Inside JCPRD: Women and the vote

By the Johnson County Museum

This year, 2020, is the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote (called “suffrage”). Although hard to believe, the 1920 presidential election was women’s first. With a national election occurring during this centennial year, it is worth understanding Kansas women’s suffrage history.

After Kansas became a territory in 1854, there were several attempts to craft a constitution. Clarina I. H. Nichols, a suffragist, abolitionist, and journalist who lived in Quindaro (Kansas City, Kansas) petitioned the Wyandotte constitutional convention in 1859 to include women’s suffrage. She was shouted down as too radical, but ultimately she secured the right for women to own property and to vote in school elections. These considerations were included when the Wyandotte Constitution became the state constitution in 1861.

In 1867, Kansas took up the issue of women’s suffrage again. Suffrage for black men and white women were up for a state referendum. Susan B. Anthony, one of the national suffrage leaders, visited Olathe and other Kansas towns on a speaking tour ahead of the election. At the time, only white men were able to vote. In the end the referendum failed—nearly twice as many men voted for giving suffrage to black men than to white women, but neither had enough votes to pass (black men would secure the right to vote with the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870, during Reconstruction following the end of the Civil War).

Kansas Equal Suffrage Association in Topeka. Photo courtesy of Kansas Historical Society

Women in Kansas were more politically active than in other states, perhaps because of their role in the state’s long struggle to achieve state-wide alcohol prohibition in the late 1800s. Once achieved in 1881, the powerful speakers of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and suffragists (referred to as “suffragettes” in the past) were often included in speaker’s circuits across the Midwest, such as the immensely popular Chautauqua Assembly. The Kansas Equal Suffrage Association, founded in 1884, became an influential force in Kansas politics. Women began to hold elected offices beyond school board positions starting in 1887. In that year, an all-woman city council was elected in Syracuse, Kansas, and Susanna Madora Salter of Argonia, Kansas, was elected the first woman mayor in the nation. Despite this, another state equal suffrage amendment was defeated at the polls in 1894.

The Kansas Woman Suffrage Campaign of 1912 was a massive struggle, but was finally successful in achieving an equal suffrage amendment. Kansas was the eighth state in the union to grant women full suffrage. It would be another eight years before the national women’s suffrage movement would claim victory. Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association with its two million members, finally convinced Congress and President Woodrow Wilson to craft the 19th Amendment in 1919. It was ratified by a majority of states the next year and became law. It granted all women (but in practice mainly white women) the right to vote in all elections. The text was simple but profound: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

To learn more about women in elected positions in Kansas and Johnson County’s trailblazing women politicians, view the Johnson County Museum’s free digital exhibit, Women and the Vote, on display in the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center Cultural Commons from March 2 through the end of 2020. For more information about the broader movement in securing women’s right to vote, see the museum’s past JoCoHistory Blog post, “The 19th Amendment: Empowering Local Women.” There is a concerted effort by museums, archives, and other historical institutions throughout the Kansas City Metro region to mark the 19th Amendment Centennial with programming, exhibitions, and special events. For more information, search the hashtags #19at100MO and #19at100KS on social media platforms.