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“Idiots, Imbeciles, Slaves and Women” Women’s Activism in Kansas City, 1880 toWorld War I 135 Chapter Four Poor people and people not belonging to a church were not all who were refused the right of suffrage. Idiots, imbeciles, slaves and women were also included. Idiots, slaves and women. —­ Kansas City Star, January 19, 1895 Activist women in Kansas City contested the boundaries of their participation in society. Nowhere was the aspiration for political participation more apparent than at a joint meeting of the Women’s Christian Temperance Unions of Kansas City held on the afternoon of January 18, 1895. According to a newspaper account written and submitted by the organization itself, the gathering possessed an “interesting and lively” quality. The meeting addressed Prohibition and the imperative of the formal political power for women through the ballot. The organization distilled the justification for voting into a secular liturgy in which the believers recited answers to the questions posed by the Suffrage Catechism led by Ellen Morris, local and state secretary of the WCTU. “What is a Vote?” she asked. The assembled women responded that the vote was “the recorded opinions of men people.” “What is the ballot?” The women responded that only sovereign citizens, who are men, can cast a ballot. The third question—­ “On what principle was our government established?”—­ yielded the answer “Equality.” In response the fourth question, “How were the principles of equality first violated?,” state WCTU president Clara Hoffman responded: “By disfranching [sic] all not property owners or church members.” Hoffman, “upon her feet again,” elaborated: “Yes, and poor people and people not belonging to a church were not all who were refused the right of suffrage,” she said. “Idiots, imbeciles , slaves and women were also included. Idiots, slaves, and women,” 136 Chapter Four she repeated and sat down. When Morris posed the question “Why should a woman want to vote?” Hoffman replied that she wanted to vote because “she is an individual and does not want to be classed with imbeciles.”1 The desire for electoral participation of this group of women in Kansas City echoed that of women across the United States who advocated equality and the vote for women. Advocates of suffrage and sexual and racial equality in Kansas City played an active role in the local, state, and national struggles. Activist women in Kansas City knew and interacted with national leaders such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mary Livermore, Frances Willard, and Ida B. Wells, among others, who passed through Kansas City as they crisscrossed the country by train. Rail connections also facilitated travel by women activists from Kansas City who attended gatherings in other cities across the state and around the nation to stay connected with national issues and trends. Clara Hoffman exemplified the Kansas City activist with national ties. She served for twenty-­five years as the president of the Missouri WCTU. For twelve of those years she served as the recording secretary of the national WCTU. She worked closely with Frances Willard and traveled the country and world on behalf of the WCTU and its many and varied causes. Yet local historian Carrie Westlake Whitney, in her encyclopedic history of Kansas City and its prominent people written in 1908, placed the biographical sketch of Hoffman within that of her physician husband, Goswin Hoffman, a native of Germany who died in 1883, twelve years prior to Hoffman’s attendance at the meeting of the Kansas City Unions. Hoffman, née Cleghorn, was born in St. Lawrence County, New York, to a wealthy farming family. When she arrived in Kansas City with her husband in 1871, Hoffman was “deeply interested in all that pertains to intellectual and moral progress, to reform and improvement.” Yet Hoffman, a married woman with children, led a life that was uncharacteristic for married high-­ status women at the time. Before becoming the state WCTU president, she taught and served for twelve years as the principal of the public Lathrop School, which educated the children of the city’s economic and social elite. She was also an early and active member of the high-­ status First Congregational Church.2 Women’s activism in Kansas City, like the national movement, does not follow a linear course from activism to the franchise. Rather, local women activists experienced the struggles of any group seeking to claim formal political power. Even in the absence of the vote, the women who committed themselves to the suffrage cause under the WCTU...


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