WOW Museum: The Struggle for Women's Suffrage


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1861-   Kansas statehood.

1861-   State Constitution allows women to vote in local school elections.

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.

Kansas: The Third Time Is a Charm: Prairie Consciousness

Leavenworth Suffragists

Kansas's statehood in 1861 prompted suffragist Clarina I. H. Nichols to lobby delegates to delete the word "male" from the franchise clause in the new state constitution. When that effort failed organizers took hope from the granting of school suffrage by 1861. The Kansas Impartial Suffrage Association launched a statewide referendum campaign after the end of the bloody Civil War. They invited Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell, two of the nation's leading abolitionist and suffrage organizers, who stumped the state of Kansas for support in 1867, hoping to start a prairie fire and fan the flames of "universal suffrage"--including blacks and women. But victory in the nation's first popular referendum on women's suffrage proved out of reach, when male voters turned down the measure by a wide margin. Some blamed women's apathy, anti-liquor crusaders and radical "outside agitators" for the defeat. Perhaps it was just too soon.

Exodusters Kansas offered the promise of political freedom and the prospect of dignity through land ownership for African Americans anxious to flee poverty and disfranchisement in the post-Reconstruction South. This "Exoduster" movement began in the late 1870s and culminated in the establishment of the West's first all-black town, Nicodemus. The community provided a base from which black women could participate in Kansas politics and the suffrage cause.

The Populists spirited the suffrage movement in Kansas back to life as it swept through the Great Plains like a prairie fire in the 1880s and early 1890s. Grassroots rural protest erupted against wealthy railroad monopolies, high-priced grain storage and unstable prices for farm goods. Farming men and women targeted corrupt politicians as well, embracing women's suffrage as a means to bring about economic and political justice. The extraordinary victory of women's suffrage at the ballot box in neighboring Colorado in 1893 spurred a second referendum campaign in 1894. Annie Diggs Great Populist orators like Mary Lease and Annie Diggs addressed large crowds in Grange halls and schoolhouses in every corner of the state. The popular weekly Populist/suffragist newspaper The Farmer's Wife brought the movement into every farmhouse in Kansas. Although Democrats shunned the suffrage cause, mainstream Republican women joined the campaign. The effort was fraught with internal and external political bickering, and the referendum was defeated at the polls for the second time.

Fresh energy and more prosperous times spurred a third attempt to enact women's right to vote in 1912. By now the political climate had changed--ushering in a period of dramatic political and social reform known as the Progressive era.

Prohibition Rally Rural support for suffrage remained steadfast. Women sent more than 100 petitions with 25,000 names in support of a new suffrage amendment in 1911. The liquor interests garnered support as well, raising more than $1 million for an anti-suffrage campaign. But because Kansas had outlawed saloons for 32 years, the "anti's" had no base from which to draw the support of male imbibers. In turn, suffrage organizers had learned the perils of past stridency and bent over backward not to antagonize the men. One activist acknowledged: "We did not argue with men in conversation-we waited until we got on the platform where they could not 'sass back.' We were never spectacular...We tried to put our enemies to sleep and arouse our friends to action...We did not fight for suffrage, we worked for it."

All of the major parties and factions united at last, as Kansas voters delivered the final victory in 1912. Kansas was now the eighth suffrage state.