Kansas was frontier for women in politics

Town was first in nation to fill all government posts with women

? Not much is left to this community the bank, post office, a few empty storefronts and gapping holes where stores once stood along the wide main street.

But in the late 1800s, it was a thriving farm town with dry goods and drug stores, a photography shop, doctors, an undertaker and a newspaper all the trappings of a town on the move.

There was one other thing to set it apart its claim of being the first town in the nation to elect a full city government of women. Even so, it wasn’t something that unique in Kansas where women voting and holding office came earlier than elsewhere.

Mayor Antoinette Haskell, wife of a local banker and landowner, held the office in 1895, the only woman in city government. In 1896 voters reelected her and filled the five city council seats with women, plus the police judge and city clerk.

That same year in Ellis, a women’s “Law and Order Committee” slate won and the town had a woman mayor and all-female council.

As for the election here, the Gaylord Herald newspaper reported: “The story of the election is summed up in a few words. The women have manifested a desire to rule and the men are entirely willing that they should.”

It also noted the new police judge, Mary L. Foote, defeated her husband, J.H. Foote, and added, “The seat of justice in Gaylord will be decorated with ribbons and flowers henceforth.”

While there are few details about the election, there was an all-male slate and an all-female slate in this Smith County town of some 850 residents at the time.

But the all-female government was short-lived. The following year, men once again held all elected offices, apparently as the only ticket on the ballot.

State a leader

“Kansas was a little ahead of the rest of country in part because it was a frontier without all those imbedded institutions against women’s rights,” said Sara Tucker, a Washburn University history professor.

“Also, the frontier experience emphasized how much you have to have everyone working, how capable everyone is,” added Tucker, who teaches women’s studies at the Topeka university.

Kansas was a leader among states in women’s suffrage. By the time women got the right to vote nationally with the 19th Amendment in 1920, they had being doing it for years across Kansas.

Women were able to vote in local school board elections in 1861 when Kansas became a state. In 1887, they were allowed to vote in municipal elections and by 1912 in state and national elections.

Towns sprung up across the Kansas prairie in the late 1800s. For a town to thrive, it needed settlers looking for a place where they could raise a family in a safe, moral environment of the day.

Not much talked about

Betty Caspers, who collects history in this town of 140, said Haskell eventually moved to Kansas City, Kan. She said it’s not a big topic of conversation these days.

“I don’t believe the people talk much about it now. It was more of a thing back then because women were kind of second-class citizens,” she said.

Mayor Stan Horning, who runs the elevator at the edge of town, said, “As far as I’m concerned, if the ladies wanted to do it, more power to them. For that time frame, though, it was really strange.”

Jerry Brooks, the only woman on the city council, had heard of the all-female government, but said she hasn’t given it much thought.

“At least they did it,” she said. “Maybe the men were too busy.”

Tucker said the idea of the men being too busy with farming, ranching and businesses wasn’t that farfetched.

Improvements important

“The culture of the time dictated the men ran the businesses, operated the farms and ranches,” she said. “The men were literally willing to have women run the city governments because they were better educated.”

Tucker said making the town more attractive to settlers and businesses was another factor.

“Improving the town was a major factor for electing women,” she said. My impression is there were sound economic reasons for cleaning up a town. It may be that women could do that where maybe men couldn’t.”

Haskell wasn’t the first woman mayor in Kansas, or the nation. That honor goes to Susanna Madora Salter, elected mayor of Argonia in 1887.

The following year, Oskaloosa elected Mary Lowman as mayor along with an all-female council. In 1889, Baldwin City, Cottonwood Falls, Elk Falls and Rossville had women serving as mayors and on city councils.

By the turn of the century, at least 16 towns had elected women mayors and in most cases along with all-female city councils.