This summer marks the 100th anniversary of approval in Nebraska and Iowa of the 19th Amendment allowing women to vote. It’s an appropriate occasion to acknowledge the decades of work in both states leading up to that success, and to note the progress American women have made as political leaders over the past century.
Nebraskans and Iowans energetically debated female suffrage during the second half of the 19th century and into the 20th. Figures in both states contributed significantly to the suffrage cause. Here are just a few examples:
» Amelia Bloomer. This longtime Council Bluffs resident was a leading figure for decades on the suffrage issue. In 1856, she addressed the Nebraska Territorial Legislature, urging female suffrage legislation and calling on women to press for needed change: “Let women then arise and demand the restoration of her heaven-born right of self-government.” The Legislature’s lower house passed a suffrage bill in the wake of Bloomer’s remarks, but the upper house failed to act on the issue, historian Lawrence Harold Larsen writes.
» Nebraska State Sen. Erasmus Correll. Nebraska was the scene of intense debate in 1882 when a female suffrage proposal sponsored by Correll was one of several statewide ballot measures for a revised Nebraska Constitution. Correll, a Hebron resident, was long outspoken in supporting the vote for women.
» Clara Bewick Colby. This Beatrice resident, Nebraska’s leading advocate for female suffrage in the 19th century, was a prominent voice during the state’s 1882 debate on enfranchising women. The two national suffrage organizations held their conventions in Nebraska that year and urged a “yes” vote. All the ballot proposals lost, however. The suffrage measure received only 22% support.
» Carrie Chapman Catt. Catt, an Iowa native, provided key leadership as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in the early 1900s. She displayed “exceptional administrative talents,” historian Alexander Keyssar writes, “transforming NAWSA from a loosely run association into an efficient organization” that “coordinated national, state and local campaigns.” Catt was one of the central strategists who ultimately steered national suffrage efforts to victory.
» Doris Stevens. During the World War I era, a younger generation of suffrage activists took to the streets, mounting high-profile demonstrations in Washington, D.C. Stevens, an Omaha native, was among those jailed in 1917 while picketing the White House. She would devote decades of work, well into the 20th century, to women’s causes nationally and internationally.
Prior to adoption of the 19th Amendment, women in some states exercised full or partial voting ability. In 1917, the Nebraska Legislature passed limited suffrage legislation, giving women the right to vote in municipal elections and for presidential electors. The Legislature unanimously ratified the 19th Amendment on Aug. 2, 1919. Iowa had approved it the month before. The amendment became effective in 1920 after three quarters of the states approved it.
Over the past century, women have become strong participants in our country’s political life. Congress currently has 127 female lawmakers (23% of the total), up from 23 (4% of the total) in 1981. Current lawmakers include U.S. Sens. Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Joni Ernst of Iowa and U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne of Iowa.
Nine female governors, including Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, hold office in 2019. In 1986, Nebraska provided a first when two female candidates competed in the governor’s contest: Kay Orr, already the first woman elected to a statewide office (treasurer) in Nebraska, and Helen Boosalis, the first woman mayor of Lincoln and first woman mayor of a city of 100,000 or more in the U.S. Orr won the election, becoming the first woman Republican governor in the country.
Fourteen of the 49 members of the current Nebraska Legislature are women. That’s equal to 28% of the membership, which is the average for state legislatures overall. Omaha has a female mayor, Jean Stothert, as do cities including Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco and Atlanta.
A century after passage of the 19th Amendment, it’s important to understand the history of how American women achieved political participation and to appreciate the need for further progress in the years to come.