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First in the Midwest: Kansas' role in the women’s suffrage movement

by Mike McCabe ~ March 2015 ~ Stateline Midwest »
When the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1920, American women secured one of the most precious rights of citizenship — the right to vote. The amendment, which represented a significant milestone in the larger and ongoing struggle to ensure equal rights for women, was also the culmination of a 70-year campaign focusing on voting rights.
The women’s suffrage movement that began in the mid-19th century was marked by false starts and setbacks that threatened to leave women mired as second-class citizens in a public sphere still dominated by men. But there was progress too, and along the way, several states played key roles in opening the door to women’s suffrage. Here in the Midwest, Kansas would prove to be the trailblazer.
Third time a charm in Kansas
In 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Quaker abolitionist Lucretia Mott convened a meeting in Seneca Falls, N.Y., devoted to women’s rights. The convention generated a series of 13 resolutions embodied in a “Declaration of Sentiments, Grievances, and Resolutions.” One of the declaration’s stated objectives was securing voting rights for women.
The nascent women’s suffrage movement effectively came to a halt during the Civil War. But just two years after the war ended, movement leaders turned their attention to the Midwest, where, in 1867, Kansas became the first U.S. state to hold a statewide popular referendum on women’s suffrage.
Having previously granted women a limited right to vote in school district elections in 1861, the Jayhawk State was a logical battleground for expanding voting rights.
But this first franchise referendum was defeated, and eventually, a handful of western states would precede Kansas in granting women’s suffrage. Inspired by these triumphs and buoyed by a successful effort to extend voting rights to women in municipal elections (Kansas became the first state to do so in 1887), suffrage activists in Kansas launched a second attempt to win even broader voting rights in 1894. But once again, a proposed amendment was defeated at the polls.
By the turn of the 20th century, only four states (all out West) had extended the franchise to women, and a proposed U.S. constitutional amendment, introduced for the first time in 1878, had yet to win widespread support. But the tide finally began to turn at the dawn of the Progressive Era, and in January 1911, a third attempt to grant women’s suffrage was introduced in the Kansas Legislature.
The Equal Suffrage Amendment quickly passed and was signed by Republican Gov. Walter R. Stubbs. The measure was then submitted to the state’s male electorate for ratification, and on Nov. 5, 1912, Kansas became the eighth state, and first in the Midwest, to approve women’s voting rights in all elections.
During the next six years, seven more states extended full voting rights to women, including Michigan and South Dakota. By 1919, limited suffrage rights, including the right to vote for president, had been granted in every Midwestern state. The final victory followed on Aug. 8, 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (identical in language to the measure initially introduced in 1878) was formally ratified by the states. By then, women in Kansas had been voting for almost a decade.


First in the Midwest highlights noteworthy “firsts” in state government that occurred in this region. Please contactMike McCabe, CSG Midwest director, if you have ideas for future articles.