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  • Woman Suffrage is a Midwestern StoryGender, Region, and Nativism, 1880–1920
  • Sara Egge (bio)

In June 1884, Martha Janes became the president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in Clay County, Iowa. Her election was meaningful because Janes was an ardent suffragist. She immediately tapped the Clay County WCTU to organize for woman suffrage. While she convinced the editor of the local newspaper, the Clay County News, to give her a weekly front-page column, others in the group circulated a woman suffrage petition and passed resolutions in favor of female enfranchisement. The members of the Clay County WCTU did not dream up these activities on their own; they followed directions about campaign strategies from two national organizers, Matilda Hindman of Pennsylvania and Helen Gougar of Indiana, who canvassed Iowa on behalf of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association (IWSA), during the spring of 1884. Activism for woman suffrage in the Midwest underscores just how multidimensional the movement was, championed through coordinated efforts by locals in conjunction with state and national leaders. While the Clay County WCTU mostly followed IWSA directives, Janes and her cohorts deviated in how they understood their political identities. They saw temperance and woman suffrage as inseparable, and Janes explained that as “responsible individuals,” women had an obligation to “protect the home” from the evils of alcohol by voting. She reflected the thousands of midwestern suffrage advocates who came to support woman suffrage through their work in the WCTU. Moreover, as an ordained minister in the Free Baptist Church, she demonstrated how easily nineteenth-century midwesterners stitched together politics, gender, and religion. According to Janes, God had created men and women as equals, “conscious, sentient, responsible, [and] intellectual,” and it was sinful to [End Page 1] deny women their rights. Studying woman suffrage in the Midwest reveals that it was never a single issue, then, despite numerous attempts by national suffrage leaders to make it one. Finally, Janes was a midwesterner who supported woman suffrage despite strong regional opposition to women’s rights in general and enfranchisement in particular. Hostility toward woman suffrage was not unique to the Midwest; in fact, most Americans did not support the cause until late in the 1910s. What was significant was how rapidly and enthusiastically midwesterners came to favor woman suffrage as soon as World War I fostered nativism and changed political expectations.1

Studying women like Martha Janes underscores the centrality of the Midwest to the history of woman suffrage. Midwestern campaigns, like the informal one undertaken in Iowa in 1884, were early and frequent, allowing national leaders to test strategies, gain valuable experience, and learn important lessons that they applied to campaigns in other places. When the NWSA and American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) merged to form a single organization, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), in 1890, the combined leadership often used midwestern suffrage campaigns as test cases, retaining tactics and plans that worked and discarding those that did not. In fact, two major efforts, one in South Dakota in 1890 and another in Iowa in 1916, were profound in teaching the leaders of NAWSA how, where, and when to organize, while informal campaigns across the Midwest also proved instructive. The timing of these midwestern campaigns was crucial in showing NAWSA that multilevel organization was key and that arguments tied to domesticity and citizenship were effective.

Midwestern campaigns also exposed the intricacies of late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century politics. Partisanship and religious attitudes shaped the ways voters approached the cause, and despite NAWSA’s attempts to make it a single issue, most midwesterners understood woman suffrage as entwined with other elements, particularly temperance. The temperance movement flourished in the Midwest, with local and state unions emerging across the region during the late nineteenth century. It appealed to many residents who claimed that religious morality was integral for responsible citizenship. The first convention of the national WCTU met in Ohio in 1874, and its second president, Francis Willard, hailed from Wisconsin. By 1890, the WCTU was the largest female organization in the world. Temperance supporters often agitated for a variety of reforms such as labor, health, sanitation...