WOW Museum: The Struggle for Women's Suffrage


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1859-   Kansas statehood.

1861-   Kansas state constitution grants local school suffrage for women.

1867-   Kansas Impartial Suffrage Association formed.

1878-   First group of 'Exodusters' arrive in Kansas.

1887-   Women win municipal suffrage.

1891-   The Farmers' Wife founded by Emma and Ira Pack.

1894-   Suffrage referendum defeated.

1912-   Male voters approve full women's suffrage.

Annie Diggs

Annie L. Diggs (1848-1916), Kansas suffragist and populist orator.
Kansas State Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply

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Annie Diggs was a political powerhouse during the heyday of Kansas Populism. Born in 1848, Diggs moved to Kansas in the early 1870s. She married a postal clerk from Lawrence in 1873, where the couple pursued a Midwestern, middle-class, small-town lifestyle. That all changed when Diggs joined the Unitarian Church, an important religious, organizational, and social center for moral reformers and political visionaries. Unitarians led Diggs to the Liberal Union in 1881, considered by many Kansans to be a radical fringe group. She began publishing the Kansas Liberal with her husband in 1882. The paper lambasted the economic system run by a wealthy few, and demanded a fair chance for farmers, workers, and common people.

In Kansas, farmers were the backbone of reform politics. "Equal rights for all, special privileges for none," was the Populist motto. The Diggs were early supporters of the Kansas Farmers' Alliance, a network of Populist farmers in the late 1880s. Annie published a weekly column in the Lawrence Journal, where she gained notoriety and respect as a woman journalist with "persuasive charm." Commentators often contrasted her refined, persuasive style to that of the fiery Populist orator Mary Lease. Diggs did not confront or intimidate, and spoke convincingly as a thoughtful political strategist. Lease was a firebrand whose large size and loud confrontational approach appealed to the emotions of her followers. Although the two organizers were very different, both proved that women could be tough political organizers in rural America, in contrast to the genteel, domestic role for women recommended by eastern urban women's magazines of the time.

A fundamental tenet of Kansas Populism was the belief in women's right to vote. No real political change could take place unless there were enough voters to support farmers' rights--and women voters would hold the key. Inspired by Colorado's stunning suffrage victory in 1893, due in large part to the strength of Populism in that state, Diggs threw herself into the Kansas suffrage campaign of 1894. Bitter partisanship between the three political parties, as well as divisions over the issue of prohibition in Kansas, threatened the broadly unified campaign that was necessary for a suffrage law to pass. As vice president of the Kansas Equal Suffrage Association, Diggs tried to bridge the gap. She argued that "the suffrage movement knows no politics...It will be granted to us as a matter of expediency; for don't you believe each party wants to make a bid for the vote that is sure to come?" She also wrote for the Farmer's Wife newspaper, spreading the ideas of suffrage and women's rights into rural households across the state. Divisions over women's role in politics ruled the day, even within the Populist Party, and Kansas voters rejected women's suffrage in the 1894 referendum.

Diggs retained her influence upon Populist and Democratic Party politics in Kansas. Her critics complained of "a great party being whipped by a small woman." By 1900, Diggs had lent a new legitimacy to women's political participation, even though the right to vote would not be won in Kansas until 1912. She was proud of her Populist heritage and wrote: "For the first time in the life of the great republic, there was a political organization which grappled directly and fundamentally with the growing injustice which marked the dealings between Exploiters and the Exploited." Annie Diggs had fought the good fight.