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Women’s Suffrage Movement in Iowa


The ideal proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence in 1776 that “all men are created equal” has remained just that: an ideal.  It has inspired men and women of all races, religions, and genders here and abroad to push for full political equality, but it has never been fully implemented.  African-Americans and Native Americans were not included, and it was almost a century and a half after the United States began its bold experiment with democracy before women were allowed to vote for their elected representatives.

Social norms of the 19th C.  prescribed distinct and separate realms for men and women and codified those in many ways into the legal codes.  Women’s place was in the home; men represented the family in the public sphere.  Women were seen as the more vulnerable sex whose interests and sensibilities needed to be protected.  Their rights to own property, to keep wages they earned, to enter into contracts, or even sometimes to retain custody of their children were often severely restricted on the grounds that they were not capable of handling business or legal affairs.  Employment opportunities for women were limited, and few jobs paid a salary on which she could support a family. Married middle-class white women were discouraged from working outside the home while economic necessity drove women from lower class households, black and white, into the labor force. Even when a husband was abusive or dissolute, the law favored him in contested custody cases.  Churches pointed to Biblical instruction that declared the man as the head of the household and commanded the woman to be submissive and obedient.  Divorce was rare and usually stigmatized the wife.

When Iowa entered the Union in 1846, its first constitution restricted suffrage to “white male citizens” as had all states before it.  Those few voices who raised the possibility of granting equal political status to black men made no headway against the strong majority who viewed whites as the superior race and wanted to discourage black migration to the new state.

However, only two years later, miles away in a central New York, a strange gathering sparked a movement that would forever change the political landscape not only of Iowa but of the entire United States.  On July 19-20, 1848, a Women’s Rights Convention convened to press for an end to restrictive laws against women, including exclusion from the ballot box.  The seeds of the convention were planted in London in 1840 when American women were denied access, solely on the basis of their sex, to an anti-slavery convention but eventually were allowed to sit in the balcony behind a curtain.  It was considered unseemly at the time for women to participate in public affairs and certainly to speak in public.  Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton met for the first time at the London convention and agreed to address women’s rights when they returned to the United States.

Eight years later, along with three other women, Stanton announced plans to hold “a Convention to discuss the social, civic and religious condition and rights of Woman” and drafted a “Declaration of Sentiments” modeled after the Declaration of Independence.  With only minimal publicity, the event attracted some 300 men and women.  The convention adopted the Declaration of Sentiments, patterned after the Declaration of Independence, including the ninth Resolve: “That it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.”  While there were many attacks on laws that restricted women’s role in public affairs, that limited her economic rights, and that favored the husband in domestic disputes, it was the demand for the right to vote that stirred the most public controversy.  Most historians date the 1848 Seneca Falls convention as the origin of the drive for women’s suffrage.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer, the wife of the Seneca Falls newspaper editor, attended the convention and became active in first in the cause of temperance but then for women’s suffrage. In 1851, she introduced Stanton to Susan B. Anthony, a pair who would become the icons of women’s suffrage in its early years.  She also began editing The Lily, a newspaper devoted to women’s issues.  A few years later, she and her husband moved to Council Bluffs where she became a leader of the suffrage movement in Iowa.  She became more famous, however, for promoting a new style of clothing, “bloomers”, that offered women the freedom from long and restrictive skirts.

The issue languished for almost twenty years after the Seneca Falls Convention but sprang to life again in the years immediately following the civil war.  The 13th Amendment outlawed slavery and the 14th demanded that the states have the same responsibility to follow due process as the Federal government has in writing and administering the laws.  Both of those primarily targeted the Southern states in the wake of their defeat in the Civil War.

The 15th Amendment broke new ground in the North as well. It decreed that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”  It applied not only to former slaves in the South but also to African-Americans living in the North…if they were men.  The amendment applied only to restrictions based on race, not on gender.  State laws reserving the ballot to men only were still legal.

Republican leaders saw the hypocrisy in demanding the vote for blacks living in the South but denying them that right in the North.  Furthermore, they hoped that newly-enfranchised black man would support their Northern liberators, the party of Abraham Lincoln, and vote against their former slave owners.  But black suffrage did not command universal support even in the North.  Most white Iowans of the era believed in the inherent superiority of the white race and opposed political equality for blacks.  In most Northern states, Iowa included, lawmakers did not want to encourage the migration of freed slaves.

Advocates for women’s suffrage fought hard to use the opportunity to remove the word “male” from the constitutional provision granting the vote to “white male citizens.”   Most Iowa Republican leaders feared that adding women’s suffrage to the issue might tip the scales against black suffrage as well.  Party leaders came out in support of the expanded black suffrage but not votes for women. “Now is the Negro’s hours,” became their refrain and urged Iowa voters (all white men at the time) to support it in the statewide referendum.  Voters approved it, and the amendment to expand the right to vote to include black men became part of the Iowa constitution, but the word “male” remained.

Nevertheless, the issue revived the drive for women’s suffrage.  In 1870, a women’s suffrage amendment passed both houses of the Iowa legislature.  When it came time for its required second approval in 1872, it passed the Iowa House but failed by two votes in the Senate.  It would not succeed in going to Iowa voters for another 45 years, in 1916.

What happened?  The issue of women’s suffrage, within its larger context of the proper roles for women and men in society, never stood alone on its merits.  As during the debate on black suffrage it was usually coupled with other issues.  In the early 1870s, Victorian Woodhull, a leading advocate women’s suffrage in New York, publicly promoted a doctrine tabbed “free love”, sanctioning sexual relations outside of marriage, a position sharply at odds with a majority of the American public.  Iowa suffrage advocates found themselves on the defensive when opponents linked votes for women with a radical challenge to the institution of marriage.

A prominent Des Moines suffrage leader, Annie Savery, refused to condemn Woodhull even though Savery herself did not support free love.  She welcomed anyone who supported women’s suffrage and argued women should have the right to take their own stand on other issues.  Conservative opponents with the movement sharply disagreed and removed Savery from leadership positions in suffrage organizations.  The issue divided suffrage advocates, continued to put the movement on the defensive, and forced leaders to deny that women’s suffrage would lead to free love.  Support for the movement in the Iowa legislature declined, and it languished for another twenty years.

Free love was only a minor distraction of the movement in the broader picture, however.  Prohibition, eliminating the manufacture and sale of alcohol, was one of the most divisive issues in Iowa politics for 60 years following the Civil War and a major factor in the suffrage struggle. Advocates of prohibition were often also supporters of the suffrage movement because they anticipated that women would favor restrictions on saloons and other drinking establishments.  Protestant evangelical churches, including the Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Disciples, also strongly tended to favor suffrage. The wets found support among the liturgical churches, including the Catholics, especially those with German and Irish ethnic ties, and cited Biblical passages that claimed that women are to be subservient to men.  Scandinavian Lutherans were swing voters on temperance and commanded the attention of both parties.

In the 1880s, a woman in Mason City became active in the cause of women’s suffrage movement and would rise to become the national leader to spearhead the movement’s final successful drive.  Carrie Lane Chapman Catt grew up in Charles City, attended Iowa State College (not ISU), became superintendent of schools in Mason City, and married the editor of the local newspaper.  She became active in the suffrage movement, inspired as she claimed by “the mother of woman’s suffrage in Iowa”, Mary Jane Coggeshall.  When Leo Chapman became ill and moved to California for treatment, she moved there to be with him and stayed on when he passed away.  In 1890, she married wealthy engineer George Catt with the unusual agreement that she would have four months every year to devote to suffrage activities.  George Catt died in 1895 leaving her with the financial means to take on an even more sustained role.

She served as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) from 1900 to 1904 and again from 1915 to 1920.  The NAWSA mobilized support at both the state and national level.  Catt’s approach was to win the vote whenever possible in the states and then use the representatives of those states to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  Catt mobilized volunteers and organized campaigns, crisscrossing the country delivering speeches. Shortly before the suffragists celebrated victory with passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, Catt founded the League of Women Voters and later became active, following the carnage of WWI, in organizations that championed world peace.

In 1894, the Iowa suffrage movement achieved a partial victory when the legislature granted women the right to vote in local bond elections and school issues.  The “male” restriction applied to elections, it was ruled, and elections involve candidates.  Since there are no candidates in referenda on school bonds or taxes, the constitutional restriction didn’t apply, and the legislature was free to set its own requirements.  In 1908, when Des Moines election officials challenged the law and denied women the right to vote on a bond issue, Iowa suffragist leader Mary Jane 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.

A big indirect boost for women’s suffrage around the turn of the was the creation of women’s clubs across Iowa towns and cities.  Often begun as study clubs on issues surrounding the arts, children, or the home, the organizations began to turn their interests to civic improvements that led them to engage with the all-male town councils and county supervisors.  Where the justification for the right to vote had originally been rooted in natural rights, the issue shifted to the responsibility of women to lend their support to protecting their homes and improving the surroundings in which their children grew.  Club women usually represented the most socially prominent families in the community and brought the badge of respectability to the movement.  They also became an effective force to lobby their husbands and other community leaders to work within the political system to which they were denied.

In 1916, suffrage supporters finally secured the required passage of an amendment in two successive legislatures and mounted an extensive campaign when it went on the ballot in June.  Despite their best efforts, the amendment was defeated by a narrow margin of 10,000 votes out of 335,779 cast by Iowa men.  Protestant, Republican dry territories around the state strongly and predictably supported it.  Mississippi river cities with their German and Catholic strongholds and similar precincts around the state tipped their final tally against the proposal, a huge disappointment to the suffrage movement that had worked so hard to push the issue this far.

But victory was in sight.  In 1919, Congress submitted an amendment to the states for approval that prohibited voting restrictions based on gender, and in August, 1920, it squeaked by in Tennessee, the final state legislature necessary to give the 19th Amendment its required three-fourths approval.  Women voted for the first time in a Presidential election in the fall of 1920, helping to elect Republican Warren G. Harding.

Other legal barriers against women fell.  In 1926, voters, now both men and women, removed the constitutional requirement that only males could serve the state legislature. In the Democratic landslide of 1933, Ola Babcock Miller was elected Secretary of State, the first woman to hold that office.

The drive to grant women the right to vote took almost seventy five years before it became a reality, from the Seneca Falls convention in 1848 to the 19th Amendment in 1920.  Iowa contributed strong leaders to the movement, like Amelia Bloomer and Carrie Chapman Catt, in addition to many who worked tirelessly at the state and local level to make the ideal that “all are created equal” into a reality.