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Kansas City’s Long Road to Women’s Suffrage Women Shaped Local Politics Before They Had the Vote

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Above image credit: Kansas women gained full suffrage in 1912, after a campaign in which supporters used a car belonging to Kansas Gov. Walter Stubbs, often in the company of the governor’s wife Stella (far right). (Courtesy | Kansas Historical Society)
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13 minute read

One day in August 1946, Estella Carter of Kansas City arrived at her polling place, ready to vote in that year’s primary election.

Once inside, Carter was told that she had already voted. 

But she hadn’t voted, Carter protested. Then a man approached her, saying he already had “voted” for her. He held out two dollar bills and suggested she go buy a beer.

Carter, along with the rest of the women of voting age in America, at that time had enjoyed full suffrage rights for more than a quarter-century.

More at Kansas City PBS

Go here to watch the new American Experience documentary, “The Vote,” detailing the women’s suffrage story.

The 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment had extended to women the power to vote, and what 100 years later seems obvious and inevitable had been neither since before the Civil War. 

Even in 1920 women across the Kansas City area did not “receive” full suffrage rights as much as they had, over more than 70 years of activism, demanded them. 

In Kansas City the women’s suffrage story also included an inspiring postscript. In the mid-1930s local women, emboldened following decades of civic charitable work, organized to throw out machine rule in local politics – a task some Kansas City men, on occasion, literally had fled from. 

Similar courage also was shown by Carter, who sought justice for the theft of her vote by testifying for vote fraud investigators.

“I know my grandmother took voting very seriously,” Beverly Avery, Carter’s granddaughter said recently, “and not being allowed to vote would have been to her a slap in the face.”

‘Shoeless’ Children, and No Beer 

The local women’s suffrage story represents a continuum of commitment that, in Kansas, predated statehood.

Vermont journalist Clarina Nichols came to Kansas Territory in 1854, believing it represented fertile ground for women’s suffrage. In the spring of 1859, anticipating that summer’s constitutional convention, Nichols set out collecting petition signatures in opposition to “any constitutional monopoly or pre-eminence of rights, based on sex.” 

She believed she would need the signatures to enhance her standing at the male-dominated convention.

During planting season wagons were hard to come by, not to mention men to drive them for her.

“This was during a damp spring when all the men were in the fields,” said Diane Eickhoff of Kansas City, author of “Revolutionary Heart: The Life of Clarina Nichols and the Pioneering Crusade for Women’s Rights.”

But working from her home in the long-vanished Quindaro district, in what is now north Kansas City, Kansas. Nichols canvassed the settlements she could reach on her own.

”There is no man to go with me & I don’t want one,” Nichols wrote Susan B. Anthony, the New York women’s suffragist organizer with whom she had begun corresponding in 1852.

Clarina Nichols
Clarina Nichols moved to Kansas Territory in the 1850s hoping to secure women’s suffrage rights in the pending state. Although delegates to the 1859 territorial constitutional convention voted down her women’s suffrage proposal, Nichols succeeded in securing the right for women to vote in school district elections, as well as the right for married women to own property and to seek custody of children in cases of divorce. (Courtesy | Kansas Historical Society)

Nichols gathered almost 600 signatures and that July rode a borrowed horse from Quindaro into Wyandotte City – also located in what’s now KCK – to join the convention delegates in a hall beneath a saloon.

She went not expecting to be allowed to speak, but hoping still to influence the proceedings. She ended up speaking twice, both times after official business had shut down for the day.

A New York Evening Post correspondent described Nichols’ speaking skills as “tolerable,” yet complimented her for paying “some regard for feminine attractions in the way of ribbons and silver-gray curls which give her a frisky appearance…”

While free-staters controlled the convention, delegates voted down Nichols’ women’s suffrage resolution. She did succeed in securing some women’s rights provisions. Women were granted the ability to participate in school district elections, and married women were allowed to own property as well as have equal rights in the possession of their children in cases of divorce.

Territory voters approved the constitution and Kansas entered the union in 1861.

Six years later Kansas became the first state to put a woman’s suffrage amendment to a vote.

At the same time voters also considered a separate amendment granting suffrage to Black men. In this scenario, Black women needed both amendments to be approved to gain the vote.

Nichols would be disappointed, Eickhoff said, by national figures like newspaper editor Horace Greeley and abolitionist Frederick Douglas who long had encouraged women’s suffrage efforts but now declined to support them in Kansas.

Rather, they said, the moment belonged to those Black men who now deserved full voting rights, especially as so many had served in the Union Army during the Civil War.

“They said, and rightly so, that these men deserved to be enfranchised,” Eickhoff said. 

“But it was as if they couldn’t keep two ideas in their heads at the same time and they pulled a switcheroo.”

If some men merely declined to support women’s suffrage, others loudly opposed it. Some ministers insisted that allowing women to vote would contribute to the disintegration of the traditional family unit.

“They said children would go shoeless,” Eickhoff said.

Other opponents included some of the state’s German residents who apparently feared — given the well known sympathy among suffragists for temperance — that a new bloc of female voters might put at risk the availability of beer.

Both proposals failed, by wide margins.

Nichols left for California in 1871, but in her time in Kansas she made women’s suffrage prominent on the state’s political agenda. In 1887 Kansas women gained the right to vote in municipal elections, and finally won full suffrage in 1912. 

By that year there were women’s suffrage committees in every Kansas county, Eickhoff said, and the governor, Walter Stubbs, allowed suffragists, including his wife Stella, to campaign in his own car. 

“Men had to change or nothing would have happened,” Eickhoff said.

“By then there were enough men who did not feel threatened by it. Women had been voting on school district elections since Kansas had become a state, so they were used to seeing women vote.”

“…work to do in this world”

Sarah Chandler Coates had been disappointed by her first glimpse of Kansas City.

She had arrived in April 1856, traveling by steamboat with her husband, real estate developer Kersey Coates.

“And this is to be my home,” she remembered thinking, at one point describing pre-Civil War Kansas City as “a most unsightly spot, with scarcely a redeemable feature about it.”

Sarah Chandler Coates
Sarah Chandler Coates, the wife of Kansas City civic leader and real estate developer Kersey Coates, helped establish several local women’s organizations, among them a women’s suffrage group whose members met in the Coates House hotel, built by her husband. (Courtesy | Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library)

It was far from the genteel corner of Pennsylvania where she had grown up, the daughter of Quaker parents with an unceasing seriousness of purpose. 

In a tribute volume published after their mother’s death by Coates’ children, readers learned how as a child Coates had lectured the family chickens in the style of speakers representing the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, the Christianity movement whose adherents included her parents.

In a diary she maintained as a young girl, Coates had written “as long as woman is made subject to the laws, so long should she have a voice in making them.” 

At meetings of the Young Ladies’ Lyceum of her hometown of Kennett Square, 30 miles from Philadelphia, she often formally addressed her peers.

“Be mirthful and happy as you will, but be not brainless butterflies of fashion,” she once told them.

“For there is work to do in this world.”

In 1870 Coates was among the founders of the Women’s Christian Association, one of Kansas City’s earliest charitable organizations. The group rented a building at 11th and McGee streets where members opened a home for indigent women and children.

In 1894 Coates collected the signatures of hundreds of women seeking Jackson County’s support of mentally impaired women who recently had been transferred from the state asylum to the county’s public indigent homes, or “poor houses.” 

Coates also led the local Kansas City women’s suffrage organization, which met in the Coates House hotel, built by her husband, at 10th Street and Broadway.

In 1896 she helped organize a Kansas City suffrage meeting featuring Susan B. Anthony as speaker.

Anthony – who, like Coates, had grown up in a Quaker family – had been in and out of Kansas City often, usually staying at the Coates home. She became a women’s suffrage activist in the early 1850s and by 1896 a Kansas City Star reporter claimed to be able to discern the sheen of legacy already upon her.

Susan B. Anthony
Susan B. Anthony toured Kansas in 1867, campaigning in favor of the state’s proposed women’s suffrage amendment. In later years she spoke several times in Kansas City, often staying at the home of local women’s suffrage champion Sarah Chandler Coates. (Courtesy | Kansas Historical Society)

“It is an awesome thing to stand before Susan B. Anthony, the famous apostle of woman suffrage,” the reporter wrote after interviewing Anthony.

“Her great age is stamped upon her spare brow and thin cheeks, and her eyes are pale with the haze of many wonderful years. It is really startling to hear the clear, strong voice – the voice of command – issue from the thin, faded lips of this venerable woman… The expression of power is, therefore, all the more prominent, because it shows in every word or look.”

The resilience of Anthony and her Missouri peers had been earned. 

Between 1867 and 1901 Missouri suffragists 18 times had submitted signatures in support of a state constitutional amendment enfranchising women. Missouri legislators only deigned to vote on eight of them, defeating every one.

In 1914 Missouri voters rejected a women’s suffrage constitutional amendment by almost a two-to-one margin.

But five years later, on June 4, 1919, Congress passed a federal suffrage amendment. Less than a month later Missouri ratified it, making the state the 11th of the 36 states needed to ratify the 19th Amendment.

Tennessee, the 36th state, ratified it on Aug. 18, 1920.

Winning Women’s Suffrage

Strategies of Suffrage: Introduction

This American Experience visual timeline (above) includes an interactive map recounting the spread of women’s suffrage across the United States.

Not quite two weeks later, in a special election to fulfill a vacancy on the Hannibal, Missouri, Board of Aldermen, Harriet Hampton became the first Black woman in the state to vote.

Black men across the country had gained the right to vote upon the 1870 ratification of the 15th Amendment. But officials in several southern states soon began instituting poll taxes, grandfather clauses and literacy tests, all designed to prevent Black men from voting.

Some Kansas City politicians began engineering their own version of voter suppression in 1908.

That year voters elected Thomas Crittenden, Jr. as mayor of Kansas City. In his campaign Crittenden had promised to remove Black men from public employment. Soon, one newspaper, The Kansas City Post, began listing politicians who supported literacy tests for Black voters.

Crittenden, along with William Cowherd, a former Kansas City mayor and area congressman, soon spoke of placing a Black disenfranchisement plank in the state Democratic Party platform. That scheme lost momentum when other party officials worried that if Black voters could be disenfranchised, perhaps other key party constituencies could be as well.

Asserting their right to the franchise represented only one of many challenges continually faced by Black women in Missouri, said Delia Gillis, history professor at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg and director of the school’s Center for Africana Studies.

“I honor the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment’s ratification, but within the context of African American women’s suffrage, it just does not have the same weight, the same resonance,” Gillis said.

“For African American women, voting was not an end into itself. If you look at the African American churches, especially the Baptist church, you will find women working on a host of issues. 

“Their causes were very intertwined.”

Those studying the women’s suffrage story also must recognize the tensions between the White activists and their Black counterparts, Gillis said.

“White women suffragists alienated African American suffrage supporters, particularly (abolitionist and orator) Frederick Douglas and (journalist and educator) Ida B. Wells, two individuals who had been stalwarts from the very beginning of the suffrage fight,” Gillis said.

“For me, as a social historian, I have been more excited about the larger fights for democracy, as African American women have had to fight for their citizenship.”

Civic Housekeepers

Before and during World War I, suffragists had grown sophisticated in effective protest tactics.

In 1916 demonstrators wearing white dresses and carrying gold parasols formed a “Golden Lane” in St. Louis. Delegates to that year’s Democratic National Convention walked through the lane from their hotels to the convention hall.

The women stood silent, symbolizing their inability to communicate through the ballot box. 

The tactic of stoic silence sometimes seemed to provoke responses. Beginning in 1917 members of what some considered the women’s suffrage movement’s more militant wing began staging protests just outside the White House to protest what they considered President Woodrow Wilson’s indifference to their cause.

Many demonstrations included vigils by “Silent Sentinels,” or protestors who didn’t speak but held up banners that called out Wilson for the way his lofty rhetoric regarding liberty and democracy rang hollow, given the inability of women to vote. 

One sign held aloft in August 1917 addressed “Kaiser Wilson” – an unsubtle reference to Wilhelm II, the emperor of Germany, against which the United States had declared war the previous April.

Such tactics struck some onlookers as unpatriotic, but the demonstrators persisted. Over more than two years police officers would arrest almost 500 protestors near the White House, with more than 150 serving jail time.

Harriet Andrews of Kansas City spent several days in a Washington, D.C. jail. Her description of that experience, printed in a 1919 issue of The Suffragist, included her regret that she had not brought with her any of the works of Jean-Henri Fabre, a prominent entomologist of his day – all the better, Andrews wrote, to observe the specimens she was sharing her cell with.

“I lay on my straw pallet and watched them clustered in the upper right hand corner of my cell waiting for my light to be put out before they began their nightly invasion,” she wrote. 

“And when my light went out, the bulb that still burned in the corridor enabled me to watch them crawling down in a long, uninterrupted line.”

Some of Kansas City’s activist women had seen this kind of thing before. In 1905 members of a Kansas City women’s temperance group, following a scandal at the city’s workhouse, had investigated the unhealthy confinement practices at the facility.

Since the late 19th century, members of several Kansas City women’s clubs invested time and effort in various public acts of benevolence, said Kay Barnes, former Kansas City mayor and author of “Civic Housekeepers: Women’s Organizations, Civic Reform and the 1940 Elections,” part of “The Pendergast Years” digital history archive maintained by the Kansas City Public Library.

“If there were issues with child nutrition or young women going astray, these were the issues that the female civic leaders would really rally around,” said Barnes, who served as Kansas City’s first female mayor from 1999 through 2007.

Members of Kansas City’s male elite were fine with that, as were many of the women, Barnes said.

“Part of it was the perceived preferred role for women during that time, particularly middle-to-upper class White women,” she said. “As their traditional role was in the home, they could get involved in benevolent acts.

“The dividing line for some of them, however, was getting involved politically. That was the line of demarcation.”

Chelsea Clinton and Kay Barnes
Chelsea Clinton and former Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes participate in a question and answer session at the launch luncheon for the Starr Women’s Hall of Fame. (File Photo | Flatland)

That changed, but only over time.

One pivotal moment, Barnes said, was the address given in 1932, to a women’s group known as the Government Study Club, by Rabbi Samuel Mayerberg of Congregation B’nai Jehudah.

Mayerberg challenged the women to not just study government but act upon their knowledge of it and – specifically – to throw off the corrupt rule of the Pendergast machine.

“The time for study is passed,” Mayerberg told the women. 

The women in attendance, Barnes said, stood and applauded.

“Some of the women had reached a point where they had a clear recognition they needed to get involved politically,” she said.

That didn’t happen immediately. The executive board of the Woman’s City Club, founded in 1916 and boasting almost 2,500 members five years later, hesitated in 1932 when its executive committee pondered whether its dining room should be used for a dinner organized by Prohibition opponents. 

The board decided against it, Barnes said, as it represented the discussion of a controversial public question inside the club.

By 1938, however, Barnes writes, the club’s executive committee agreed to issue a letter to all members urging them to register and vote, Barnes writes, “in the interest of good government.”

The Pendergast organization still had its supporters. In 1938, in what was considered a largely clean election, machine candidates had won eight of nine Kansas City Council seats. 

But machine boss Tom Pendergast pleaded guilty to income tax evasion in 1939 and entered Leavenworth federal prison.

In 1940 an estimated force of 5,000 to 7,000 women, affiliated with a variety of Kansas City women’s clubs and political organizations, organized to elect John Gage, a reform candidate, as mayor.

To that campaign the activist women of Kansas City brought a unique record of achievement. Decades of visible civic accomplishment – in pressing for the availability of pure milk to poor families, and for public playgrounds that would keep children from playing on dangerous city streets – gave them a moral high ground not occupied by others.

“They not only had the moral high ground, but political skills they had developed in organizing,” said Barnes, who today serves as senior director for university engagement at Park University.

“They had a postcard writing committee. They had representatives going through neighborhoods getting voters registered. On Election Day they took hundreds of people to the polls.

“Some of the men who had been involved for decades in Kansas City elections were amazed at the organizational prowess these women brought to that election.”

One such woman was Eloise Comer, in 1940 chairwoman of the women’s division of the Charter Party, a reform organization.

Comer and her colleagues resisted alliances with established Republican or Democratic party organizations.

“We couldn’t trust either one of them, frankly,” Comer told The Kansas City Star in 1996.

“So we started our own party.” 

As their icon, the women borrowed a symbol of domestic drudgery: the broom.

Miniature broom pins, suggesting the “clean sweep” they believed was coming to City Hall, appeared on hundreds of lapels. 

At rallies, some women arrived with actual brooms. And sometimes they proved more courageous than their male counterparts.

Comer remembered one rally at her party’s downtown headquarters. Before the meeting colleagues alerted Comer that a crowd of men had gathered down the street brandishing baseball bats.

She went outside to look for herself. 

She then went back to the upstairs meeting hall, only to discover that all of the reform-minded men had done the manly thing – run.

“They had all scooted out the back,” Comer said.

On election night, a triumphant John Gage pushed a broom for the benefit of photographers. His wife, Marjorie, stood to his left, a broom over her shoulder like a musket.

Some headline writers across the country couldn’t decide which was the bigger story – the Pendergast machine’s loss of political control in Kansas City or the women who had taken it.

“WOMEN DEFEAT MACHINE RULE IN KANSAS CITY,” read the headline in the Colorado Springs Gazette.

That didn’t stop the occasional institutional condescension.

“Put a woman behind a broom in a house or in an election and you’ve got a clean sweep coming,” announced The Kansas City Times.

Justice and Courage

Six years later Estella Carter tried to vote.

As detailed in “John the Yegg: The 1947 Ballot Theft From the Jackson County Courthouse,” by local author Patrick Fasl, Carter was among hundreds of voters who had been defrauded during the August 1946 primary election by operatives of a nascent political organization.

Carter and others testified regarding their experiences but the initial prosecution collapsed after evidence of the fraudulent votes was stolen from a Jackson County courthouse safe, blown open one night in 1947.

Still, Carter’s testimony helped federal prosecutors later convict the man who had told her to forget about voting and go buy a beer.

Carter also refused to allow the incident to dampen her passion for social justice. As she grew up, she schooled her granddaughter Beverly Avery in civil rights history and the long struggle for Black men and women to enjoy equal rights, including voting rights.

Carter died in 1988. Avery did not know about her grandmother’s 1946 voting ordeal until author Fasl tracked her down and told her.

Fasl also nominated Carter for inclusion on the Monument to Freedom, Justice and Courage at Leon Jordan Memorial Park at 31st Street and Benton Boulevard.

Avery attended the 2018 dedication ceremony for the first 100 area residents honored. She saw her grandmother’s name listed among those of Emanuel Cleaver, Kansas City’s first Black mayor, and John “Buck” O’Neil, Negro Leagues legend and longtime Kansas City champion of equality.

“What I’ve taken out of knowing this story is that I know how important it is to have your voice heard,” Avery said. 

“And I know that if you don’t vote, then you really don’t count.”

Flatland contributor Brian Burnes is a Kansas City area writer.

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