I attended my first Iowa Convention fifty-one years ago, in 1885, at Cedar Rapids. Mrs. Narcissa T. Bemis, of Independence, was then the fifth president. She was a handsome, stately woman who possessed so complete a knowledge of parliamentary usage and applied it with such rare skill and poise that I regarded her as a phenomenon. She served in different capacities on the Board for some years and was always an outstanding figure. I was afterwards a guest in her home and my admiration for her increased. She knew what she thought and, without emotion or resentment, she knew what to do about it. She was an important factor on the State Board for a number of years and was always an outstanding figure.
At that convention I met what I have always called the Des Moines group, - Mrs. Margaret Campbell, Mrs. Mary G. Coggeshall, Mrs. Martha C. Callanan, Mrs. Eliza Hunter. Many Des Moines women worked with them, but, generally, they came and went. These four women enlisted for life and never expected to furlough. They were my especial heroines and I was in close touch with them during the next twenty-five years, that is, from 1885 to 1910. These women kept the Polk County Association and the Iowa State Association going. No one of them, probably, could do everything, but the four, together, could do anything. They employed organizers, arraned their routes and tenderly nursed the young clubs that were formed.
The Federal government has made the R.O.T.C. plan familiar to every one. The Iowa Board used than plan fifty years ago. They attempted to find County Chairman in each county and thus to secure a skeleton of a perfect organization to be filled in when possible. I served as such a Chairman forty-five years ago. These women made speeches and wrote for the newspapers when there was no one else to do these things, but it was their favorite way to find other speakers and writers. There were few, if any suffragists, men or women, who became distinguished as speakers in the nation who were not secured for an Iowa trip. In the suffrage history of Iowa, I counted thirty such outside speakers. These lectures increased and revivified public opinion and every year found woman suffrage stronger than the year before.
These women edited and published the Woman’s Standard for twenty-five years, usually with Mrs. Coggeshall as editor and Mrs. Callanan as manager. Mrs. Hunter was treasurer of the State Association for many years. Mrs. Coggeshall was then State President. In the years that I knew the Iowa work best, Mrs. Campbell, Mrs. Bemis, and Mrs. Coggeshall were the presidents. Mrs. Callahan was usually corresponding secretary. For at least a generation, these women were the center of the movement in Iowa. A convention was held every year and a suffrage measure was introduced into every legislature. The Polk County Association began early to interview all candidates for the Legislature and usually they were favorable.
Shortly after the Civil War, George William Curtis was editor of Harper’s Bazaar, then the magazine of widest circulation in the nation. An ardent suffragist himself, he submitted a coupon vote to his readers on woman suffrage. The State giving the largest YES vote was in Iowa and the fact made quite a stir among national suffragists. Mr. Curtis advised a campaign in Iowa as the most promising of all the states. About this time, at the age of seven, I became a citizen of Iowa. Some years after, in 1896, I, as Chairman of the National Campaign Committee, reminded the National Board of Mr. Curtis’ proposal and urged that a campaign of preparation for a referendum be made. Both National and State Boards accepted this proposal. It became my further duty to arrange a schedule of County Conventions for this program. We covered half the State in the spring and the other half in the fall with overlapping conventions. Thus, in 1897, ninety-nine two day conventions were held with the result that county organizations in ninety-four of the ninety-nine counties of the State and 250 clubs were actually in existence at the end of the year. No state had done so thorough a piece of work at that date. The next year the entire state was covered again with meetings, arranged and addressed by Iowa speakers. Petitions to the Legislature had been employed in the State from the first and had increased from eight to one hundred thousand signatures. A large petition was presented that year, yet with the public opinion much increased, the organization greatly strengthened, the press and clergy in large proportion, outwardly favorable, the amendment was lost by a little larger majority than usual. I met such surprises a good many times afterwards, but this was my first experience and my recovery was slow and painful. For 28 years before this behavior in 1898, somewhere, had applied sinister technique of obstruction to the suffrage measure. When the House said YES, the Senate said NO. When the Senate said YES, the House said NO. When one resolution passed an assembly, the second Assembly, whose action was necessary to submission, always rejected it. The majorities were tantalizingly small.
It was about this time that Mrs. Coggeshall made a famous speech at the Suffrage Convention.
All four of this Des Moines group had a strong sense of humor and perhaps it was the amusement they got out the campaign, even when it was tragic, that inspired them to go on.
I do not remember the year exactly, but I think it was a year preceding a presidential campaign. Some newspaper in Iowa had presented a plan for party action which went all over the country as the Iowa idea. Perhaps some of you will remember that date. Mrs. Coggeshall gave that title to her speech and never, in a long series of conventions, have I ever heard a wittier speech. The audience, despite the fact that the stories she was telling were decidedly depressing in character, roared with laughter from beginning to end. The Iowa idea was to lead the suffragists up to victory in sight and then defeat them by one or two unexpected votes. That method continued.
From 1898 to 1916, the same behaviorism continued. State after State submitted amendments. Some times they were lost on referendum and some times won. When, at last, the Iowa Legislature did submit the Amendment which it had denied for 46 years, neither the movement nor the women needed a referendum. One-quarter of the states had won the full vote and Illinois had discovered a loophole in its constitution which permitted the Legislature to grant municipal and presidential vote. This was shortly followed by a Chicago election which so impressed the nation, it was said, that woman suffrage sentiment doubled in the country overnight. The women, now supported by their victories, looked to the Federal Amendment to complete the campaign.
At that moment, Iowa submitted the State amendment. The referendum took place in 1916 and was lost by 10, 341 votes. The same technique which prevented the voters for well night half a century from expressing their opinion now operated at the polls where 29, 341 more votes were cast on the woman suffrage amendment than the total vote for all candidates for Governor.
With their usual patience, suffragists decided upon another campaign. The Assembly of 1917 passed the Resolution, but when I came to the Assembly of 1919, it was discovered that notice of the passage of the resolution in 1917 had not been published as required by law. It therefore became necessary to begin all over again in 1921. Before that date arrived, the women of this entire nation had been enfranchised and women had voted in a presidential election in every state in the Union.
Other states also submitted amendments and these unwanted campaigns proved a serious embarrassment. Many of us believed the submissions at that moment were intended to overload the suffrage campaign possibilities, so as to bring disaster to the Federal program. It might have had that effect had not the campaign been saved by the State of New York. This State of largest population in the Union, with an enormous foreign vote and bitterly conflicting party politics and much suspected corruption, nevertheless granted the vote honestly by a fair referendum in 1917. That victory, plus a rapid grant of presidential suffrage by some fourteen states, plus the defeat of two senators who were unable to change their minds and the substitution of others, secured the submission of the Federal Amendment.
Meanwhile, the world had been busy enfranchising men and women since the war closed in 1918. In 1920, the International Woman Suffrage Alliance met in Geneva for the first time since the war. It was my pleasant duty, as President of the Alliance, to invite 21 nations, where women then had a vote, to send an official delegate to our Congress and they did. Among the women delegates were those from our late enemy states, Germany, Austria, and Hungary, where full suffrage for men and women had quickly followed the war. I was glad that my adopted State of New York had given me the vote before that day when the women of the world celebrated the wonderful victories in half of Europe.
Many millions of women were enfranchised before any Iowa women had a vote. For fifty years a group of unusual women, educated, intelligent practical, and able, conducted a wise campaign without pause or hesitation. The State provided as fertile a field as any in the United States and no candidate in Iowa ever forgot to quote at least once in every speech the State motto: OUR LIBERTY WE PRIZE; OUR RIGHTS WE WILL MAINTAIN. There was no hostility between men and women. I feel qualified to speak authoritatively on this subject. I visited and spoke in each of the 99 counties of the State and, at one time, I was a guest in hundreds of Iowa homes. I was a frequent guest at the homes of the Des Moines leaders and I can testify that, with a few exceptions, the husbands of suffrage wives in Iowa and elsewhere, were ardent supporters of the cause. My own Iowa husband said to me: “I am as earnest a reformer as you are, but we must live. Therefore, I will earn the living for two and you will do reform work enough for both.” The result was that I was able to give 365 days work each year for fifty years without a salary. What I did, many other women did. In truth, I believe the suffrage husbands of the past century deserve a splendid memorial all their own. Without their aid, the campaign could not have been victorious.
Alas, the glorious Des Moines group, who had been the propulsive force of the Iowa movement for a generation, those who had never paused nor hesitated, never found any sacrifice too severe nor any duty too irksome, were no longer here when the final triumph came. To use an old simile: “They had won the war for Iowa women, but had lost all the battles for fifty years.”
I have been moved to recall this record of Iowa upon this occasion in order to ask if a research into this sinister behaviorism of a minority during the long stretch of time is not a desirable step to take before the history of the enfranchisement of Iowa women becomes a closed and sealed book. You doubtless have observed that the human race has never been ready to meet a trying situation when it appeared. No one have ever thought it through.
We Americans never made a perfect application of democracy. Now our example of neglect is finding imitators. In 1920, there was not a dictatorship in Europe. Kings were falling and constitutions were rising. The world seemed getting ready for democracy. Now there are 16 dictatorships and only 12 countries where there is either self government or some attempt to apply that system. There are Governments of the Left and Governments of the Right in Europe, but both are despotisms. The world is grievously troubled by this manifestation. Will Europe fall as did Asia long ago before the degenerating influence of the despot? If so, what is our mission? To set a perfect example; to hunt out the enemies of honest, clean government and make the man who buys a vote with money, preferment, or other advantage, ENEMY #1. Set up the old standards once more, revivify the Iowa motto. Show the world that government of the people, for the people, and by the people, has not perished from the earth.
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