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Celebrating Women’s Equality Day with Two Minnesota Pioneers for Equality: Louise Whitbeck Fraser and Diane S. Cross

By Pam Dewey • equality, womens equality, womens equality day, Women’s Equality Day, equality pioneers, disability rights pioneers, disability rights pioneer Minnesota, disability rights pioneer Louise Whitbeck Fraser, Fraser founder, disability rights Minnesota, female CEO, Fraser CEO Diane S. Cross, female pioneers for equality, business leader Diane S. Cross, womens right activist Diane Cross • August 17, 2023

August 26 is celebrated as Women’s Equality Day in the U.S. While it commemorates the day women gained the right to vote in 1920, it also focuses on women’s continued fight for equality, including women of all races, religions, sexualities and abilities.   

Though the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote, it didn’t guarantee that all women had the right to vote. The Harvard Gazette states, “When the 19th Amendment was ratified 100 years ago, it granted all women the right to vote — in theory. In reality, most Black women didn’t gain suffrage until the Voting Rights Act of 1965; during the intervening 45 years, they were stymied by poll taxes, literacy tests and other racist measures.” The 19th Amendment also didn’t include voting rights for Native American and Asian women. Black women’s access to the vote was further stymied by fellow women, like famed suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt, who suggested that giving white women the right to vote would uphold white supremacy, to convince lawmakers to vote for the 19th Amendment. This split the suffrage movement, which had been aligned with the abolition movement.

Though August 26, 1920, didn’t grant all women the right to vote, it was an important day and is worthy of celebration. While we recognize our progress, we must continue pushing toward equality for all women. In celebration of Women’s Equality Day, read along to learn more about two female pioneers for equality, Louise Whitbeck Fraser and Diane S. Cross. Both Louise and Diane were instrumental in advocating for women’s equality and disability rights in Minnesota. 

Equality for children with disabilities

Louise Whitbeck Fraser, the founder of Fraser, was a Minnesota disability rights pioneer. A widowed, single mother, Louise began teaching her daughter, Jean — who has hearing impaired — at home. Word spread, and soon parents were asking Louise to tutor their children with disabilities. During her first year in 1935, seven children attended Louise’s Home Study School in Minneapolis. But not everyone thought Louise was an innovator. Mental health officials called her a fraud. That didn’t stop her. By 1939, attendance was up to 15 students.

Today, Fraser is a large, multi-service organization serving individuals with autism, mental health issues and disabilities statewide. Much of this growth is thanks to Fraser CEO and President Diane S. Cross, who started at Fraser in late 1989.

Diane S. Cross: Creating her path forward

Diane grew up in an impoverished coal mining town in Ohio during the 50s and 60s. Most of her parent’s friends were coal miners, but her father ran a beer distributing company. He believed a woman’s place was in the home. When Diane told him she was going to college, he told her there were only two acceptable jobs for a woman: a teacher or a nurse.

Diane didn’t like the sight of blood and didn’t see being a teacher as her calling. Instead, she studied speech and language disorders and received a Bachelor of Science in communication disorders from Ohio University.

After graduating, Diane moved to Montana to practice speech-language pathology, since many states required a master’s degree. In Montana, she worked as a speech therapist at Northern Montana College, serving the Hutterite and Native American communities.

Diane then moved to Minnesota and began working as a receptionist at Courage Center, a nonprofit rehabilitation center that served children and adults with brain injuries, spinal cord injuries and other physical disabilities. Soon, she was doing hearing screenings at all the senior living centers and then was asked to become the supervisor of Courage’s speech and hearing departments. While working as a supervisor, she completed her master’s degree in communication disorders and achieved her Certificate of Clinical Competence in Audiology from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

Diane continued to excel and was asked to lead more departments at Courage Center. Eventually, she became the Director of Medical Rehabilitation and Education.

“I had a female mentor at Courage Center, who was just fantastic,” says Diane. “She pointed out that women start most nonprofits, and then once they started to make money, the board would hire a man to run the organization. I wanted to change that paradigm.”

Changing the paradigm of leadership

In the fall of 1989, a parent she had worked with asked her to apply for the executive director position at Fraser. Diane had a newborn and a two-year-old, and thought that working for a small organization with a great reputation would allow her to have the “best of both worlds,” gaining CEO experience while caring for her two young children.

But when Diane arrived at Fraser, she realized the programs and budget needed an overhaul. Fraser School’s roof was leaking. The county said it wouldn’t continue to provide funding for the school. The Muriel Humphrey Residences were deemed too large, so the state wanted the program closed. To top it off, there wasn’t enough money to make payroll that first month.

“I was convinced Fraser was going to close, and then all these individuals we served would have nowhere to go for care,” says Diane.

Creating a plan focused on growth

Instead, Diane created a strategic plan. She went to the board and apprised them of the situation. She also asked the staff to take pay cuts, to help keep Fraser afloat. To the staff’s credit, they agreed, and Diane says their support helped turn the organization around.

She had to let the janitor go, and along with the rest of the staff, took turns cleaning Fraser School. She and the staff began delivering milk and supplies to the residential homes. She hired a fundraising staff to raise more money.

They did have to close the Muriel Humphrey Residences, but Diane had a plan for that too. Fraser purchased four-person homes that continued providing care and a safe living space for adults with disabilities.

When Courage Center decided to shutter some services, Diane saw an opportunity to expand Fraser’s programming. She doubled the size of Fraser School to serve more children with disabilities.

“As a business, whether you’re a nonprofit or not, you have to grow or die,” says Diane. “I wanted to make sure that Fraser became known throughout the community — providing a ‘one-stop shop’ — so we could better serve our clients and make a bigger impact.”

Minneapolis Children’s Hospital also decided to close programs, and Diane again saw a chance to better support the Fraser community. After taking over these programs, Fraser began offering autism services, neuropsychology services and day treatment for abused and neglected children. To house these services, Diane led a major capital campaign and opened the first clinic: Fraser Minneapolis.

When Diane started, Fraser had a $1 million operating budget and served 200 individuals a year, at 5 facilities. Under her guidance, the annual budget has grown to over $120 million, and Fraser now serves over 13,000 individuals each year at 64 locations. Diane has also prioritized supporting, promoting and mentoring other women in her tenure at Fraser. Ninety percent of the Fraser staff are women, including most leadership roles. She has also prioritized supporting continuing education and career advancement for employees.

“I’ve faced a lot of adversity and challenges in my life, like many people. I’ve learned that having an education can get you out of situations you might not otherwise be able to escape from,” says Diane. “I want to make sure others have that kind of freedom and power and pass on the support I’ve received from others. I also firmly believe leading with humility and grace are as important as other skills in your career.”

She currently serves on the Board of Governors of the University of Minnesota Health (M-Health), the Board of Directors of the University of Minnesota Health Clinics and Surgery Center, Inc. and several other boards. Diane was named an industry leader by the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal and was recently honored with the Children’s Law Center of Minnesota Heroes for Children Award.

Always putting the individuals and families first

Diane says some of her most influential decisions at Fraser have been doubling the size of Fraser School, positioning Fraser as the most comprehensive provider of autism services in the Upper Midwest, becoming the largest provider of early childhood mental health in Minnesota and expanding supports and community living options in both homes and apartment buildings. She is also particularly proud of the Fraser Sensory Certified™ Supports and Training program and the recent focus on the Fraser Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging initiative.

“But I haven’t done any of this alone,” says Diane. “I’ve hired great people and been really blessed to work with an unbelievable group of committed professionals and board members.”

Diane’s favorite part of her job is spending time with the children Fraser serves.

“One of my favorite memories was for my 50th birthday, all the children from Fraser School made paper flowers and came to my office and handed them to me one by one,” says Diane, smiling. “And whenever we have a fire drill, I’m always the first one to the infant room to help carry the babies out!”

Diane says what makes her a strong leader is always putting others first and listening to what clients need.

“Although my dream of working part-time while raising my two children didn’t happen, I’ve never regretted taking the opportunity to lead Fraser,” says Diane. “Looking back, I realize it was never a job, but a calling!”