Mary Jane Coggeshall, “the mother of women’s suffrage in Iowa”Mary Jane (Whitely) Coggeshall was born in 1836 in Indiana into a Quaker family and became the first Iowan to achieve national prominence in the promotion of women’s suffrage. She married John Coggeshall in 1857 and had three children, two of whom survived into adulthood. The couple moved to Des Moines in 1865 at the conclusion of the Civil War.
Coggeshall became active in the women’s suffrage movement shortly after Iowa granted suffrage to blacks in 1868 but refused to extend the vote to women. Her career moved from leadership roles in local organizations to a position at the national level. In 1870, Coggeshall helped to organize the Polk County (Iowa) Woman Suffrage Organization and became its secretary. She later became a charter member of the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association, serving as its president for a total of four years. She rose to statewide prominence as editor and frequent contributor for the IWSO newspaper, Women’s Standard. In 1885, she was elected to the board of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association, the first board member from west of the Mississippi River. Carrie Chapman Catt, an Iowan who was just beginning her own long career as a women’s suffrage champion and would later serve as NAWSA president, called Coggeshall “the Mother of Woman Suffrage in Iowa” and “my greatest inspiration.”
Iowa women won a partial victory in 1894 when the legislature granted them “partial suffrage,” the right to vote in bond issues and other referenda in which there are no candidates on the ballot. The constitution defined the qualification for voting in elections, but it was ruled that elections are between candidates but since referenda like bond issues do not involve candidates, the legislature passed a law declaring women eligible to vote in non-candidate issues. However, in 1908, Des Moines election officials denied women the right to vote on a bond issue. Coggeshall brought a lawsuit against Des Moines and won. The Iowa Supreme Court ruled that the outcome of the vote was void because women had not been allowed to participate.
Also in 1908, Coggeshall joined 150 other women in Boone to stage a parade to promote the cause of women’s suffrage. It was only the third such demonstration in the nation at that time. Dr. Anna Shaw, president of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association, gave a speech to the gathered advocates.
At the conclusion of her final term as president of the Iowa Woman Suffrage Organization in 1905, the association bestowed on her the title of honorary president, which she enjoyed for six years until her death in 1911. In 1990, she was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame.