The women's suffrage movement began in Oklahoma Territory (O.T.) when the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) formed in 1890. Prohibitionist women wanted the vote so that they could be more effective in their temperance work. However, by 1893 Oklahoma women had achieved the franchise in school elections only. The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) joined forces with the WCTU in 1895 and sent Laura Gregg of Garnett, Kansas, to organize local suffrage clubs in El Reno, Perry, Perkins, Enid, Kingfisher, and Oklahoma City, creating the Woman Suffrage Association of Oklahoma, headquartered in Guthrie. Margaret Rees of Guthrie, known as "the Mother of Equal Suffrage," served as the first president.
From 1890 to 1920, the NAWSA constituted over one thousand branches in thirty-eight states with membership of more than two million women and men. The NAWSA hosted national and state conventions and sent out speakers, representatives, funds, and literature such as their national organ, The Woman's Journal. The newsletter documented state associations' activities, evaluated strategies, and presented arguments for franchising women. Suffragists proclaimed their "natural rights" and alleged the vote would enable women to become better wives, mothers, and citizens. Their morality would purify politics and promote social reforms. The national strategy involved the state-by-state ratification of enough suffrage amendments to force the U.S. Congress to approve a federal amendment. However, franchise bills introduced in state legislatures repeatedly failed against opposition from the antisuffragists.
In 1898 NAWSA's president, Carrie Chapman Catt, toured O.T. to provoke interest in women's suffrage, but efforts remained weak until congressional activity brought the possibility of statehood closer. The NAWSA sent Dr. Frances Woods of South Dakota to organize the Indian Women's Woman Suffrage League of Indian Territory. The association had few local clubs but had prominent members such as Narcissa Owen of Muskogee. Her son, Robert L. Owen, lawyer and later U.S. senator, used his political influence and financial assistance to support women's suffrage. Suffragists from Oklahoma and Indian territories met in 1904 at Oklahoma City and established the Woman Suffrage Association of Oklahoma and Indian Territory. With Kate H. Biggers as president, the joint association adopted a pro-statehood resolution declaring that no law should be enacted "restricting the right of suffrage on account of sex, race, color, or previous condition of servitude."
In 1906 when the Oklahoma Enabling Act was passed, the NAWSA sent Ida Porter Boyer of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to assist the Oklahoma association. National and local suffragists, wearing yellow rose emblems, spoke at churches, schools, business colleges, and teachers' institutes and addressed the WCTU, Woman's Relief Corps, women's clubs, Twin Territorial Labor Union, and Grand Army of the Republic. Generally, they lobbied quietly and conservatively, encouraged supporters to sign petitions after church services, educated the public, registered women to vote in school elections, wrote newspaper commentary, and formed new suffrage clubs.
Despite the suffragists' active, well-organized campaign, the 1906 Oklahoma Constitutional Convention delegates voted against women's suffrage, thus classifying women with illiterates, felons, insane persons, and others denied the right to vote. The association moved to Oklahoma City and changed its name to the Oklahoma Woman's Suffrage Association.
As a favorable climate toward enfranchisement increased nationwide during World War I, Oklahoma suffragists, led by Pres. Adelia C. Stephens, lobbied the legislature in 1917, which submitted the matter as a constitutional amendment to be decided at the next general election. A splinter group of the national suffrage movement, the Congressional Union or National Woman's Party, was also active. In 1916 they sent Iris Calderhead of St. Mary's, Kansas, to Oklahoma to enlist support. Unlike the NAWSA, this organization was restricted to female membership and took a more militant and radical strategy. The Suffragist, the Union Party's official organ, encouraged women to paste literature on farmers' wagons, picket and parade, and shout from boxes at county fairs, picnics, and tent meetings. The most vocal of the local officers was Secretary Kate Stafford, who was unable to assume her duties until she had served thirty days in a Washington, D.C., jail for picketing the White House.
On November 5, 1918, Oklahoma voters approved State Question 97, which extended suffrage to women. A ratification committee, chaired by Katherine Pierce of Oklahoma City, helped ensure passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in the state legislature. When Oklahoma ratified the Nineteenth Amendment on February 28, 1920, the Oklahoma Woman's Suffrage Association disbanded and the state's League of Women Voters formed.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Mattie Louise Ivie, "Woman Suffrage in Oklahoma: 1890-1918" (M.A. thesis, Oklahoma State University, 1971). Louise Boyd James, "The Woman Suffrage Issue in the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 56 (Winter 1978-79). Louise Boyd James, "Woman's Suffrage, Oklahoma Style, 1890-1918," in Women in Oklahoma: A Century of Change, ed. Melvena Thurman (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1982). Ira D. Mullinax, "Woman Suffrage in Oklahoma," Sturm's Oklahoma Magazine 11 (November 1910). Elizabeth Cady Stanton, et al., eds., History of Woman Suffrage, Vols. 4-6 (New York: Fowler and Wells, 1888-1922). Marjorie Spruill Wheeler, One Woman, One Vote (Troutdale, Ore.: Newsage Press, Inc., 1995). "Women's Rights" and "Women's Suffrage," Vertical Files, Research Division, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. James R. Wright, Jr., "The Assiduous Wedge: Woman Suffrage and the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 51 (Winter 1973-74).
Tally D. Fugate
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