Archive for Monday, October 8, 2001

Kansas was progressive in women’s suffrage

October 8, 2001


— When she suggested women's suffrage was a sign that American society didn't value families enough, state Sen. Kay O'Connor may have inherited part of the political legacy of fellow Republican Joseph Hooker Mercer.

Mercer, from Cottonwood Falls, didn't think highly of women's suffrage. He suggested that it represented a burden for women and that, "It would be the means of disturbing the homes of our state, which is the foundation of our free government."

The problem for O'Connor, the 59-year-old Olathe legislator who received national news with her remarks, is that Mercer made his comments 90 years before she did. It was February 1911, and Mercer had just cast his vote against a proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution to give women full voting rights.

Mercer was on the losing side. Not only did both houses of the Legislature adopt the proposed amendment within a day of each other, but voters ratified it in 1912 eight years before universal women's suffrage was added to the U.S. Constitution.

Kansas has a fairly progressive history when it comes to women's suffrage and the involvement of women in politics.

"The battle for women's suffrage was a long and hard-fought one," said Virgil Dean, a research historian for the Kansas State Historical Society. "Kansas became, early on, a place where that battle occurred."

O'Connor said she isn't against women voting, encourages them to do so and wouldn't take the right away from them. But she argued that in an ideal America, one in which men are taking care of their women properly, women wouldn't feel the need to vote.

The 1920 enactment of the 19th Amendment, which gave women universal suffrage nationwide, is a sign that men weren't doing their jobs at the time, O'Connor said. Men should be the head of their families, women their hearts, she said.

Her comments led one angry constituent to start a recall attempt, and Atty. Gen. Carla Stovall suggested O'Connor should resign. Even Jay Leno felt compelled to comment in a "Tonight Show" monologue.

Perhaps it's because the debate about women's suffrage seemed settled for so long. And it was settled in Kansas before it was settled in most other states.

"The land that was broken in this state was broken by women and men together," said Senate Majority Leader Lana Oleen, R-Manhattan.

In 1869, the Wyoming territory granted women the right to vote in all elections, making it the first. But Kansas law had allowed women to vote in board of education races since statehood in 1861.

By the time Colorado granted full suffrage to its female citizens in 1893, women had been serving in local offices throughout Kansas.

An 1887 law allowed women to vote in municipal elections and hold city offices, and less than two months after its enactment, Susanna Madora Salter, of Argonia, became the first woman elected mayor in the United States. The following year, Oskaloosa had an all-female city council.

There were setbacks, of course. In 1867, a proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution to allow full women's suffrage failed by a wide margin, despite visits from nationally known advocates like Susan B. Anthony.

Some opponents claimed that women weren't interested in voting. Rep. Clement Wilson, a Republican from Tribune, said no woman had asked him to vote for full suffrage.

Some who voted for the proposed amendment said Kansans should have the right to decide. Others argued it was fair. One, Rep. W.T. Watson, an Iola Republican, said he voted yes "in deference to the wishes of the best woman in Kansas" his wife.

Kansas became the seventh state to enact full suffrage for women, behind Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Washington and California.

In 1978, Nancy Kassebaum, a Republican, won a seat in the U.S. Senate, becoming only the third woman elected to that body. Kansas became the ninth state to have a woman governor in 1990, when Democrat Joan Finney was elected.

This year, 13 of the Kansas Senate's 40 members are women, 10 of whom are Republicans. In the House, women hold 40 of 125 seats, and they include 23 Republicans.

In 1919, Gov. Henry J. Allen called a special session so that the state could ratify the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as quickly as possible. The votes in both houses were unanimous, and Allen took pride in the fact that its enactment a year later would not give Kansas women something they didn't already have.

"It is a fitting episode in the closing chapter of a long struggle a struggle in which Kansas has held leadership from the beginning," Allen said in a message to legislators.

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