Saturday morning, voting rights were at the forefront of conversation among those attending historians Diane Eikhoff’s and Aaron Barnhart’s program, “The Long Road to Women’s Suffrage in Kansas.” This year marks the 100th anniversary of Kansas’ ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They shared stories about the key women that led the fight in Kansas for suffrage, which had its origins in the temperance and abolition movements.
The event was held in the basement of the Great Bend Public Library, and presented in conjunction with Kansas Humanities and the Great Bend chapter of the League of Women Voters.
Members of the LWV Great Bend chapter, Bev Komarek and Janice Walker, as well as Erin Ferguson and Michael Adamyk with the GBPL, attended dressed as suffragists and supporters of the movement. The women wore white dresses, white hats, and sashes with the words “Votes for Women” printed across them. This is what pro-suffrage women wore in public marches to raise awareness of their cause, LWV member Janice Walker said.
The women also presented a sash to Eickhoff. To Barnhart and Adamyk, they presented yellow roses.
“Men who were in favor of suffrage wore yellow roses, and men who were anti-suffrage wore red roses,” Walker told the Tribune. She referred to the tense August, 1920 “war of the roses” in Tennessee. Suffragettes and anti-suffrage supporters fought to sway a majority of legislators to ratify the 19th Amendment. With one vote, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment, making it the law of the land. Eickhoff also mentioned the event during her talk.
Kansas women were granted the right to vote in all levels of elections in 1912, thanks to the persistence of women like Clarina Nichols who from her arrival in the Kansas territory in 1854 was involved in the efforts of the Underground Railroad and the suffrage movement. She was active in 1859 pushing for the inclusion of women’s rights in the Wyandotte Constitution which later became the Kansas Constitution.
“Those rights included the right to inherit property, equal rights in divorce, and equality in all educational matters including attendance at public universities and the right to vote in school board elections,” Eickhoff said. “Nichols felt this would be a stepping stone for women. If men could just see them voting they would realize it wasn’t going to turn the universe upside down.”
After the U.S. Civil War, Nichols and other suffragists were disappointed when the 15th amendment fell short of including women.
Then, in the 1890’s Laura Johns, a teacher from Pennsylvania, moved to Kansas with a dream. She encouraged women through education, eventually helping to sway men to allow women to vote in municipal elections.
In the 1890’s, Kansas’s first woman mayor was elected. Susanna Salter of Argonia was elected as a lark by the men in her community, but she accepted the post and proceeded to lead as well as any man before her.
Meanwhile, Barnhart pointed out, several western states voted in favor of suffrage for women: Wyoming was first in 1890, followed by Colorado, 1893, Utah, 1896 and Idaho, 1896.
“Then, there was a pause, but then activity picked back up again around 1910,” Barnhart said. Washington approved suffrage in 1910, followed by California in 1911.
Members of the Kansas Equal Suffrage Association including Kansas Governor Walter R. Stubbs’s wife,Stella Stubbs, took on the fight with renewed vigor with a multi-pronged effort that included printed tracts, public speeches and rallies, attendance at governmental meetings, an auto tour of the state and even a children’s essay contest, which swayed enough Kansas men to vote in favor of allowing women the vote, Eickhoff said.
Kansas women gained the right to vote in 1912.
As momentum built in the west, eventually states further east followed suit, until finally Tennessee became the 36th, providing the two-thirds of the states needed to ratify the 19th Amendment, making it universal throughout the country.
The 45-minute program was followed by time for questions and discussion from attendees. A question about why it took so long to finally ratify suffrage was picked up by several in the audience, and answers ranged from the reluctance of those in power to give up power to those with none, to the after effects of the Civil War, and a desire to return to a state of normalcy and a reluctance to embrace radical change.
The discussion ended with Barnhart quoting cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”