Throwback Thursday: How Iowa women almost got the right to vote, years before the 19th Amendment

Yesterday was Women’s Equality Day, marking the anniversary of American women gaining the right to vote in 1920 under the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Iowa nearly adopted a state-level woman-suffrage amendment on two occasions before that time. Inspired to learn more about those close calls, this week I read part of Louise Noun’s 1969 book Strong-Minded Women: The Emergence of the Woman-Suffrage Movement in Iowa. The short version of what I learned is after the jump.

Spoiler alert: Republicans in the Bleeding Heartland community may enjoy this post more than Democrats.  

Strong-Minded Women is available at many public libraries in Iowa, and I recommend it to anyone interested in our state’s political history. Louise Noun was a legendary activist for women’s causes and civil rights as well as the author of several books about Iowa women.

The 1848 Woman’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York is generally considered the official beginning of the suffragist movement in the U.S. A few Iowa women began advocating for voting rights during the 1850s, but the years following the Civil War offered the first promising opportunity to pass a state constitutional amendment removing the word “male” from the qualifications for voting. Noun’s book devotes a separate chapter to every year from 1866 through 1872, because the suffragist movement was so active during that time.


The Iowa Constitution is relatively difficult to amend; two separately elected state legislatures must pass the amendment, after which it goes on a statewide ballot for approval by a majority of voters.

State lawmakers took several steps toward women’s equality in 1870. First, Iowa House members approved by unanimous consent a woman, Mary Spencer of Clinton, to serve as “engrossing clerk.” Noun writes on page 125,

Miss Spencer was the first woman to work for the legislature, and her appointment was hailed throughout the state as a sign of great progress for women. She was even paid the same salary set for a man in the same position, the Des Moines correspondent to the Chicago Journal noted.

In January 1870, 40 Iowa lawmakers and state officials invited Matilda Fletcher of Council Bluffs to give a speech advocating for women’s voting rights in the Iowa House chamber.

Two months later, lawmakers amended state code “to permit women to practice law in Iowa. […] [T]his law made Iowa the first state to provide for the admission of women to the bar by express statute.” According to Noun (p.128),

Credit for initiating this action goes to a Democrat in the Senate who, to ridicule a House bill removing the word “white” from the qualifications for lawyers, moved to amend the bill to remove the word “male” also. This amendment was accepted by both Houses without significant protest on the part of the Republican majority.

I never realized that legislative language allowing women into the Iowa bar was originally intended as a poison pill to defeat a bill allowing non-whites to become attorneys.

The Des Moines Register, which supported woman suffrage, noted in its report on this bill, “The woman of Iowa soon can be a lawyer if she cannot be a voter. And the sign is now seen in the sky that the good day is coming fast when she will vote.”

By the end of March 1870, both the Iowa House and Senate had approved a joint resolution removing the word “male” from the qualifications on voting and serving in the legislature. At first, the constitutional amendment proposed in the Iowa House would also have removed the word “male” from requirements for serving in the state militia. That would have made it much harder to pass the amendment in the legislature and by popular referendum, as many people inclined to support the suffragists would have drawn the line at military service for women.

According to Noun (page 131), “The motion to delete the requirement that women serve in the militia carried by only one vote.” Shortly after, the amendment allowing women to vote and hold office in Iowa passed the House easily by 52 votes to 33. Members of both parties supported and opposed suffrage, but most of the yes votes came from Republicans. In general, 19th-century Republicans were far more supportive of woman suffrage than were Democrats. The House Minority leader, John Irish, did support the constitutional amendment, though.

Noun recounts (page 132) that Spencer, the female House clerk, received a standing ovation in the Iowa Senate when she read her official message reporting on House passage of the constitutional amendment.

The rules were suspended and the Senate took immediate action on the suffrage amendment. All attempts at debate were choked off and the measure was approved on a roll-call vote of 32 to 11. […]

There was no question in the minds of the women [advocates of voting rights] that the 1872 General Assembly would give the proposed woman-suffrage amendment the required second approval and that it would then be submitted to a vote of the people. The job ahead was to create a favorable public sentiment so that the amendment would be ratified by voters of the state when submitted for their approval three years hence.

Things did not go according to plan.


During this period, the Iowa legislature did not typically meet during odd-numbered years, so the lawmakers elected in 1870 did not convene in Des Moines during the early months of 1871. The suffragist movement remained active. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton delivered a series of lectures across the country, including in several Iowa cities during the late spring and early summer. Some of their ideas were radical enough, but scandals surrounding their ally Victoria Woodhull posed a bigger problem.

Strong-Minded Women devotes several sections to Woodhull, a charismatic speaker who advocated “free love” as well as suffrage. At a May 1871 court hearing in New York City, “widely publicized in Iowa papers,” Woodhull admitted to sharing a house with several men, including two of her ex-husbands. The press across the country denounced her conduct, and Noun writes,

Despite their favorable reception as they crossed the country during the summer of 1871, Miss Anthony and Mrs. Stanton found a profound disquiet about Mrs. Woodhull wherever they went.

Stanton generated additional controversy by advocating family planning (mostly through abstinence for married women) in some of her lectures to women-only audiences. The Des Moines Register reported on one such lecture in July 1871.

Noun recounts (page 199) that Republican leaders in the Iowa House and Senate told women’s rights campaigners that they would be willing to approve the constitutional amendment a second time. “However, they advised the suffragists that in view of the current free-love storm it would be advisable to postpone putting the suffrage amendment to a vote of the people.” The Iowa suffragist community was divided on whether they should defend Woodhull or distance themselves from her. Leading members asked Stanton and Anthony to stay out of Iowa during the legislature’s 1872 session, to avoid generating bad publicity for the movement.

House Majority Leader John Kasson, a Republican, promised to help pass the amendment. House Minority Leader Irish told suffragists “that he could steer the woman-suffrage amendment through both the House and the Senate, but he urged the women to stay out of the way and let him handle the matter without their help.” He introduced the amendment in February 1872, and it passed the House same month. Several newspapers predicted that the amendment would be defeated in the Senate. Suffragists hoped that some reluctant senators could be persuaded to vote for the amendment as a way of putting the matter to the people of Iowa, even if the lawmakers did not agree with granting voting rights to women.

Two well-known suffragists in Des Moines sought an invitation to address the Senate directly, but on the day of their scheduled speeches, senators voted down the motion to allow them to speak in the chamber. According to Noun (page 215), few senators representing districts outside the capital were being lobbied by constituents supporting the amendment.

little or nothing was heard from suffragists in the rest of the state. The infant suffrage societies so hopefully organized over the past three years were either immobilized by internal friction or already dissolved in the wake of the free-love storm.

On the day the Senate was set to take up the amendment, one of the activists denied an opportunity to speak in the chamber published an open letter to Iowa senators in the Des Moines Register.

During the Senate floor debate, the leading supporter of the suffrage amendment was Charles Beardsley, the Republican editor of the Burlington Hawk Eye newspaper.

Another Republican, Hans Claussen, spoke against giving woman “whose very name is frailty” a say in national affairs. From page 217-218,

Claussen asserted that if women had possessed the ballot in 1864 they would have voted to end the Civil War and make a dishonorable peace with the South.

Beardsley, who heatedly denounced Claussen for falsely accusing the women, was called to order by [Senate President Henry] Bullis for insulting his fellow senator.

A motion to vote on the suffrage amendment passed by 26 votes to 20. But during the roll call on the amendment itself, three senators who had voted for suffrage in 1870 reversed their position. Final vote count: 22 senators for the amendment, 24 against, four absent or not voting.

Irish later claimed that he had enough promised votes to pass the amendment in the Senate, but that the suffragists sunk their own cause by insisting on addressing lawmakers directly. Noun writes that several Iowa newspapers similarly blamed women activists for failing to let men get the amendment through.

Who knows whether Iowa voters would have approved the constitutional amendment, had it been on the ballot in 1872 or 1873. Maybe the media coverage of free love associations with suffragists would have been too much to overcome, even if the Senate had approved the amendment.

The window for granting Iowa women voting rights closed for a long time. More than 40 years passed before Iowa lawmakers approved a suffrage amendment in two consecutively elected legislatures. Connections between the suffrage and temperance movements created some political problems for suffragists.

Most people believed that women with the vote would favor restricting or even eliminating saloons or other places where beer, wine and alcoholic drinks were sold. To a large extent, those who favored prohibiting such places from operating favored giving women the vote. Those who wanted less restriction [on drinking alcohol] opposed women’s suffrage. Some churches like the Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists were often very strong in their support of granting women the vote.

In a small step toward voting rights, Iowa lawmakers approved a bill in 1894 to allow women to cast ballots on yes or no initiatives. But women were still barred from voting in any elections featuring candidates for office.


The Iowa House and Senate finally approved a suffrage amendment two sessions in a row, setting up a June 1916 popular vote on the measure. Iowa native Carrie Chapman Catt, who was a national leader of the suffragist movement by that time, returned to Iowa several times in the run-up to the voting. According to Noun (pages 252-6), Catt spoke to packed halls in many cities.

Unexpectedly, the leading campaigner against the amendment was John Irish, the “champion of woman suffrage in the 1870 Iowa General Assembly.” He had moved to California somewhere along the way and had been a “professional anti suffrage campaigner since 1911.” Noun writes that he was “assumed” to be sponsored by liquor interests.

Irish had alarming tales to tell about the dire effects of the woman-suffrage “experiment” in his home state of California, where women had voted since 1911. Not only had woman suffrage resulted in increased taxation but it had caused increased delinquency among women and children and had given rise to the corrupt woman politician. If this were not enough to convince his audiences, Irish also warned that suffrage had put lines in women’s faces and that men no longer took off their hats in elevators.

How’s that for irony? A former leading Democrat in the Iowa legislature was the loudest public voice against expanding voting rights in 1916. One of his main arguments against letting women vote was that doing so would lead to higher taxes.

Most Iowa newspapers supported the suffrage amendment, but opponents took out some advertisements linking women’s voting to higher taxes. On page 258, Noun includes a full-page advertisement aimed at Iowa farmers. Excerpts (emphasis in original):

The History of Equal Suffrage States is the Story of Taxpayers’ Money Wasted–Money Thrown Away in Hysterical Legislation, Useless Commissions, Uncalled for Bond Issues, Increased Election Costs–Taxes are Squandered Because of a Catering of Legislative Interests to the Irresponsible Elements Among Voters. […]


The Farmers of Iowa should remember that the granting of Woman Suffrage means the doubling of the city vote in Iowa which has no thought of their interests and does not materially increase the farm vote. “It is not your wife and daughter who will vote, but the women of towns and cities who have easy access to the polls and axes to grind.”

The amendment went down by 10,341 votes, with “the four ‘wet’ counties on the eastern border of the state–Scott, Clinton, Dubuque, and Des Moines–returning a large adverse vote which overcame favorable majorities in the rest of the state.” According to Noun (page 257), 29,341 more votes were cast on the constitutional amendment than were cast for all gubernatorial candidates on the same day (the Republican and Democratic primaries).

An investigation by the WCTU [Women’s Christian Temperance Union] subsequently revealed that victory was literally stolen from the women in Iowa. Thousands of unregistered votes were cast on the amendment despite the fact that registration was required by law. No record was kept of ballots officially issued to each precinct, and in most cases no unused ballots were returned. In fifteen counties there were 8,067 more ballots on the amendment than voters checked as having voted. Suffragists were advised, however, that even if fraud could be proved there was no way the election could be declared invalid.

I was unable to find a detailed map of 1916 referendum results. A map showing some county-level results is in this power point presentation, produced for the Iowa Women’s Archives at the University of Iowa Libraries.

Iowa counties with higher concentrations of Catholics and people of “German foreign stock” were less likely to vote for suffrage. Counties with more Republican primary and general election voters were more likely to support the constitutional amendment. Support for suffrage was also strongly correlated with county-level voting for a 1917 initiative to prohibit alcoholic beverages.

Fortunately, Iowa women did not have to wait decades for another chance to win the right to vote.

Once Congress proposed the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in June 1919, Iowa lawmakers moved quickly to ratify it. Iowa was the tenth state to do so, less than a month after Congress had acted. Ratifying a federal constitutional amendment required only a vote of the state House and Senate–not of the public at large. The special session to approve the amendment on July 2, 1919, lasted “just one hour and forty minutes, the shortest [legislative] session in Iowa history.”

Thanks to the Bleeding Heartland history buffs who indulged this foray into political events from more than 100 years ago.

P.S.- Many documents and photographs about the suffrage movement are available through the Iowa Women’s Archives at the University of Iowa Libraries. This power point presentation features some highlights from that collection.  

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