea to be exact, under the British flag. She was the daughter of an unknown ship stewardess and sailor. The baby was abandoned in a Norwegian port and placed in an orphanage. She was adopted the following March by a Norwegian couple, Martha and Ole Jensen. The family moved to the United States in 1886. By that time the Jensens also had a four-year-old son, named John.
The family settled in Minnesota, squatting on railroad land. They remained poor, living in a small log cabin with a sod roof. From a young age Hanna worked many jobs, earning enough money to be able to get some schooling and pass a teacher’s exam.
She began teaching in Friberg Township, Ottertail County, at age 17. The students loved her, especially because she made them a hot lunch daily. She never forgot her own hardships and always tried to help others avoid the suffering she endured.
Kemfer was a natural community organizer and leader. She organized church socials, quilting bees, storm relief, and farm improvement clubs, and led township meetings. In 1903 she married a farmer named Charles Taylor Kemfer. The couple had no children, but opened their home to many in the community, especially orphans.
In 1922 the members of the community convinced her to run for representative in the state house. Running as an independent she was elected with a large number of votes. (She was also one of the first four women to serve in the Minnesota Legislature.) She served from 1923 to 1941, with only one defeat, in 1930. Her main focus was the environment and social welfare—especially that of women, children, and the disabled. She pushed for fishing licencing, the proceeds of which paid for stocking lakes and other fish management. She introduced legislation to protect the state flower, the Showy Lady’s Slipper. She also procured a ban on certain steel animal traps, described as cruel, on public lands. She fought for the welfare and status of illegitimate children, drawing upon her own experiences as well as making frequent visits to the state’s welfare institutions. She pushed for a law (finally adopted in 1927) that would give illegitimate children the same status as children born in wedlock and entitling them to their father’s surnames. Any men who opposed the measure, she said, were the “Tome-cats of the species.”
Kempfer was known for her take-no-prisoners passion in the legislature. Her collegues described her as “completely fearless,” outspoken, and uncompromisingly honest. She retired from politics in 1941 and died two years later after a fall.
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