Women's Suffrage: The Story of Iowa

by Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Shuler
The Story of Ohio
Woman Suffrage by Federal Amendment

The Story of Iowa

The woman suffrage campaign in Iowa is remarkable for what it failed to achieve. Its interest lies in the accomplishments of the foes of suffrage.

The State was populated by a people of high average intelligence, and a school system that dotted the prairies with schoolhouses in every four square miles was early established. All public institutions of higher learning were co-educational. The State was a staunch defender of the Union, as a soldiers' monument in nearly every county seat testifies, and its traditions made it normally a one-party State, its history recording only one Democratic Governor. The State motto, “Our liberties we prize, our rights we will maintain,“ reflected in truth this high-spirited sense of freedom.

The suffrage agitation was begun in 1854, but in Iowa as elsewhere the movement paused during the Civil War. The submission of the 15th Amendment by the Congress in 1869 induced action on behalf of woman suffrage in Iowa, and a number of suffrage clubs under influential leadership were organized in the larger cities.

These new groups made an appeal to the incoming Legislature which ratified the 15th Amendment and passed a resolution providing for the submission of a woman suffrage amendment to the voters of the State. This action was widely commented on by the nation, as the Iowa Assembly had for the first time elected a woman engrossing clerk and it became her duty to carry the victorious suffrage resolution from the House to the Senate, a fact which called forth many editorials upon the new opportunities of women, many warmly endorsing woman suffrage.

In the spring of 1869, delegates from the organized suffrage clubs met in convention and organized the Iowa State Woman Suffrage Association with the object of preparing for the expected referendum. Lecturers hastened hither and you, leaving suffrage societies behind them, which presented their plea at meetings and in interviews with clergymen, editors and politicians. The most historic of these was the Polk County Woman Suffrage Society, located at the capital. This society not only never failed to hold its monthly meeting from October, 1870, to August, 1920, when all suffrage work in the nation came to an end, but it served for many years as the director of the State legislative campaigns. It never failed to make its appeal to every Congress for the submission of the Federal Amendment and to each Legislature for suffrage action, usually the submission of a State amendment. Whenever the State organization threatened to collapse as the result of disgusted disappointment the Polk County group stood steadfast and bolstered it up again.

The Iowa Legislature meets biennially and the constitution provides for amendment by the submission of any proposition to the voters after its passage through two successive Legislatures. When the Legislature of 1872 met, the organization was ready, the press friendly, the leaders of the Republican party outspokenly favorable, the Governor announced his endorsement of the amendment and the House voted its second passage by 58 to 39. The Senate, after a spirited debate, voted to engross the bill for third reading, 26 to 20, and hopes ran high. Yet a few minutes later the final vote stood 23 to 23.

That record was the prototype of the fate of suffrage in various encounters with Iowa Legislatures to come: First a legislative opinion reflecting an unmistakable public opinion in favor of suffrage, then a sudden over night shift that lost the pending suffrage measure by the scantiest margin, but lost it just the same.

The Republican State Convention of 1874 adopted a clear-cut pledge to submit to the voters a woman suffrage constitutional amendment. When, in 1876, the Legislature elected on this platform met, Governor Carpentier in his message said:

“When all America is celebrating achievements inspired by the doctrine that taxation and representation are of right inseparable, it is recommended that you give the people of Iowa an opportunity to express their judgment upon the proposed amendment at the ballot box.“

The House promptly passed the measure, 54 ayes; 40 nays. A careful canvass of the Senate, made by friendly Senators as well as by the women, showed a suffrage majority of ten on both polls. The vote was taken-and suffrage lost by one vote. Not a known enemy had appeared. No reason was given for the sudden change of front.

Undismayed, the women rallied for the legislative campaign of 1878 and Governor Newbold wrote a recommendation favoring submission in his message, but some unexplained influence induced him to suppress it. The House passed and the Senate defeated the resolution.

The Legislature of 1880 submitted to the voters a prohibitory amendment for the first time. The woman suffrage amendment was lost by an error on engrossment. From that time on suffrage was buffeted about in the fight of the wets and drys for the political control of Iowa, the wets fighting it subrosa, the drys masking their sympathy for fear of overloading the prohibition fight.

For years the State vacillated from one side to the other, now wet, now dry. A type of politician developed which was afterward familiar in many States, known as the “damp dry“ and the “dry wet,“ a delicate difference existing between these two terms. Such men could be depended upon to vote neither dry nor wet if it were possible to avoid action. It was in this State that the term “stand pat,“ afterwards adopted nationally, was inaugurated.

Meanwhile the suffrage association continued to be one of the ablest of those early days. The '70's and early '80's was a period of lectures and lecture courses and every man or woman who spoke on woman suffrage made the rounds of the State. The press was circularized over and over, as were the clergy. The press was extremely favorable and the churches of all denominations were remarkably liberal-minded on the question. Iowa “woman laws“ by comparison were unusually fair.

Iowa claims the first woman dentist (1863) in the country and also the first woman to be admitted to the bar (1871). Woman physicians found hospitable welcome in the State, while forced in the East to bear little short of persecution from their male rivals. Many women ministers, also, who would not have been tolerated at the time in the East, presided over large and flourishing churches. In the early '80's, the Patrons of Husbandry grew with rapidity and at one time had 2,000 local granges. Each, being founded upon the principle of the equality of the sexes, was a centre of woman suffrage education among the farmers. The first woman county superintendent of schools was elected in 1869, and women superintendents were numerous thereafter. These and many similar facts demonstrate not only the liberal attitude of the people toward the woman question, but the fact that the State was a leader in the movement.

When politics was not involved the Legislature made quick response to this advanced public opinion by voting eligibility to women for the office of county superintendent of schools and Recorder of Deeds, when few States granted the first privilege and none the last. It made women eligible to most State boards and commissions and defended their equal rights under the law in numerous ways. It is also claimed that the Republican party, dominant in the State, was the first to introduce the innovation of women campaign speakers. Yet among this public-spirited, progressive people where suffrage was advocated to a notable degree, forty-three years of unceasing work was necessary before a well-organized, intelligent suffrage association could get the question to the voters who alone possessed the right to render decision.

An extraordinary effort was put forth by suffragists in 1900 in order to convince the legislators that a public demand existed for submission of the question, and petitions numbering 100,000 signers were presented to the Legislature. The Committees of both House and Senate reported the bill favorably and unanimously. The House defeated the measure 44 ayes; 55 nays. Further work by suffragists secured a promise of reconsideration and the certain passage of the measure, provided the Senate should first pass it. This information was given the Senators. The resolution was lost in the Senate by one vote.

The women knew of nothing further that could be done to strengthen their demand. They had exhausted all methods known for giving a mandate to a Legislature concerning the desires of the people except through the expression of party platforms. The Republican party was as evasively friendly as the Legislature, the Democratic was frankly wet and “anti.“ The State suffragists had not yet learned that the stronger the demand and the more efficient the organization, the smaller the chance of getting submission! Under the State suffrage motto “Never give up“ the workers were again rallied, and in the hope that a new Legislature might prove to be a more liberal one they urged submission again in 1902. The bill was passed by the Senate and lost by the House. In 1904 and 1906 the amendment was lost in the House and did not come to vote in the Senate.

The constitution being amended, the legislative year was changed from even to odd years, and the Legislature met again in 1907. It was now time to reverse political responsibility, so the measure was lost conveniently in the Senate, and did not come to vote in the House. In 1909 and 1911, for the first time in forty years, it was lost in both Houses.

In 1913, the Legislature, having the first dry majority in some years, passed the resolution, the Senate voting 31 ayes, 15 nays; and the House 81 ayes, 26 nays. In 1915, under similar conditions, the resolution was again passed by the Senate, 38 ayes, 11 nays; and by the House, 84 ayes, 19 nays. Thus after 24 campaigns stretching over 45 years, the Legislature, having no power itself to decide the matter, permitted the voters the right to express their opinion. The first suffrage leaders who, exalted by the spirit of liberty prevailing in the '60's, had begun the movement in expectation of early triumph, had long been gone. Those who had taken their places and led fearlessly forward for another generation were nearly all gone, too. Mary J. Coggeshall, who for thirty years had inspired the suffragists of the State, had died in 1911, leaving $10,000 to the National and $5,000 to the State Suffrage Association with which to “carry on.“ Her friends in 1913 sorrowed that she was no longer there to share the joy with them when the first triumph broke the long strain of continual discouragement. Many of the faithful remembered how she, the bravest of them all, had turned away from the State House after the last adverse vote with pale face, broken look and trembling lip-a lifetime of work apparently of no avail.

The Legislature passed the amendment on to the voters for the primary election, June 5, 1916. So many times had the suffragists made ready for campaigns that never came that they had had no spirit for preparation for this campaign of 1916, lest it again prove fruitless, and the neglect had left them much to do. While they were holding conferences to make their campaign plans and to compose a campaign budget, calling for a modest campaign fund, another conference was taking place in St. Louis of which they knew nothing.

Henry Thuenen, counsel for the Iowa brewers, gave a report of it to Mr. Andreae, chief of the National Political Committee: [1]*

“Fred Kemmerle and I were in St. Louis yesterday to keep an appointment previously made with Mr. August A. Busch, President of the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association.

“This conference was in pursuance of our agreement and understanding with Mr. Andreae, and was asked in order to give us an opportunity to discuss the future of Iowa.“

Mr. Thuenen had already sent a long letter to the Interstate Conference Committee of the United States Brewers' Association,[2]† setting forth the political situation and adding:

“We are of the opinion that woman suffrage can be defeated, although we believe that the liquor interests should not be known as the contending force against this amendment. Action of some kind should be taken to assure a real and active campaign against this measure. . . .

“As we view the situation there is a feeling that the fight which has been made by the brewers and the liberal interests of the State is very little short of marvelous in that it has deferred the evil day so long. . . . Our breweries will be closed and the revenue with which we have conducted our past fights will be removed. . . . To sum up, what Iowa needs at your hands, if you are disposed to interest yourselves in the State is: First, a contest on woman suffrage at the primary in 1916; Second, a contest for liberal senators at the election in 1916, and if this fails, then Third, a contest at the polls on the Prohibitory Amendment in 1918 unless otherwise provided by the Legislature.“[3]*

Before the primaries a mysterious but vigorous campaign for hard paved roads began to make itself seen and heard in Iowa. Nothing seemed more remote from the old familiar wet and dry controversy that had raged for more than a generation in the State than good roads. Farmers Tax-Payers' Leagues-apparently to be sincerely what they purported to be, that is, organized protests against extravagant taxation-had been vigorously urged by the Iowa Homestead, the chief farm paper of the State, with a pro-suffrage editor. In answer, such leagues had sprung up like magic, until nearly every county had one. The Homestead urged the nomination of W. L. Harding, whom the brewers had called “our man,“ upon the sole ground that he disapproved of hard roads. The Register, chief Republican paper, was urging his defeat as earnestly because of his well known wet record. Many farmers read the Homestead only and, aroused to protest against taxation for hard roads, were won to the Harding standard.

As the campaign drew near its close and the hard roads controversy was at its climax, having been successfully pushed into the forefront of the political discussion of the moment, a connection between the two sides of the contest was made. A rumor-no one knew whence it came-grew into a definite charge, that it was the women in the towns who wanted the hard roads, estimated to cost millions of dollars, in order that they might ride into the country comfortably in their automobiles! Were Mr. Harding nominated and elected there would be no hard roads-he would veto the bill. There followed a further rush of farmers to his support.

At this point the Republicans met in convention. With all the wets, plus a large number of farmers opposed to hard roads, supporting Mr. Harding, his nomination became daily more certain. Then came the final coup. Should Mr. Harding be nominated, and it was evident he would be, he could not be elected should women be enfranchised in the primary! First, they would vote against him because he opposed hard roads which they were alleged to want; second, the probable Democratic nominee was a highly respectable man with a well known dry record, a curious fact since his party was and always had been frankly wet. Women, said the rumors, would vote for the dry Democrat and against the wet Republican. The only remedy for Republicans therefore who did not want their party to go down to defeat was to kill the suffrage amendment!

The public saw no visible hand, no responsible moving power, yet little “ads“ now began to appear in the country press. The last issue of the Homestead before the primary carried a page advertisement urging farmers to vote against woman suffrage if they did not want to pay for hard roads. No hint of wet or dry issue was made. When the long-professed suffrage editor was chided for this act of perfidy he could only say feebly, “I got $600 for the ad.“

Certain Republicans were insistent that this mysterious propaganda caused the adverse majority, although they professed not to know whence it came. Was it one of those exasperating cross currents that so often upset political prediction? Not at all. Henry Thuenen, counsel for the Iowa brewers, paid the bills for it; the publicity man who conducted the campaign successfully designed to dupe the farmers said so! [4]*

On primary day, June 5, 1916, the brewers scored three victories: 1. The woman suffrage amendment was defeated. Mr. Andreae's machine had again worked with “unerring accuracy“; 2. A liberal Senate had been nominated, and 3. The candidate that the brewers wanted for Governor had been nominated.

The results in the primary were not unexpected by suffrage leaders of the State or nation. Some weeks before primary day, the Republicans had met in convention at Cedar Rapids and there it had been decided either by the leaders or by a group within the party to kill the suffrage amendment quietly. From that convention there went home two men who had either reluctantly acquiesced in that plan or had protested in vain. One of these men told his sister of the decision, the other his wife. Both made their confession because the two women were working in the suffrage campaign to the very limit of their endurance, and they wished to soften the coming disappointment. Each man declared to his confidante that, should the fact leak out that he had told, he would swear that he was not the one who had betrayed party confidence.

But had there been no secret information the fact that the amendment had been scheduled for defeat was soon apparent. Like the sudden veering of the wind had come a change in the attitude of friendly Republican leaders. Organizers, speakers, local workers, knowing nothing of the friendly warnings and without knowledge of other points, reported the change as a local symptom. As far away as the New York suffrage head-quarters it was known that something sinister had happened. As barometrical changes indicate coming storms so signs as dependable may forecast political action.

The majority against the suffrage amendment at the polls was only 10,341. Four German counties on The Mississippi River where the German-American Alliance was strongest and the wet sentiment had always been constant (Dubuque, Jackson, Clinton and Scott) gave a greater majority against the amendment than did all the rest of the State. The responsibility was thus clearly laid at the door of the brewers but the nature of the secret intrigue that had brought the result is only partially and probably will never be fully known.

Barrels and Bottles, published at Indianapolis, the headquarters of the bureau that pushed the organization of the German-American Alliance for the brewers, commented upon the outcome under the title “Listen, Sisters“: “This handicap (of wet opposition) has again and again prevented the granting of suffrage to women, just as it did in Iowa the other day when the suffrage amendment was defeated by a margin so small that it was manifestly only the unpopularity of that proposition in the larger cities, where prohibition is not favored, that prevented its adoption.“

Immediately after the election, a third Republican in the upper party ranks, in a moment of disgust, confided to another suffrage State officer that “the amendment would have won had the Republicans not agreed to count it out!“ Then he added that should it leak out that he had said this thing he would deny it even though it meant to declare so estimable a lady as his confidante a liar!

Rumors of strange happenings at the polls were already spreading but lawyers advised that the election could not be declared illegal no matter what evidence was found. One lawyer, acting for the W. C. T. U., visited 44 counties, returning with 200 pages of affidavits which when summed up revealed many varieties of violation of the election law. A common defense was at once expressed by party workers that such errors occurred in all elections; but there were two which could not be explained away. “The records,“ ran the lawyer's report, “in the Secretary of State's office disclose that there were 29,341 more votes cast on the equal suffrage amendment than the total cast for all candidates for Governor!“ All political experience establishes the fact that in a normal election the head of the ticket receives the largest vote in any given election and amendments or measures the smallest. Where did all these extra votes cast on the suffrage amendment come from?

The achievement could not be charged to the brewers alone. It required the co-operation of bi-partisan election boards in enough precincts to guarantee results. How was it brought about? Was it not the fear of a possible Democratic administration, carefully planted and nursed by the brewers' argument that W. L. Harding would be defeated in the election should women vote, that led to the decision at Cedar Rapids to kill it? Was it not Republican co-operation with wet Democratic election officers long trained in that State to defeat popular opinion at the polls that led the Republican official to use the words “counted out“? The investigator of that election will discover ample evidence of motive for falsifying the returns, and evidence that an honest public opinion was not expressed. What is wanting in the evidence is the testimony of witnesses who saw the compacts made or heard the instruction given. The absence of this conclusive evidence of political corruption has balked the cure of that unmitigated evil for generations.

Conviction was burned into the soul of every suffrage leader that the amendment had been defeated by trickery, but how had it been done? Friendly politicians were put on the grill and asked the question, “What were the tricks and how can we find them? “ Numerous lawyers were called upon by anxious deputations and asked another puzzling question:- “If we find the fraud in the election what can we do about it?“ The politicians agreed that it was too late to discover actionable evidence of fraud in the election and the lawyers said that were fraud found the law would not warrant the declaration that the election was void.

The law provided that the ballots cast at a special election should be held for six months “unless a contest is pending.“ Therefore the W. C. T. U. brought an injunction-proceeding against the Executive Council, the Governor, the Secretary of State, the Auditor of State and Clerk of Public Documents, claiming that no legal election had been held. The motive for bringing the injunction was not revealed, beyond its obvious effect to prevent the destruction of the ballots, nor was the character or quantity of evidence given to the press.

It was the intention of the W. C. T. U. to petition the Legislature for an investigation into the conduct of the election and with the evidence collected to press for another election. The Iowa Suffrage Association joined in this request. The law of Iowa, as of many other States, had no suitable provision for a recount on amendments or measures. Frauds once committed were practically beyond discovery.

The situation was without precedent. Public opinion was greatly aroused but divided, many claiming the irregularities unearthed to be the outcome of innocent carelessness, others that they were indications of a statewide criminal conspiracy. It was clear that whether perpetrated by the innocent or guilty, the law offered no easy solution to the problem. No politician wanted an investigation into the election. The evidence proved that an almost unbelievable number of irregularities had been committed by election officials, but it did not reveal whether these had been due to gross ignorance and carelessness or to fraud as defined by the law. Nor did the evidence reveal how or by whom fraud had been committed if fraud there had been.

Iowa suffragists found the wet Legislature of 1917 in irritable mood and professedly resentful of the charge that the men of the State had conducted an illegal election. The legislators made a counter charge that the women were “poor sports“ who should know when they were beaten and ask no suffrage favors for a time. A lame compromise was at length agreed to; the women dropped their appeal for a new election and the Legislature resubmitted the amendment. Even this compromise action was secured only after a bitter fight, in the midst of which the wets, following their universal “red herring“ policy, introduced an amendment to the constitutional amendment proposing submission of the question to the women for the purpose of sounding their views; and this amendment actually passed the Senate, although the proposal carried no pledge for action even if every woman in the State should vote aye! It was killed in the House and the resolution providing for submission of a suffrage amendment to the legal voters finally passed both Houses.

The dry Legislature of 1919, which had to concur in the submission, was also in unhappy mood. Difficult political problems were demanding attention. The prohibition amendment had gone to referendum in 1918 and had been defeated by a majority of 1,000. Thus the electors had voted down, as a State constitutional amendment, a law that had been on the statute books of the State for thirty-six years. Moreover the first question before the Legislature was ratification of the federal prohibition amendment! The attorney-general and the Governor were in conflict and a movement to impeach the Governor further disturbed legislative serenity. The Legislature, however, ratified the prohibition amendment on January 15, 1919.

When the suffrage amendment, passed by the 1917 Legislature, came up for final passage, it was discovered that no action could be taken because the public notice, as required by law, had not been given by the Secretary of State. The Secretary was a friend of suffrage and professed deep regret for this oversight, the blame falling upon a clerk whose duty it was to attend to such matters. Whether this was another case of Iowa's incapacity for self-government, or whether it was connected with the wet conspiracy, remains as unraveled a mystery as those surrounding the amendments of previous years lost by improper engrossing. The Secretary of State declared, while apologizing for the error, “I have always thought there was something irregular in that election, and I feel that the women of Iowa did not receive fair treatment at the polls.“ But again there was no redress. The Legislature made such amends as it could by passing again the resolution submitting a suffrage amendment, which when passed by the Legislature of 1921 would send it to the voters that year. It also willingly added lowa to the ever-increasing list of States that were by then extending presidential suffrage to women. Friendly members attempted to comfort the impatient women by assuring them that after waiting fifty years for the vote they could not possibly mind a little additional wait of two more years.

Governor Harding, nominated on the primary day on which the suffrage amendment had been defeated, had assured the suffrage leaders in 1917 that he knew nothing of the ruse played upon the tax-payers' leagues and he became conservatively friendly to suffrage. In 1918, he permitted his name to be added to the suffrage advisory committee already adorned by Republican and Democratic names high in party councils. The women declared that he never failed to be frank and honorable with them in every suffrage move thereafter.

In his annual message to the Legislature in January, 1919, he recommended the ratification of the Federal Suffrage Amendment, and when on June 5, 1919, that amendment was finally submitted to the States, he was among the first to respond to the National American Woman Suffrage Association's telegram urging all governors to call special sessions for ratification. The Legislature met in answer to his call on July 2, 1919, at 10 A.M. and by 11:40 A.M. the resolution of ratification had passed both Houses.

The friendly, generous, liberty-prizing spirit of 1870, loosed from the political thralldom which had warped and crippled and held it fast for fifty years, had triumphed. Iowa was herself again.


* Exhibit No. 758 from Andreae files, page 1014.


† Ibid,. Exhibit 760, page 1015. Another conference was probably held in Milwaukee as was voted by brewers (B. &&; L. I. 1013), but the report of it does not appear in the papers on subpoena.


* The plan of concentrating effort upon the Senate with its smaller membership in order to block its passage is not uncommon among the opponents of measures, and several times a single Senator had prevented the submission of the suffrage amendment in Iowa. When Senators were likely to find an explanation to their constituents embarrassing, the tactics changed to the House. It was now proposed to so constitute the Senate that a few men could block the submission of the prohibition amendment already passed by one Legislature.


* Files of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.