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Women’s Sites of Struggles for Self-Determination: Rethinking the Long History of Woman Suffrage through Multidimensional Mobilizations (1800s-1970s)

“Now Will Someone Kindly Tell Me What Is Her Proper Sphere?” Woman Suffrage, Women’s Political Participation, and the Populist Movement

Jean-Louis Marin-Lamellet


Cet article propose une histoire politique et culturelle du rôle de la Farmers’ Alliance et du populisme dans la lutte pour le droit de vote des femmes dans les années 1880 et 1890. Il s’agira d’analyser comment le populisme, notamment dans les Grandes Plaines, offrit aux femmes engagées massivement dans la révolte agraire un espace politique pour militer sans le droit de vote. Cet article aborde la question de la mobilisation des militantes de la base comme des dirigeantes du mouvement. Il explore également les limites que la politique électorale et les divisions partisanes imposent au mouvement et examine, à travers des études de cas, le soutien des populistes aux référendums pour le droit de vote dans différents États. Il montre aussi à quel point l’activisme des militantes populistes représentait une subversion des normes de genre. Ce travail soutient que leur combat pour le droit de vote, dans les années 1890, apparut d’autant plus transgressif qu’il s’ajoutait à leur nouveau rôle dans le monde masculin des campagnes électorales, et au programme économique radical du populisme.

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1In their 1902 History of Woman Suffrage, Susan B. Anthony and Ida Harper noted the role Populism played in the battle for the vote: “It must be said to its credit […] that during its brief existence women received more recognition in general than they ever had had from the old parties” (438). This article investigates this claim, offering a political and cultural history of the role of the Farmers’ Alliance and Populism in the crusade for woman suffrage.

2In the 1880s and 1890s, the Farmers’ Alliance and the People’s Party mobilized farmers, storekeepers, miners, railroad workers, and nonconformist intellectuals in a progressive farmer-labor movement advocating an antimonopoly and democratization agenda. The success of Farmers’ Alliance candidates in the 1890 elections and the reluctance of both major parties to listen to their demands encouraged some leaders to create a third party in 1892. The new People’s Party, also known as the Populist Party, was conceived as a coalition of reformers: Farmers’ Alliances, Greenbackers, Edward Bellamy’s Nationalists, Knights of Labor, free silver advocates, and middle-class intellectuals (Hicks; Goodwyn; McMath; Postel, 2007). Women were actively involved in the agrarian insurgency. Their empowerment led some reformers to call for “equal suffrage,” the phrase Populists mostly used for “woman suffrage” and a way for them to frame the issue in Populist terms: “equal rights to all, special privileges to none” was their motto. Woman suffrage, however, did spark off debates within and without the movement. Equality as Populists conceived of it did not extend to all: African Americans in particular were excluded. Likewise, women’s grassroots activism for equal suffrage conflicted with political strategies and ingrained gender stereotypes. While populist women were accused of abandoning their families, they questioned the very tenets of the separate spheres ideology as they took on a prominent role in electoral politics. One Populist woman ironically wondered: “Now will someone kindly tell me what is [woman’s] proper sphere?” (Barthelme 50).

3This paper examines how Populists strove to answer the question. Even though Populism provided women with a political space to mobilize and act as civic agents without the vote, electoral politics and partisanship circumscribed their influence, as shown by the diverse fates of woman suffrage in state and national Populist platforms, and in referenda in four states (Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, and California). Populist female activists’ subversion of gender norms also produced a conservative backlash. This article draws on a corpus of political speeches, newspaper and magazine articles, association minutes, novels, and cartoons to explore these issues. It shows how Populism extended long-standing political practices within the abolitionist and temperance movements to agrarian women. “Agrarians” were not limited to farmers. They included all those living in the “southern-plains-western ‘periphery’” where cities were dependent on rural areas around them: farmers’ wives, including poor and geographically isolated rural women, but also schoolteachers or employees (Sanders 28). Unlike antislavery activists, Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) members, and upper- and middle-class reformers in voluntary associations, these women were not content with “extending the moral values and social caring of the home” into the public realm (Skocpol 51), thus “domesticating” partisan politics (Baker): Populist women were full-fledged actors in the male culture of electoral politics and supported a radical economic agenda, which made woman suffrage even more transgressive.

Mobilizing for Suffrage

4Farmers’ Alliances provided an unusually large number of women with a political space to act as civic agents without suffrage. In 1890 the National Farmers’ Alliance and Industrial Union claimed 250,000 female members, compared to 160,000 for the WCTU, the second largest women’s organization at the time. And the figure does not include women who enrolled in other farmers’ organizations or all the unaffiliated supporters of the movement (Postel, 2007 76). Women became involved in politics for the same reasons men did: both shared the same economic hard times (Hicks 2), ethos of progress, and hopes for economic and political reforms (Postel, 2007 4-5). Yet, women also had their own gender-specific reasons. The burdens and isolation of farm life were so harsh that farms had become “recruiting stations” for “insane asylums”: joining the movement therefore offered women escape (Diggs 160).

5Women took part in the organizing and mobilizing work. Alliance meetings involved social events where members and their families ate together to discuss cooperative efforts to ease their economic plight. These experiences educated them about “the prevailing forms of economic power and privilege” and radically altered their political consciousness (Goodwyn xxi). Camp meetings and picnics were organized, where men and women listened to speeches given by Alliance lecturers but also by any “Member of the Order,” as the poster for one such picnic advertised (Dover Township). Many of these stump speakers were women, at a time when public speaking was not common for ordinary women. There had been precedents, most notably in the abolitionist and temperance movements, but what was new was that these women became involved in electioneering and partisan politics, and that they did not mainly originate from the middle- and upper-class: Populism offered agrarian women, including poor rural women, a chance to speak out. Kansas Populist newspaperwoman and lecturer Annie Diggs described their political awakening:

Women who never dreamed of becoming public speakers grew eloquent in their zeal and fervor. Farmers’ wives and daughters rose earlier and worked later to gain time to cook the picnic dinners, to paint the mottoes on the banners, to practice with the glee clubs, to march in procession. [Humorist] Josh Billings’ saying that “wimmin is everywhere,” was literally true in that wonderful picnicking, speech-making Alliance summer of 1890. (Diggs 165)

Mobilization created a space where women could act politically as equals. Formal equality did not imply social and gender equality, however—a recurrent problem for women in mixed social movements since antebellum reform crusades and even later in the Progressive period. Women were offered visions of progress and opportunities to raise their voices, but they were also often relegated to stereotypical feminine duties, such as providing refreshments at Alliance meetings (Postel, 2007 70).

6Even if gender stereotypes inform Diggs’s enthusiastic description of Alliance women, she also considered mobilization to be a transformative experience. Politics starts when ordinary people wrest some time from the ordinary course of things to think and act collectively, thus presupposing equality with those better situated in the social hierarchy (Rancière) and shaking off “inherited forms of deference” (Goodwyn 33). A social study of Lewis County, Washington, shows that women did participate freely in a mixed political culture and that their political and economic expertise was recognized (Watkins). Populist women refused to be positioned simply as housewives: they engaged in intellectual pursuits and became politically articulate actors.

7Women took part in mixed gender meetings but also organized their own associations, for instance in Barton County, Kansas, in 1890. They organized political rallies with female speakers and chairwomen, often traveling more than 10 miles to meet up. They insisted on their rights as American citizens to take a stand and “assume a political character,” even though traditional parties regarded women in politics with contempt. Even though they were “disfranchised,” they were convinced they had influenced elections by distributing hundreds of papers and maintaining a circulating library for the public and Alliance members (Alliance Women’s Association). Populist newspapers praised their crucial educational role in grassroots mobilization. In an 1891 cartoon from The American Non-conformist, a radical Kansas newspaper with a national readership, a female librarian is serving newspapermen, businessmen, workingmen, and farmers, thus illustrating Barton County women’s claim (figure 1). For Barton County’s women, disenfranchisement was therefore no obstacle to engaging in politics, but more surprisingly suffrage was not an objective per se either.

Figure 1

Watson Heston, “The Campaign of Education.” The American Non-conformist and Kansas Industrial Liberator (Winfield, KS), 9 July 1891, p. 1, Accessed 29 July 2021.

8It is difficult to recover what rank-and-file Alliance members thought of suffrage because they did not leave many traces. A collection of 180 letters to the Southern Mercury, the radical newspaper published by the Texas Farmers’ Alliance, nonetheless provides a glimpse into the views of more than 60 rural white women. They discussed politics more than domestic issues and a little more than half were in favor of suffrage (Barthelme 48). Expanding economic opportunities implied the right to vote for a member of the Sault Creek Alliance in the Indian Territory: “This day and time, women clerk, work in telegraph offices, and a great many other public places and if voting is a disgrace, those places are disgraceful too” (143). Pro-suffrage views were sometimes coupled with humor: “it seems absurd to me that voting would make a woman rough or forgetful of her duty at home. I don’t believe I would forget to wash the children on election day, or forget that I was a woman either” (135). They also debunked the stereotype that a suffragist neglected her domestic duties with sophisticated arguments:

Sister Rebecca, you class the decline of patriotism with the rise of the popularity of universal suffrage and “woman neglecting her duty in her proper sphere.” Now will someone kindly tell me what is her proper sphere? I have always heard the expression, but have failed to locate it […]. I am obliged to conclude it is whatever the state of society dictates to her. […] Women used to be our bakers, brewers […]. Thus crowded out of her old fields by men’s intrusion and invention, she must either accept a life of idleness, and be satisfied with such as her brothers see proper to give her. (Barthelme 50)

9In this letter, Ann Other from Ennis, Texas, analyzed the socially-constructed nature of the separate spheres theory and the masculinization of public life, and then went on to quote suffragist, WCTU President, and Populist sympathizer Frances E. Willard’s address before a Senate committee. Ordinary women were empowered through regular newspaper reading and epistolary debates, even in remote rural small towns. They formed an informal “community of print” on the margins of the official literature written by the movement’s spokespersons (Tarrow 50).

  • 1 “Money” referred to free silver and bimetallism, “land” to legislation prohibiting the monopolizati (...)

10These rich exchanges encouraged heated, yet civil, debates. For example, Mary Raborn of Groesbeck, Texas, feared “ignorant, degraded women, both white and black, would be as easily purchased as the ignorant voter of the male sex” and thought economic issues—“money, land and transportation,” the three mainstays of the Populist agenda—were better causes to fight for (Barthelme 238-239).1 However, disagreement did not impinge upon the sisterhood that united women such as Other and “sister Rebecca”—a white sisterhood. Populist rhetoric did not include minorities in their vision of progress (Postel, 2007 173-203) and this invisibilization is apparent in the letters. The issue of the Black vote is raised only once by Annea Yarbrough of Belton, Texas. Infusing her letter with the language of white supremacy, she explained that corruptible and uneducated African Americans, “whose vote could be bought for a glass of beer,” were a threat to democracy (117-118). As to African American women, they are simply nowhere to be found in the correspondence.

  • 2 Cahill only mentions the influence of “Populist energy” leading to victories in suffrage state refe (...)

11Few traces of Black Populist women are extant, even though the Colored Farmers’ Alliance was “the largest movement of African Americans in the United States until the modern civil rights movement.” At least 250,000 African Americans joined up, but estimates vary because Alliance records were destroyed to protect members (Ali 10, 53). Even in Cahill’s more inclusive history of the fight for suffrage, all the Populists are white.2 However, Lutie Lytle, a 20-year-old Black Populist woman and clerk in the Kansas state legislature, is known to have strongly supported woman suffrage. She eventually became the first African American woman law professor in the United States (Ali 97-98, 157). White supremacy and violence crippled the African American women’s suffrage movement in the South, Populist or otherwise.

12The most visible women in the Populist movement were politically ambitious, mostly urban, white middle-class professionals who “wrote fiction and nonfiction […], participated more directly in political work as campaign speakers or elected delegates to state and national conventions” (Wagner 8). They were elected to official positions and served on key committees. They were less divided than grassroots activists on the issue of suffrage: most of them promoted the measure. For example, Annie Diggs was a newspaperwoman, lecturer, temperance worker, and Populist advocate who served terms as president of the Women’s Alliance in Washington, DC, and of the Kansas Equal Suffrage Association. She expounded the role of “women in the Alliance movement” in the pro-Populist Boston-based magazine The Arena and chronicled their contribution (Diggs 160-180). She also wrote the suffrage plank at the Populists’ 1892 national convention (Edwards 104). Another instance is the reaction to a piece published in the Forum magazine in January 1890 by Goldwin Smith, a history professor at Cornell University, who warned against woman suffrage. Alliance lecturer, lawyer, and Chicago Express editor Marion Todd then offered a caustic response in a widely circulated book among Populist suffragists. According to Todd, “the security of every other right depend[ed]” on suffrage, the precedent of Wyoming, which had had woman suffrage for twenty years, proved the measure moralized politics and virtuous and cultured minds ought to take part in the work of government (Todd 3, 21, 163, 165).

13Female cadres of the movement thought woman suffrage would purify politics. Kansas Populist orator Mary Elizabeth Lease—who famously called on farmers to “raise less corn and more hell,” or so the legend goes—explained that male-led politics had “degraded the home” (Orr 21). Uncontrolled manhood meant political disorder: plutocrats’ greed, the liquor power’s corruption, and the public health problems drinking caused. Bettie Gay, a successful Texas farm manager and prominent Alliance member, believed that women should “lead the men out the darkness” (1895 3). Temperance and woman suffrage, through women’s moralizing influence, could then protect families from alcohol and corruption. The ideal of home protection was not confined to Populism—it informed most nineteenth-century reform movements, particularly temperance, and “maternalist” Progressivism after 1900 (Skocpol 2). Professional female activists often left home for long periods of time to campaign for the Populist Party but they did not “perceive a contradiction between domesticity and political work; rather, they incorporated the ideology of domesticity into the larger goals of Populism” (Wagner 9-10). Sometimes, home literally became the hub of the Populist network. A case in point is Luna Kellie, the state secretary of the Nebraska Farmers’ Alliance and the only leader who spent her whole life on a rural homestead. In her memoirs of her harsh life on the farm, which she wrote on the back of Farmers’ Alliance certificates, she explained how she tirelessly corresponded, edited her own newspaper, the Prairie Home, and organized reform work from her home (Kellie 168-181).

14Populists, however, did not restrict “home protection” to the moral reading of anti-corruption suffragists and prohibitionists, but emphasized a structural economic analysis. The conventional phrase took on a more radical meaning: since currency, land, and transportation legislation shaped homes, the protection of households implied fighting against corporations and plutocrats who monopolized what ought to be public goods. Fighting for fair access to the “benefits of modern civilization” was inseparable from demanding better homes (Gay, 1891 311). This came at a price: most Populist women, like the Lady Knights of Labor, saw economic issues as their major concerns, while the suffrage movement “increasingly focused on the vote as the key to women’s equality” (Levine 337). That is why, even though Diggs supported woman suffrage, she also explained that inequalities and poverty came first: “Before this question of the salvation of the imperiled homes of the nation, all other questions, whether of ‘prohibition’ or ‘suffrage,’ pale into relative inconsequence” (165). Mary Elizabeth Lease concurred. She relentlessly campaigned for the vote, but also denounced the demands for prohibition and suffrage as “absurd” when compared to the radical economic reforms necessary to redistribute wealth (Wagner 262-263). In Hamlin Garland’s realistic novel, A Spoil of Office, the fictionalized account of his Arena-sponsored investigation of the Kansas uprising, the Alliance lecturer Ida Wilbur explains that “suffrage is the smaller part of the woman question” and goes on to explain the full picture:

It is a question of equal rights. It is a question of whether the law of liberty applies to humanity or to men only. […] The woman question is not a political one merely, it is an economic one. […] The real question is woman’s dependence upon man as the bread-winner. (Garland 142-143)

Populists did not separate the older natural rights rhetoric from more modern economic power relationships.

15Reform print culture reflected Populists’ intellectual ferment. In Kansas, Emma Pack’s newspaper, The Farmer’s Wife, stood for “equal suffrage for all citizens,” “social purity and home protection,” as well as “fair play to all people of every race and both sexes.” Pack devoted most of the paper’s pages to woman suffrage (Roberts 17). The Kansas Agitator featured a “woman’s department” that provided arguments for woman suffrage, ranging from quotes by eminent thinkers to lower crime figures in Wyoming since woman suffrage had come into effect (“Woman’s Department” 8; Willcox 8). In North Carolina, however, The Progressive Farmer had no sympathy for reformers, characterizing them as “subversive of the social order.” Reform print culture thus reflected regional political differences. The commitment to women’s voting rights was strong in the Midwest and the West. In Texas, a Populist stronghold, the reform press in general supported female suffrage. In the rest of the South, the more conservative Southern Alliance encouraged education for women, but this more expanded role was strictly limited to what was useful for farm life. The public discussion of women’s voting rights was held in check, even if an “undercurrent” of challenge sometimes dots the pages of The Progressive Farmer: suffrage came up in meetings as women were warned against the reform (Jeffrey 85). These regional discrepancies did not stem from differences in mobilization, which was national in scope, but from electoral politics.

Electoral Politics and State Suffrage Referenda

16Woman suffrage had divided political parties throughout the nineteenth century and the Populist Party was no exception. State chapters in the West, from Kansas to California, endorsed woman suffrage. The majority of Western Populists supported the measure, in particular in the Rocky Mountains, where the party had a solid base of free silverites and union members. Even the Republican-leaning suffrage periodical Woman’s Journal admitted that suffrage was in the Populist platform of “nearly every northern State” (F.M.A., 1894 354). At the national level, things were more complicated, as the People’s Party leadership stopped short of officially endorsing suffrage despite claims of support to the cause, an ambiguity reminiscent of the Knights of Labor’s position (Postel, 2019 211).

17From 1889 to 1891, the coalition of reformers that was to become the People’s Party backed woman suffrage, but support gradually declined and the question was deferred to the states. By 1892, it proved too controversial: the party’s founding convention in Omaha, in July, refused to include woman suffrage in the platform “despite increasing numbers of female delegates and the presence of WCTU president Frances Willard and National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) president Susan B. Anthony (who was refused permission to speak)” (Mead 11). The Knights of Labor wing of the coalition, in particular, pushed for the plank but Southern Populists blocked it (Hild 146). As a result of internal and regional divisions, the preamble of the progressive Omaha Platform remained vague, committing only to “never cease to move forward” until equal rights are “securely established for all the men and women of this country” (Hicks 442). Even though the new party treated women as full party members and voters and boasted more women in key positions, the new emphasis on national electoral activity raised the political stakes and tended to marginalize women (Mead 11; McMath 127). The contradiction between “the politically egalitarian Alliance family and the patriarchal farm family” became even more apparent as the new party focused on pursuing the votes of men (Goldberg 160). Populism still provided women with a unique political space, but their role diminished compared to the early Alliance-driven phase. In the 1896 Populist National Convention, the party nominated Democratic candidate William J. Bryan and the political rights of women were lost in the fusion. By 1900, most Populists had moved to the Democratic Party and the People’s Party was no longer seen as a vehicle for securing greater rights for women.

18Political strategizing accounts for the discrepancy between grassroots mobilization and party decisions. The South was more conservative on gender issues and woman suffrage caused so much controversy there that the leaders of the new party feared that a suffrage plank would split the reform vote. Luna Kellie illustrates the complex relationship between Populism and suffrage: even though she had been politicized by discussions of woman suffrage, she supported the party’s politically expedient decision to shelve the issue because it would divide reformers. Unity was the priority, as she made clear in a poem she wrote from the perspective of a Black man:

For I stood there a living example
Of wrongs years of votes failed to right,
And long years to come yet will fail to,
Unless all the toilers unite. (163-164)

19Populist suffragists were bitterly disappointed but remained committed to the Populist cause because they thought the party was suffragists’ best shot, much more so than the two established parties. Non-populist suffrage activists were more severe. As Populist presidential candidate James B. Weaver and Mary E. Lease went on a speaking tour in Georgia in 1892, they were interrupted by mobs throwing rotten eggs. In The Woman’s Column, a suffrage newsletter edited by Lucy Stone and Alice Stone Blackwell, a contributor named F.M.A. wryly commented on the poor results of Populists’ accommodation of Southern opposition to the vote: “It is, perhaps, an instance of poetic justice that the section for whose conservatism the party suppressed a declaration for the equality of women should deny freedom of speech to the party’s leaders” (1892 n. p.). Suffrage leaders understood they were caught in a double bind: “They could work for winning parties that offered them no direct power, or they could work for third parties that recognized women as delegates and endorsed temperance or suffrage planks, but could not win” (Edwards 88).

20State suffrage referenda revealed the constraints of partisanship. In the 1890s, their fate was linked to Populism, for better (Colorado in 1893 and Idaho in 1896) or worse (Kansas in 1894 and California in 1896). Following their 1892 victories in the Colorado legislature, the suddenly powerful Populists mobilized for suffrage. Carrie Chapman Catt organized the campaign on behalf of the NAWSA. The strategy involved obtaining political endorsements from all parties and thus remove the issue from partisan struggles (Mead 67). In a letter to Anthony, Denver newspaperwoman and Colorado Equal Suffrage Association organizer Ellis Meredith explained that “the association is and will remain strictly non-partisan” even if, “individually,” many suffragists sided with the Populists (Meredith). The “all-party” strategy worked in Colorado: both Republicans and Populists endorsed suffrage. Counties carried by the People’s Party in 1892 voted for woman suffrage, some with more than 70 percent support (Blackwell 364). Catt attributed success to the equal rights principles nurtured by the Farmers’ Alliance and the People’s Party as well as the effectiveness of joining forces with a strong third party: this forced both Republicans and Democrats to either back the measure or face the electoral consequences (Catt and Shuler 119; McConnaughy 12). She also pointed to “the fine condition of organized labor” and “the actual facts of the [suffrage] experiment” in neighboring Wyoming, which debunked myths about suffrage that prevailed in the East (“Boston Tea Party” 404). Historians Rebecca Mead (68) and Rebecca Edwards (105) also emphasize the work of other groups—middle-class clubwomen, the Knights of Labor, the WCTU—, the weakness of an overconfident opposition, and the consensus on free silver. Free silver split parties in other states, but not in the mining state of Colorado: “a vote for equal suffrage is a vote for silver,” all partisan newspapers in the state trumpeted (Edwards 105). Populists linked woman suffrage to the currency issue, which ensured victory.

Contrary to what Populists had expected, most women in Colorado then did not vote Populist but Republican. Republican women mobilized massively to “rescue the State from threatening communism” and “anarchy,” as suffragist Helen Ecob put it in The Woman’s Journal (273). Populist Governor Davis Waite blamed his loss on women: “Equal suffrage in Colorado had brought to the polls at least 30,000 ignorant hired girls, whose votes are purchaseable [sic] and at the disposal of the wealthy classes who have hired their services. […] Female suffrage I hope will hereafter be opposed by all Populists” (Morris 16). Electoral politics gave women the right to vote, but they were no longer considered as worthy civic agents—at least for Waite. Other influential Populists such as Eugene Debs advised caution, but to no avail. In his subsequent speaking tour, Waite de facto served the anti-suffrage cause, which prompted Ignatius Donnelly to write to him: “The statements you have made [in Saint Paul, Minnesota] ended woman’s suffrage in the People’s Party” (Morris 18).

21In 1894, electoral politics ended woman suffrage in Kansas. The Kansas Equal Suffrage Association was led by Laura Johns, a Republican, and included Annie Diggs for the People’s Party. Johns announced that the committee was “non-partisan in its work, though ALLPARTISAN in its make-up,” but that proved the referendum’s demise (Edwards 107). Populists endorsed woman suffrage, but Republicans and Democrats did not. As a result, suffrage remained a partisan issue. Pro-suffrage Republicans, terrified of bimetallist theories, denounced suffrage as a Populist measure and sacrificed women’s political rights to “redeem the State […] from financial heresies” (Harper 786). Republican suffragists had to choose between suffrage and party. Anthony, who had had an ongoing—though often strained—relationship with the GOP since the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, campaigned for the Populists. Yet, they were more focused on their political survival and their economic platform: their newspapers practically ignored the woman suffrage issue. The 1894 referendum was a disaster that destroyed the state suffrage movement for more than a decade. Republicans regained control of the state and Populist suffragists suffered a double defeat (Goldberg 326-360).

22California Populists pushed for suffrage in their state after the measure was not included in the Omaha Platform. At their convention, Anthony thanked the party which “from the very first […] ha[d] recognized human equality” (“Three Cheers” 7). While California Democrats rejected the measure, Republicans pursued a different strategy than had the Kansas Republican Party two years before: they endorsed suffrage and then did nothing. Suffragists again found themselves “fastened, like it or not, to the losing Populist side” (Edwards 109). Ida Harper was not as enthusiastic as Anthony about the third party’s role: although the Populist press, without exception, was for woman suffrage and some Populist Party members promoted the measure, “the most prominent, who always before had spoken for it, went through the entire campaign without so much as a mention, in order to secure Democratic support” (Harper 868, 885). The political context was not favorable in the presidential election year of 1896. Populists had fused with the Democrats, which “restricted the Populist agenda and female participation to the detriment of controversial issues like woman suffrage” (Mead 84). Populists, men or women, were more interested in free silver. Some dismissed Eastern suffragists as “Republican sympathizers” and accused them of being unsupportive in their campaign and ungrateful after the 1893 Colorado victory. Governor Waite’s comments also continued to impact Populists’ relationship with suffragists. All but one of the thirty-one California counties voting Populist in 1892 supported the amendment, but other parties were split and suffrage was voted down. Republicans then dominated the state legislature and did not authorize another referendum until 1911.

23On the contrary, the measure passed easily in Idaho for two reasons: in 1896, Populists were at the forefront of the free sliver campaign—the central issue in this mining state—and all parties, even the Democrats, endorsed woman suffrage (Edwards 105; Mead 93-94). In 1896, Idaho men voted in favor of both Populism and woman suffrage, whereas California men voted Republican and rejected equal suffrage, which reinforced the link between Populism and women’s rights. In the state election two years later, three women were elected members of their states’ legislatures and others county treasurers, school superintendents, and deputy sheriffs. In 1900, Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg, prompted by Catt, explained in the women’s magazine Harper’s Bazaar that women voted in high numbers and “had a most elevating influence” on democracy (221). He added: “As the system has not operated to take women from their homes, so too it has not tended to make them in any way masculine” (221). The comment reveals how troubling women’s political role was to gender norms.

Populist Women as a Subversion of Gender Norms

24Ironically, the People’s Party never endorsed suffrage; most Populist women declared economic policies to be their priority and embraced the middle-class ideal of domesticity. And yet, Populist women were perceived as a dangerous subversion of gender norms: their newly acquired power allegedly “unsexed” them. The then male preserve of partisan politics conflicted with a new reality: women’s venturing into issues deemed outside the traditional female purview, notably economics and electoral politics. Female reform activity had until then mostly been confined to work outside political parties, in abolitionist or temperance circles, where women were said to have “domesticated” politics (Baker). However, this implied that women influenced politics, but did not have a prominent role in the male political culture centering on elections and parties. What seemed so shocking was that Populist women who campaigned for woman suffrage were not satisfied with domesticating politics, they wanted to do politics and immerse in the muck and mire of electioneering.

25The systematic backlash on Populist women who were suffrage activists provides a glimpse into the shock. Populist female lecturers combined “busy, private domestic roles as wives and mothers with public lives as organizers, public speakers, journalists, writers, and politicians” (Wagner 8). Their pioneering way of balancing private and public life was perceived as an intolerable gender ambiguity and abandonment of the home. They did fight back. Annie Diggs denounced the idea that voting women would not be able to have children, deriding “ridiculous theorists who tremble lest any sort of man-made laws be mightier than nature’s laws, who writhe lest statutes should change the loving, loyal mother-nature of woman” (160-180).

26Women’s rights spurred a radical movement that threatened traditional male privileges. Populism was another radical movement that challenged the established economic order. Standing at that intersection, Populist women made especially ripe targets. One woman came to symbolize the danger of Populist speakers: Mary Elizabeth Lease. From the beginning, she was subjected to vitriolic attacks:

At the opera house last Monday night, a miserable caricature upon womanhood, hideously ugly in feature and foul of tongue, made an ostensible political speech. […] All we know about her is that she is hired to travel around the country by this great reform People’s Party, which seems to find a female blackguard a necessity in its business, spouting foul-mouthed vulgarity at $10 a night. No doubt the petticoated smut-mill earns her money, but few women want to make their living that way. […] Her venomous tongue is the only thing marketable about the old harpy, and we suppose she is justified in selling it where it commands the highest price. In about a month the lantern-jawed, goggle-eyed nightmare will be put out of a job. (Campbell 1)

27Enraged at her recent speech in his town, Republican editor J.G. Campbell questioned her womanhood with traditional misogynistic stereotypes, and reduced her famed oratory to mere obscenities and greed. The post-Haymarket demonization of radicals crops up in the headline that brands Lease as a dangerous anarchist, the “Lucy Parsons of Kansas.” Ironically, despite her “militant calls for class warfare” and her commitment to conventional domestic ideals, it was her gender-role deviance that became the chief butt of criticism (Orr 5). Lease was portrayed as physically masculine and as an unfit mother who abandoned her home. In the Republican satirical magazine Judge, her husband is depicted as a brainless homemaker, whereas she takes on the role of the male breadwinner who can think about public issues. In one such cartoon, she is made to state: “When I start to tell you about capitalistic domination you give your thoughts to the baby” (Riordon 268). Gender inversion signaled a world gone mad.

28Whether they have gone down in history or not, Populist women have all been lampooned with the same stereotypes reminding readers of appropriate gender behavior. Women on the stump were immodest and “short-haired,” in other words allegedly unfeminine; in one instance, the journalist’s conclusion was damning: “women who unsex themselves would naturally take to populistic ideas” (“Outlook in Kansas” 2). In the influential pro-Democratic but anti-Bryan and anti-Populist New York satirical magazine Puck, a cartoon equates Populist female lecturers with bearded ladies (“Where Whiskers” n. p.). Both were a gender aberration to be relegated to freak shows. Just as bearded ladies were not seen as women, Populist stump speaking was a vacuous, profitable show—decisively not politics. Both transgressed social and cultural norms.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Untitled cartoon, unknown source. Herman Taubeneck Collection, Box 1, Scrapbook page 185, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

29Racist stereotypes also surfaced in anti-Populist rhetoric. In a New York Times article about the defeat of a particularly misogynistic Senator at the polls, Kansas Populist women are depicted as bloodthirsty savages who “got Ingalls’s scalp” (“They Got” 1). In two unsourced cartoons collected by Populist Party chairman Herman Taubeneck in his scrapbook, a Populist woman and a suffragist—probably Anthony—are both shown as dangerous reformers, far from what was expected of proper ladies. The suffragist is equated with a knife-carrying radical (figure 2). “Sweet 16 to 1” refers to not-so-sweet, disreputable elderly Populist delegates who support the radical free-silver movement. “You Can’t Lose Me, Chawlie [sic],” is a reference to an 1893 “coon song” about a man with “a heap of trouble” because of “a little yaller girl [he] can’t shake” (figure 3): Populist women, like the girl in the chorus, explain to their new political allies that they will not “lose” them easily. The cartoonist uses both racial slurs and gender stereotypes to make fun of a both degenerate and ridiculous alliance.

Figure 3

Figure 3

Untitled cartoon, unknown source. Herman Taubeneck Collection, Box 1, Scrapbook page 235, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

30Woman suffrage was so closely tied to the agrarian revolt in the 1890s that the attack on the measure cannot be dissociated from the larger cultural history of the delegitimization of Populism as “the essential crankiness of cranks” (“Socialism and Populism” 4). Gender and class intersected to shape reformers’ political stigmatization: poor women protesting injustice were particularly terrifying and radical economic reforms even more. Whether Republican or Democratic, local or national, Eastern or Western, lowbrow or highbrow, mainstream newspapers and magazines heaped abuse on Populists. In Colorado and Kansas, states where both suffragists and the People’s Party had made significant headway, Republican women were determined to “redeem that State from Populism” (“Progress of Woman” 6; “Work Begins” 4). They accused Populists of “undermining the social order by giving women too much political power” (Edwards 132). On the East coast, attacks were even more scathing. A Puck cover infantilized reformers who merely “amuse themselves” with silly, un-American ideas. Childish advocates of “Populism,” “Women’s Rights Nonsense,” and the “Free Silver Mania” are “trying to make an April fool” of Uncle Sam, who is not taken in though (figure 4).

Figure 4

Figure 4

Frederick B. Opper, “Trying to make an April fool of him.” Puck, vol. 37, 3 April 1895, cover. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Accessed 29 July 2021.

  • 3 At the height of the Populist revolt, The New York Times endorsed conservative Democratic candidate (...)

31Editorials in the Republican paper The Philadelphia Press, often reprinted in Western newspapers, censured the “Kansas fanatics,” adding that “sensible women” were opposed to “civil disorder.” They blamed the defeat of the suffrage amendment in Kansas on “the ridiculous antics of Susan B. Anthony and other so-called leaders in espousing the Populist cause” (“Eastern Opinion” 4; “Various Election Topics” 787). The Democratic-leaning New York Times similarly dismissed prominent Populist women’s activism as aggressiveness and manipulation: “these women have acquired influence, no so much because of their persuasive powers as because of the skill with which they have directed the minds of the large class of dissatisfied men” (“Politics Is Their Sphere” 4).3

32To overcome the depression and structural inequalities that plagued the country, Populists advocated expansions of federal power, reforms such as government ownership of railroads, and a progressive income tax. These plans were typically disparaged as “the brainchild of strong women and weak men” (Edwards 132). As the political scientist Theda Skocpol shows, the creation of a maternalist welfare state enacting social spending for mothers forged a link between politicized women and expanded federal intervention, even before women were granted the right vote. Exclusion from suffrage actually stimulated “counter-organization” into voluntary associations outside of the regular, male-dominated electoral politics (52) and enabled women to extend domestic ideals into the nation’s public life, a situation that “prevailed only as long as women were collectively mobilized for styles of politics that did not depend primarily on voting” (319). Populist women, on the contrary, mobilized for radical economic transformations within the framework of electoral politics, which explains why their vision of government intervention could not be seen as a domestication of politics, but rather a disruption of the social order. With the demise of the People’s Party and Republican William McKinley’s victory in 1896, a new climate of conservatism, fueled by an aggressive masculinity, discredited everything that had threatened the social and political order: for the next decade, equal suffrage and women in partisan politics went down with government intervention.


33Women’s rights were “not a question of suffrage merely,” as Garland’s character puts it in A Spoil of Office, but above all a question of equality (Garland 142). However, among egalitarian social movements since the late 1860s, equality had always been “fractured and contradictory,” and Populists were no exception (Postel, 2019 4, 311). Race limited the scope of women’s emancipation. Economic and women’s empowerment clashed, and the Omaha Platform claimed that suffrage was “secondary to the great issues” of inequality and monopoly (Hicks 442). There were also structural questions of partisan political order and proper gender roles. After 1896, party realignment—a new “regional accommodation” with home rule and white supremacy for Southern Democrats, and control of the Congress and the presidency for Republicans—confined women’s political opportunities: they could “claim public identities based on Protestant faith, motherhood, and their positions as consumers and workers, but not as party decision makers or voters” (Edwards 10). Populist women, however, had wielded decision-making power within the existing partisan structure for a brief moment, but ironically that publicized the dangers of women’s political participation in conservative circles and hence provoked a backlash. This explains why, at the beginning of the twentieth century, suffrage for white women was not adopted until “the influence of parties and electoral politics on public policy was declining” (Baker 645).

34Agrarian women did not win suffrage planks at national Populist conventions, but they “did gain self-confidence and valuable political experience in the public sphere and formed important networks with other women” (Wagner 10). After the collapse of Populism, rural women found other avenues for their activism, in general less radical organizations such as the Grange (Watkins 205). Others, like Luna Kellie, broke down. Reform newspapers all over the country, including hers, went out of business. It took her over ten years to recover her health. She concluded her memoirs with this heart-wrenching note: “[I] have given up all hope of making the world any better” (144-145). With hindsight, Populists may seem ambivalent about gender equality and woman suffrage, but they appeared shockingly radical to their contemporaries across the political spectrum, as shown by the backlash in the press and the widespread use of caricatures as effective weapons of denigration. Anti-suffragists such as Helen K. Johnson associated woman suffrage with “Free Silver and Populism of the most extravagant type” (1897 102). In 1913, as the suffrage movement was regaining momentum, she reiterated her arguments during her hearing before the Senate Committee on Woman Suffrage, equating Populism with woman suffrage and lambasting them for being “undemocratic” and reminiscent of violent lawlessness during the Paris Commune (109).

  • 4 Other factors were involved, notably the divisiveness of partisan politics and the dominance of con (...)

35Anthony and Harper were right in their History of Woman Suffrage, to the extent that Populism did give women “more recognition” than old parties and did secure victories for suffrage in Colorado and Idaho. Populist political mobilization also “did for woman suffrage reform what antislavery reform did for woman’s [sic] rights in the 1830s: it provided a context that prepared and enabled white men to see the political exclusion of women as unjust” (Marilley 155). However, the association between woman suffrage and such a notorious movement as Populist radicalism made women’s right to vote even more transgressive and subsequently doomed it: no new suffrage states were won between 1896 and 1910. The decade came to be known as the “doldrums,” a term first used by historians in the 1950s (Anthony 405; Flexner 241). Contemporaries such as Catt and Shuler labeled it a “desert” (127). However, historian Sarah H. Graham argued that the first decade of the twentieth century should be seen as a period of “careful and successful rebuilding,” in which the leaders of the NAWSA “reshaped the image of their movement” and recruited “a new generation of energetic and talented college-educated women” (158). However it might be interpreted—as stagnation or renaissance—the stigma attached to Populism either doomed suffrage for more than a decade or forced suffragists to rethink their strategy.4

36Suffragists and Populists had been awkward de facto allies in the 1890s. Like many other middle-class Easterners, most suffragists viewed Populists as cranks. The Woman’s Journal maintained Republican ties, ignored Populist women's activities, and only mentioned Populism in articles covering partisan business as usual. After years of success thanks to Eastern activists, suffrage “advanced backward” according to The New York Times. The “spasmodic demonstrations” in western states were but an epiphenomenon, mere “ravings,” and an “early stage” in the “development” of an undisciplined and immature region (“Cause That Has ‘Advanced Backward’” 5). The Populist experiment in empowering women had caused too much political and gender trouble, and suffragists strove to make their cause respectable again. They realized that exerting pressure from a “disinterested” position outside parties was more effective and invented new techniques for lobbying and grassroots organizing (Edwards 10). By the time their new strategy bore fruit in the 1910s, the once radical economic ideas defended by Populist women had found mainstream support among middle-class urban Progressives. In its 1915 special issue on suffrage, guest-edited by New York state suffrage groups, Puck no longer ridiculed women’s right to vote as it had in the 1890s (Taylor). Henry Mayer’s iconic centerfold even paid homage to these torch-bearing western states which had paved the way in the fight for the vote (figure 5). That the various contributors could do so without even mentioning Populism and the part it played in empowering women and putting suffrage on the political agenda shows that the whole episode was best forgotten.

Figure 5

Figure 5

Henri Mayer, “The awakening.” Puck, vol. 77, 20 Feb. 1915, p. 14-15, centerfold. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Accessed 29 July 2021.

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1 “Money” referred to free silver and bimetallism, “land” to legislation prohibiting the monopolization of public lands for speculative purposes, and “transportation” to government ownership of railroads and telegraphs.

2 Cahill only mentions the influence of “Populist energy” leading to victories in suffrage state referenda (68) and the failure of the party in North Dakota to include a suffrage plank even though they had invited Anthony to campaign in their state (45-48).

3 At the height of the Populist revolt, The New York Times endorsed conservative Democratic candidates that appealed to the newspaper’s respectable, educated readership: Grover Cleveland in 1892 (“Democratic Candidate” 4) and John M. Palmer in 1896 for the National Democratic Party (Gold Democrats), a splinter group opposed to the free-silver platform of the regular Democratic Party’s nominee, William J. Bryan (“Choice” 4). The New York Times called Bryan “an irresponsible, unregulated, ignorant, prejudiced, pathetically honest and enthusiastic crank” (“W.J. Bryan, Populist” 1).

4 Other factors were involved, notably the divisiveness of partisan politics and the dominance of conservative Republicans at the national level.

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Table des illustrations

Légende Watson Heston, “The Campaign of Education.” The American Non-conformist and Kansas Industrial Liberator (Winfield, KS), 9 July 1891, p. 1, Accessed 29 July 2021.
Fichier image/png, 438k
Titre Figure 2
Légende Untitled cartoon, unknown source. Herman Taubeneck Collection, Box 1, Scrapbook page 185, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.
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Titre Figure 3
Légende Untitled cartoon, unknown source. Herman Taubeneck Collection, Box 1, Scrapbook page 235, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.
Fichier image/jpeg, 497k
Titre Figure 4
Légende Frederick B. Opper, “Trying to make an April fool of him.” Puck, vol. 37, 3 April 1895, cover. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Accessed 29 July 2021.
Fichier image/jpeg, 489k
Titre Figure 5
Légende Henri Mayer, “The awakening.” Puck, vol. 77, 20 Feb. 1915, p. 14-15, centerfold. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Accessed 29 July 2021.
Fichier image/jpeg, 409k
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Jean-Louis Marin-Lamellet, « “Now Will Someone Kindly Tell Me What Is Her Proper Sphere?” Woman Suffrage, Women’s Political Participation, and the Populist Movement  »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2022, mis en ligne le 17 juin 2022, consulté le 10 août 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Jean-Louis Marin-Lamellet

Université Savoie-Mont-Blanc

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