"Middle Ages" of Equal Suffrage in Missouri
by Florence Atkinson (Mrs. Robert Atkinson)  

Missouri Historical Review, volume XIV, nos. 3-4, pp. 299-306


The history of equal suffrage in Missouri may be divided into four periods: The Dark Ages, Middle Ages, Renaissance and Modern Times. The history of the Dark Ages has been written; and, compared with the struggle of the early workers to lighten the darkness, the second period is less interesting. The situation at first was at least dramatic. The women of the Dark Ages were starting a revolution, and Missouri dignified their uprising by bitter opposition. When the women of the second period entered the field, the tumult and the shouting had ceased, and this generation found themselves confronted by that deadliest of attitudes, utter indifference. Equal Suffrage was a dead issue.

But dark as it looked, there were smouldering embers of interest in the hearts of a small group of women who had either inherited suffrage ideas from their pioneer mothers or who had been born with ideas of their own about the principles of the cause. Suddenly there was an awakening and the embers began to glow. The fire that had broken out in England had reached America, and had spread far enough inland to fan even Missouri embers into a faint flame.

The suffragists of the second period had no information upon which to build. The first society was only a memory, and the later women required an entirely new impetus to make them attempt to form a second organization. That impetus came in 1910 when the great suffragette leader Emmelin Pankhurst was making her first tour in America. Mrs. Pankhurst's visit had one good result if no more, for out of an effort on the part of a few women to bring her to this city, the St. Louis Equal Suffrage League was organized. By chance, member of the Wednesday Club were deploring the fact that Mrs. Pankhurst had not been invited to come as far west as St. Louis. They spoke of their great desire to hear about the uprising of women in England at first hand, and decided to find out if there might be others who shared this desire and who would unite with them in trying to give the distinguished lecturer a hearing.

The word "Suffragette" was not even whispered in polite society at that time, and it was like throwing a bomb in conservative St. Louis to repeat the new slogan "Votes for Women!" Nevertheless, ten brave souls agreed to meet and make preparations for the dangerous undertaking. They were Mrs. Robert Atkinson, Miss Marie Garesche, Mrs. E. M. Grossman, Miss Lillian Hetzell, Miss Jennie A. M. Jones, Mrs. D. W. Knefler, Miss Bertha Rombauer, Mrs. Russell, Mrs. Florence Wyman Richardson and her daughter, now Mrs. Roland Usher.

The meeting place was in the parlor of Miss Marie Garesche, one of the ten, and it is amusing now to recall the solemnity of that occasion. The women felt something of the responsibility that the historic group in Seneca Falls experienced when they made their famous call for the first Woman's Rights Convention. Like conspirators, they knew that they must hang together or hang separately. They were even startled when they heard a knock at the door; at any rate they were relieved when their hostess opened it and found only a friend standing there who had come to return a borrowed book. The hostess herself could not have been very timid for she called out cheerfully "Won't you come in? Se are holding a Suffrage meeting!" The horrified visitor backed away from the door exclaiming, "A Suffrage meeting! Oh dear me, No!" After due consideration it was unanimously decided to ask Mrs. Pankhurst to give a lecture in St. Louis on a certain date, and lest their courage should fail them the venturesome women telegraphed the message before they separated. However, sad to relate, after all this bravery the whole undertaking failed. Mrs. Pankhurst accepted the invitation, but just as all the arrangements for her visit were progressing smoothly, she was called back to England and was compelled to cancel her engagement.

This was a great disappointment, but strange as it may appear, out of this seeming failure grew great results. In advertising the lecture the women who had made the attempt found that they were not alone in this wish to know more about the great woman's movement that was beginning to stir the world, nor were they alone in being friendly to the cause. Suffrage sentiment was discovered in unexpected places, and it was decided to test the strength of the feeling.

A call was sent out asking all who were interested in equal suffrage to meet on a certain day to consider the advisability of organizing a society. Fifty women responded to the call, and on April 10th, 1910, this number met and united in forming the St. Louis Equal Suffrage League, when one of the ten charter members, Mrs. Florence Wyman Richardson, was elected president. The League began at once to try to increase its membership. The new list was not made up entirely of women's names, for among the first to enroll were prominent ministers of different denominations, leading lawyers, physicians, and business men of the city. The organizers of the club felt that much of their success was due to the advice that these men friends of Suffrage had given them. The object of the League was stated in the simple article of agreement, "To bring together men and women who are willing to consider the question of Equal Suffrage and by earnest co-operation to secure its establishment." To quiet the fears of any timid souls who might be expecting "agitation," it was clearly explained that the purpose of the club was entirely educational.

Activities were started by bringing prominent suffrage speakers to the city who could call out large audiences and attract press reports. The list included Miss Ethel Arnold and the Honorable and Mrs. Philip Snowden of England, Mrs. Lucia Ames Mead of Boston, Prof. Schmidt of Cornell, Prof. Frances Squire Potter of Chicago, and Prof. Earl Barnes of Philadelphia, while other woman's organizations in the city gave opportunity to hear Miss Sylvia Pankhurst was and Miss Agnes Repplier. Later on Mrs. Pankhurst was heard. Branch organizations were established in the different public library centers of the city. all following the educational lines of the parent society, and at the annual meeting held at the close of the first year, the League reported a membership of 250 men and women, and a record of hard work with good results.

In the meantime, other clubs were being formed in other parts of Missouri. Following a lecture by Sylvia Pankhurst, Kansas City organized a Suffrage League with seventy members and Mrs. Henry Ess for its president. Warrensburg was next in order with a club of fifty members and Miss Laura Runyon, president. This club was the means of an untold amount of suffrage propaganda through the pupils of the State Normal School in Warrensburg. These pupils carried suffrage gospel to all parts of the state. A third club was formed in Webster Groves with 25 members, when Mrs. Lee Rosborough was elected president. Missouri now had three clubs, the requisite number for uniting with the National Association.

In the spring of 1911 a convention of the three clubs was called, and the Missouri Equal Suffrage Association was formally organized. A constitution was adopted, State officers were elected with Mrs. Robert Atkinson of St. Louis president. The state was divided into nine districts to correspond to the districts into which the Missouri Federation of Woman's Clubs was divided.

The association was at first little more than a name, but that name was at once honored and brought into notice by having its vice-president-at-large, Mrs. Bernice Morrison fuller, appointed a delegate to the International Suffrage Convention that was to be held in Stockholm the following spring.  A further recognition of the state organization was given when its three delegates, Mrs.. Robert Atkinson, Mrs. W. W. Boyd and Mrs. John Lowes were sent to the Convention of the National Association that was held in Louisville, Kentucky.  There was great rejoicing among the members of the convention that Missouri had really come into the fold.

There were many capable and willing speakers in the new organization, but lack of funds prevented much traveling and state propaganda was largely confined to the distribution of literature, correspondence, and the co-operation which the press and public libraries could give.  As many newspapers as possible were secured to use the national Press bureau reports, and this part of the work was for some time under the able direction of the state corresponding secretary, Mrs. W. W. Boyd.

After a year of faithful service Mrs. Florence Richardson resigned fro the office of president of the St. Louis Equal Suffrage League and was succeeded by Mrs. Daniel O'Neil.  a year alter a change was made in the state organization.  in September, 1912, a State Convention was held in Sedalia when, upon the resignation of Mrs. Robert Atkinson, Mrs. George Gellhorn was elected state president.

During the three years of this second period of suffrage in Missouri, the clubs of the state had exhausted every means of attracting attention to the cause.  All the great speakers had been heard, and in St. Louis plays had been acted, teas and other functions had been given, and women old and young had made speeches in every public or private place where they could find admittance.  A Business Woman's League was formed which started business on the very day of its birth.  It laid siege to a Milliner's Convention that was meeting in St. Louis and supplied the visiting delegates with suffrage ideas as well as hats to distribute through all the towns of Missouri.  St. Louis women held street meetings and once out in the open, they visited the County Fair in a body, and made stirring speeches from gaily decorated automobiles.

At the opening of the year 1913, the state had eleven clubs, and many were in the act of organizing.  Three of the clubs were in St. Louis, the others in Kansas City, Warrensburg, Sedalia, Springfield, Clayton, Webster Groves, Joplin, Carthage and St. Joseph; Columbia had two clubs, once of which had for its president an ex-president of the State University.

That public opinion had changed was indicated by the fact that many organizations such as the Farmers' Alliance, State Teachers' Association, Prohibitionists and Single Taxers were seeking co-operation with, and actually working for the cause of Equal Suffrage.  The leading papers of St. Louis and Kansas city were giving material support with their columns of news, editorials and telling cartoons.  There were also several weekly papers advocating suffrage.

The most important public recognition came in the form of a proposition by the managers of the Merchants and Manufacturers Street Exposition to assist the Suffragists in conducting a street parade.  The proposition was eagerly accepted.  It was the one thing that the St. Louis women had been trying to get strength enough to undertake.  The 30th of September was the time set for the parade, and all the suffrage sympathizers of St. Louis were called on to make it a gala day.  On this eventful occasion thirty automobiles were in line.  An auto truck led the procession carrying a band playing patriotic airs.  Another car followed bearing the purple banner of the Missouri Suffrage League which had been used in the New York parade.  Next in order came the reception committee of the merchants, and these men were followed by the long line of automobiles filled with members of the Suffrage societies.  From all the machines waved bright yellow pennants, which had on them in big black letters the slogan "Votes for Women!"

As the procession passed through the down-town streets, the crowds on the pavement looked on in respectful silence.  Occasionally a hat was raised in greeting or handkerchiefs were waved from shop windows, but not a jeering word was heard.  the women who were taking part in the procession may have been a trifle disappointed in not being called upon to show their courage on the contrary, they seemed to be doing only a natural and pleasant thing in thus proclaiming their faith to the world.  After passing through a number of streets, the parade disbanded.  then came the real event.  The women left their protecting cars, formed in line and actually marched in the middle of the street behind a band.

The climax of the performance was reached when they arrived at the headquarters that had been prepared for them on Franklin Avenue.  There two or three women mounted soap boxes and made speeches to the crowds that had come to see the Fair.  To their honor be it stated that sic men were seen riding with their wives and daughters in the procession.  While the women were more than gratified at this show of interest in the cause for which they were struggling, there is one name that will go down in Suffrage history.  At the very end of the little company one man walked all alone closing up the line of march.  That man's name is George Blackman.

The leaders of the Middle Ages of Suffrage history left no brilliant record, but they succeeded in carrying out the purpose with which they had started.  They aroused the people of Missouri out of their state of apathy, attracted their attention, and to a certain extent educated them in the principles of the woman's cause.  their work was a preparation for the generation that was to follow.

This generation started with the spirit of the Renaissance and at once laid their plans for more definite action.  They decided that the time had come to open a state-wide campaign, to make and appeal to the legislature to add Missouri to the ten other states that had enfranchised their women.  A finance committee was appointed to raise funds to carry on this great undertaking.  For this purpose a luncheon was given when amid great enthusiasm personal pledges were given totaling one thousand dollars which sum was turned over to the treasurer, Mrs. B. B. Graham.  Equal Suffrage headquarters were established in the Syndicate Trust Building in St. Louis where the campaign manager, Mrs. D. W. Knefler with able assistants was in charge.

That Missouri had really started a campaign was an epoch that called for an impressive announcement.  this announcement was made by what the Clubs called "Suffrage Day."  Fola La Follette was imported for the occasion, and this brilliant lecturer opened the program by addressing a large evening audience.  While she spoke again the following day at the Men's City Club, other local speakers were talking between acts at the different theatres in the city.  The streets were brilliant with pennants, waving from automobiles and trucks, teas were given in private houses and public halls, and before the day was over St. Louis had learned the latest slogan - "Suffrage in Missouri in 1914."

The result of this campaign, like the others that followed belonged to the fourth period of Equal Suffrage in Missouri.  that may be called the history of Modern Times, and one who helped to make that history will be the historian.


This article was reproduced in order to support an article taken from:

Preservation Issues
Missouri Department of Natural Resources
Historic Preservation Program, P.O. Box 176, Jefferson City, MO 65102
Editor: Karen Grace


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