Iowa Women Spent Decades Before 19th Amendment Fighting For Voting Rights

Photographer: N. J. Carey, Oskaloosa, Iowa. Source: State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines

The movement for women to win the right to vote was long in Iowa and the rest of the Midwest.

While progress seemed likely at some points, it was never fully realized until Iowa voted to ratify the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1919.

Many obstacles stood in the way—the alcohol industry, misogynists, strict ideas about gender roles, and citizenship—but the suffragists never stopped or backed down.

The movement started in earnest after a group of Dubuque women attended a lecture in Illinois and returned to Iowa to start the Northern Iowa Woman Suffrage Association in 1869. It was the first group organized for equal suffrage in Iowa.

Attendees of the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association convention held at Oskaloosa, Iowa, in 1889. Photographer: N. J. Carey, Oskaloosa, Iowa. Source: State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines

Then in 1870, a women’s rights convention was held in Mount Pleasant. There, women started the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association (IWSA), which would later become the Iowa Equal Suffrage Association, the most prevalent organization for women who wanted to organize for their right to vote.

It was also a well-respected organization and one that drew a lot of participants.

Attendees of the Iowa Equal Suffrage Association convention held at Panora, Iowa, November 9-11, 1905. This group was initially organized under the name Iowa Woman Suffrage Association. Source: State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines

That year, the Legislature also approved a resolution to amend the Iowa Constitution to allow women the right to vote. It didn’t last long and was rejected by the General Assembly two years later, forcing suffragists to start over. And while it came up repeatedly over the years, it never succeeded.

Women did eventually gain the ability to vote on low-level matters such as bond issues and taxes in 1894, but full suffrage was still out of reach.

During this early period, suffragists weren’t united around a strong central message or a strategy. Some took after segments of national suffragists. They advocated for birth control, divorce, and other then-radical ideas regarding women’s rights, but the feminism message was seen as too extreme by many in the Midwest.

A lot of women gained their organizing experience from other causes such as abolition or prohibition of alcohol (temperance). In fact, the temperance movement, driven mostly by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, drew a lot of women to it from church groups and social organizations already in place. This led to more groups of women getting involved in their communities and speaking publicly about having the right to vote.

The Iowa Federation of Women’s Clubs also helped as a resource for organizing and ideas. The Iowa Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs did the same for Black women in Iowa.

The original strategy for suffragists was to win over hearts and minds, but as the push to gain voting rights didn’t go anywhere, some activists called for a change in strategy.

Parade held during the convention of the Iowa Equal Suffrage Association held at Boone, Iowa, October 29, 1908. Marchers are passing the Methodist Episcopal church at 703 Arden Street. One banner reads: “Taxation without representation is tyranny—as true now as in 1776”. Photographer: Almon E. Moxley, Boone, Iowa.
Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, addressing the crowd after a parade held during the convention of the Iowa Equal Suffrage Association, October 29, 1908, at Boone, Iowa (8th and Story Streets) Photographer: Almon E. Moxley. Source: State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines

In the 1890s and early 1900s, leadership and ideas changed, shifted to the bold and the—at the time—radical.

By 1908, 100 women in Boone decided to show their support in the streets, holding one of the first suffrage parades in the United States.

Of course, parades and marches became more common and led to some of the most iconic images from the suffrage movement. This action was considered much more radical than the movement had been up to this point.

Suffragists organized a short automobile tour from Des Moines to Mitchellville in 1912.

In 1913, they had a longer tour that went from the center of the state in Des Moines to the southeast corner in Keokuk, stopping in at least 30 towns on the way.

In 1916, people in the lost mining town of Buxton, Iowa, also took to the streets to parade for women’s right to vote.

By then, support for women’s suffrage had increased, nationwide and in Iowa. For example, in 1916 the amendment to the Iowa Constitution that would allow women to vote finally passed two consecutive sessions but ultimately failed because of a fraudulent election.

Still, that gave women more chance to be out, advocating for their rights as the election approached.

Billboard urging Iowa men to vote for a women’s suffrage amendment to Iowa’s constitution in the referendum vote of June 5, 1916. The amendment did not pass and questions were raised about the integrity of the voting process across the state. Iowa location unidentified. Source: State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines

This change was due to decades of work, but World War I also played a major role.

Nationalism ran high, and the amount of work women did to support the war also helped to emphasize their roles in society. It also gave them another point of argument about why they should have the vote.

Congress finally advanced the 19th Amendment for the US Constitution in 1919. On July 2, Iowa was the 10th state to ratify it.


by Nikoel Hytrek

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