School Elections and Women's Sufrage Discussion (March and April 1996)

School Elections & Women's Suffrage Discussion Thread

Query: From: Thomas J. Mertz 23 March 1996

I am a graduate student in U.S. history at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison. For a future project(and possible dissertation) I am seeking both primary and secondary citations related to the sources and consequences of laws that granted women a restricted right to vote only in elections involving school issues.

What I am aware of so far are a handful of journal articles on Kentucky, Vermont, Illinois and Montana that touch on the subject, and three dissertations (Polly Kaufman,BU 1978: Judith McCarthur, U of Texas, 1992, and Nancy Isenberg, UW-Madison, 1990) that I haven't consulted yet, but from abstracts that I have seen do not include an extensive treatment of school suffrage. The general sources on women's suffrage that I have looked at mostly contain a paragraph or two and a cite to the Kansas constitution.

There are a number of big issues that intrigue me:

  1. Who pushed for school suffrage? Why? What rhetoric or arguments did they use?
  2. What does giving women a vote that was restricted to school issues tell us about perceptions of the place of education in american society?
  3. What does it tell us about perceptions of the place of women in american society?

It is the interplay between the changing "public sphere" and the changing "women's sphere" that I think school suffrage can shed some light on.


From: Sara Tucker 26 Mar 1996

In response to T.J. Mertz's query about early restricted women's voting rights on school issues:

As fas as I know, Kansas was the second state to give women the vote in school board elections(with Kentucky first, but more limited>) This was done at the territorial convention of 1860; Kansas then became a state in January 1861. The person most responsible for achieving this, and several other expanded women's rights, was Clarina Nichols. Basically, Mrs. Nichols was a New England feminist who had concluded it would be easier to win expanded women's rights from the beginning, in a new land, that to change established limits in the older parts of the US. She may have been helped by the generally high-minded atmosphere surrounding a group of men who reflected the victory of anti-slave Jayhawker influences in "Bleeding Kansas>"

While most rhetoric in Kansas was focused on slavery, Nichols (a close associate of Susan B. Anthony) always had her eye fixed firmly on freeing women from various legal disabilities. For more on her see Joseph G. Gambone, ed; "The Forgotten Feminist of Kansas: The Papers of Clarina I.H. Nichols, 1854-1885," _Kansas Historical Quarterly_ various 1973 issues. The first (Spring, 1973) begins with an introductory profile, later ones include the full text of a number of fascinating letters.

From: Bruce Cohen 26 Mar 1996

Women could serve but could not vote for school committees in Worcester,Mass. in the late 19th century- the state had a law on the books prohibiting women from voting!

From:     Marilyn Dell Brady     
      26 March 1996

I have done enough work on Kansas women to know they would be a good place to start. I had hoped to have some citations together for you, but that's not getting done. Let me be more general. Kansas was full of school boards and other local elections involving women before they gained full suffrage. Some of the secondary accounts of their stories,old and new, can be traced down in the Kansas History Index, compiled by Virgil Dean and recently published. There would also be tremendous collections of newspapers--including some by women--microfilmed and at the Kansas State Historical Society--along with private papers by some of those involved.

You are asking an important set of questions, and the sources are there for Kansas. Few people have been asking such questions about the Kansas story. I have a little bit regarding the Populist women and know there is a recent Yale Ph.D. that I haven't read that does--but none of this is about school board elections. Also women were being elected school superintendents before women had total suffrage. I am planning to do more on Kansas women and would love to stay in touch.

From:                  Rebecca Edwards
         26 Mar 1996

The most valuable primary source is the multi-volume _History of Woman Suffrage_: have you found, in the state-by-state accounts in Volume IV, the accounts of campaigns?

I'd love to see more conversations on this issue. My dissertation, _Gender and American Politics, 1880-1900_, deals with it peripherally but not in depth. You may want to compare education suffrage with municipal suffrage and the suffrage on temperance questions--other forms of partial suffrage that American women fought for and won in many states. I think women's presence at the polls and their political involvement in the Gilded Age has been much underestimated.

From:            Tracy Gottlieb         

I think you should read some of the literature on the municipal housekeeping movement (_Natural Allies_ by Anne Firor Scott, and Karen Blair's _The Clubwoman as Feminist_, for example) because there is much within that movement that talks about school elections being a "natural" sphere for women. My own dissertation, "Woman Journalists and the Municipal Housekeeping Movement," (College Park, 1992) discusses how the suffrage movement adopted the language of the municipal housekeepers to make voting appeal to middle-class women.

From: Rebecca Edwards

27 Mar 1996

I think the dissertation to which Marilyn Bell Brady refers is Michael Lewis Goldberg's "An Army of Women: Gender Relations and Politics in Kansas Populism, the Woman Movement, and the Republican Party, 1879-1896" (Yale, 1992). It's excellent.

From:          Genevieve G McBride 
      31 Mar  1996

Our own state of Wisconsin has an interesting history of school suffrage. In 1880, women suffragists lobbied for a bill which was amended to only school suffrage but failed--although one portion passed, which meant that Wisconsin women could run for school offices, but could not vote for themselves. Still, several did run and win for school superintendencies. Then, in 1885, women suffragists won a referendum on a bill written by one of their own which, according to their accounts, sought full suffrage--but was amended with an ambiguous phrase about school offices by the (all-male, natch) legislature during the debate on the floor. Then, in 1886, women actually won that (first) suffrage amendment in Wisconsin, which would have made ours one of the first suffrage states. However, when women went to the polls, some were refused entirely or found their ballots restricted to school offices. One who was refused was the redoubtable Reverend Olympia Brown, president of the Wisconsin Woman Suffrage Association, who took the case all the way to the state Supreme Court--where the justices in their wisdom determined the law as amended was restricted to school suffrage...but that the amending phrase was flawed and would have to be fixed by those who had written the phrase, i.e., legislators. Which the legislators in their wisdom did...but not until 1902, and only owing to a lobbying campaign by the Wisconsin Federation of Women's Clubs with the WWSA. In the interim, the WWSA and Olympia Brown had nearly been ruined by the court costs despite a fundraising visit to the state by Susan B. Anthony and others and to the work of women like the one who pawned her jewelry to help pay bills.

>From 1902 on--despite what you'll read in the standard histories of our state, which state that women did not vote in until full, federal suffrage in 1920--women not only voted but increasingly won election to school boards(a few had won before then, but not many.) Meta Schlichting Berger, leader of Socialist women and spouse of the Milwaukee publisher who became mayor and then a Congressman, became the first woman president of the school board of our state's largest city in 1915, serving a total of 30 years.

There's more to the story (including info on attempts at other forms of partial suffrage in Wisconsin as well as successes in neighboring states, such as temperance suffrage --on which you might find it useful to look at the WCTU archives in Evanston--and municipal suffrage), and you'll find in (my) _On Wisconsin Women: Working for Their Rights from Settlement to Suffrage_(UW Press, 1993)--which you'll find in the UW Memorial and Law libraries as well as the State Historical Society of Wisconsin collections. But you won't find much in the way of primary sources in the usual places, such as the WWSA or WFWC archival collections, since the former's records went up in flames in a fire at the State capitol soon after the turn of the century and the latter "ladies of the clubs" were rather circumspect in their organizational minutes! Some useful information is in the papers of specific women in the SHSW collections(although the papers of Theodora Winton Youmans, the woman who led the WFWC campaign, are catalogued under her husband'sname...and are not inventoried yet, after 60 years!) and in the Olympia Brown papers at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College.

BTW, Janice Steinschneider's excellent dss. on the WFWC also is at the UW and since has been published, but it does not deal with the 1902 campaign. Still I highly recommend it for background reading on Wisconsin clubwomen. Also, of course, there are Brown's and Youmans' (as her WWSA successor as president) state reports in the _History of Woman Suffrage_(and I recommend the report of their predecessor for background reading on state suffragists.) Also, do contact state historian Michael Stevens at the SHSW, as he recently edited and published correspondence of Victor and Meta Schlichting Berger.

I found the most useful information in the SHSW's microfilm collections of Wisconsin newspapers, specifically those published, edited, or at least *partially* written by women--including Youmans' later "oral histories" with Olympia Brown and the woman who wrote the 1886 law, Alura Collins Hollister. Note that the need to reduce footnotes in the book from hundreds of pages of week-by-week newspaper citations led to some "blanket" citations of newspapers over a span of time, unfortunately. But I have the specific citations for you if you need them. And it sounds like a wonderful study: I wish you luck...especially in attempting to figure out who wanted school suffrage and why. As our state history suggests, not all is as it first seems in the seamless web.

P.S. (Sorry, I forgot to mention in my earlier post a thought re: the first school-suffrage state, Kentucky, which might make your dss. of far wider interest. Biographies of Abraham Lincoln, including most recently David Herbert Donald's, note that he espoused woman suffrage, if briefly, early in his political career in Springfield. But Donald and others dismiss Lincoln's statements on the stump as seriously pro-suffrage, in part because--so they state-- it was not seriously debated at the time. I suspect they are succumbing to the usual confusion between full suffrage, which was not enacted in any state (or territory) until post-Civil War, as compared to partial suffrage. Yet, as I put it together, Lincoln's espousal occurred EXACTLY at the time that school suffrage was on the agenda in Kentucky...which, of course, was not far from Springfield, literally or figuratively, since he had emigrated from that state and then married into a political family of considerable significance in Kentucky politics! I've been intrigued by this point for some time but doubt I'll get to it in my lifetime, so...I hope to read what you might find out about it.

From:     Donna Schuele       
     09 April 1996

As in Massachusetts, California in the 1870s permitted women to run for school office but not to vote. I am studying this as well as other aspects of the suffrage movement in California prior to 1890. A good source for school (and other forms of partial) suffrage is the _Woman's Journal_.