Prairie Feminists Awaken!


“The Awakening”: Suffragette beckons women in the east who can’t yet vote.
Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-USZC2-1206, 3b49106

A Grandmother in Omaha trims the wick of her oil lamp and settles down to make a rag rug which will be sold to raise money for the cause of a woman’s right to vote. In a town in western Nebraska, a new wife drives her buggy to church early. Before her fellow congregants arrive, she slips suffrage pamphlets into hymnals. Her husband helped her print them. On a farm in central Nebraska, a sturdy woman and her children load a pig in a wagon and set out for town to sell the pig and donate the money to the cause of suffrage. A girl and her aunt in south-eastern Nebraska tuck suffrage literature into baskets of squash and beans, corn and tomatoes, and set briskly off to the town market.

This happened. See archives of Nebraska’s historical Society. See link at bottom of this post.

Did you know that Nebraska almost became the first state in the Union where women could vote? Yep, 1856, in the territorial legislature. The bill passed the lower house but the upper house adjourned before voting on it. Prominent Omaha businessmen asserted women were too irrational and emotional to vote. But our prairie women were plucky and determined, used to working hard and running things. Western states were way ahead of eastern states when it came to suffrage. Wyoming (under Republican control) was first. Do you think it might have had to do with the necessary independence of women settling the country? Women who farmed, ranched, managed boardinghouses, schools, and dry goods stores.

The photo above is of “suffragists Mrs. Howes and Mrs. Haller and the two Haller boys with their dogs. Date unknown.” (Nebraska State Historical Society website)

Three more legislative attempts failed in 1882, 1891, and 1914. Not until 1920 would Nebraska ratify the 19th amendment to the Constitution, granting all American women the right to vote.

Why did it take so long? Liquor, taxes, war, politics–and plain ol’ sexism parading as piety.

Liquor. In Nebraska, as everywhere, selling alcohol was and is a big money-maker. Women’s suffrage and the temperance movement were intertwined: progressive movements for the reduction of domestic violence, protection of family, morality, and civility. Women and children are primary victims of drunkenness. Men in lonely places with back-breaking jobs forget their woes with liquor. They cut up the town and not infrequently their women and children. In Song of the Lark, Willa Cather gives us the vivid portrait of Herr Wunsch, Thea’s piano teacher, a good man when sober, an insane and dangerous man when binge drinking. But, if you made money on liquor you were not a friend of temperance or suffrage.

Taxes and war. Taxes on liquor helped finance both sides of the Civil War. Legal and political rights for women took a back seat to the Civil War and then to the First World War.

Politics. Temperance and suffrage were the first major international grassroots standard bearers for human rights. Women’s voices were strong and public for the abolishment of slavery and all forms of servitude. Radical notions in their time and, in some places, radical notions still. Suffrage was associated with women being uppity.

Religion. The church has always had a rocky relationship to activism. Suffrage was furthered, but mostly fought, in the pulpit. See the 2015 film, Suffragette. Women were associated with Eve and the Fall, divinely destined to be mothers in the home, obeying their husbands. In Nebraska, some bills proposed that only single women be allowed to vote.  If a woman was married, her husband was presumed to vote for her.

On January 21st my husband, friends and I were at the Women’s March in Washington D.C. I am holding the In Our America Love Wins sign.  Our cause was broad.

So was Loup City’s.  That march was called the People’s March For Equality. Here are Beth Rager, Betty Sayers, Bev Rehm, Christine McCormick, Caylin McCormick in Loup. To my thinking, it is a braver thing to march in a small city in central Nebraska than to march in a large city.

Feminism can have many appearances. My experience of the marches was of people standing up for a wide swatch of human rights, but also for the protection of our air, earth, and water. For some of us, our religious conviction is that all life as sacred.  I myself am pro-life and pro-choice and do not see a contradiction, but I do see complexity.
To my way of thinking, it is the  responsibility of human beings to be stewards of the earth, not exploiters. The future of our children depends on our understanding how all of that is interconnected.

 

 

I’m not turning my back on anybody, hope I never will.  But here is the back of the coat I wore in Washington.  Thank you, Nebraska, for being part of the heartland that makes me have to think hard about important matters.  Let’s all keep thinking, talking, and let’s be unafraid to be uncomfortable, as well as kind.

http://www.dailynebraskan.com/presentation-enlightens-crowd-about-nebraska-suffragettes/article_54869ed2-7952-5fae-9d37-0965d784f19c.html

 

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8 Comments to “Prairie Feminists Awaken!”

  1. Jennifer E Chick says:

    Well said Meredith. Let’s be “unafraid to be uncomfortable.”

  2. Susan Pope says:

    well written and informative about Nebraska and the suffrage movement. Enjoyed reading too about your own thoughts and march. Wonderful last paragraph. Uncomfortable and kind.

    • Hi Susan, thanks so much for the reading, for your thoughts. This post felt tricky; in general, I do not wish the blog to be political, but I do wish to make connections with rural readers in Nebraska by being somewhat transparent–this is where I’m coming from. And make this just a part of conveying my deep and ongoing appreciation for the state of Nebraska, in all its complexity.

  3. Kathlyn Condon says:

    A wonderful and insightful piece. Knowing how we got here gives a much deeper meaning to what we do today. Bravo!

    • Kathy, how wonderful to see your comment here. You are a friend who travels the country, all of it, appreciating the amazing range of our nation’s lands and peoples, and you do this in a way that is rare in its open, non-judgmental consideration.

  4. James Luyten says:

    wonderful piece, Meredith – Thank you! inspiring to see what women did 100 years ago for the vote. I believe that we will be judged on what we do in the coming few years!

  5. Megan Donnelly-Heg says:

    Wonderful piece- looking at the strengths of the past to propell one forward. I adore Willa Cather and will look up that short story.

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