Oklahoma was born in an era when beliefs about gender roles dictated that politics were dirty and rough and that ladies should keep out. But the state was raised in a progressive-minded time, and Progressive Era women’s suffrage advocates often used metaphors for housekeeping and parenting to argue that women voters would sweep out political fraud and discipline corrupt politicians. In Oklahoma, fraud was just another political means to an end. It would not give up so easily. Fortunately, neither would the suffragists.
The lack of voting rights did not deter Oklahoma women from politics. Before Oklahoma became a territory, women were organizing for prohibition. In 1890, a group of women established a chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in Guthrie. When they realized they needed the vote in order to press for prohibition, they became suffragists too. In October 1890, they lobbied the First Territorial Legislature for both issues but only secured the right to vote in school board elections.
Quiet but undeterred, the activists held on to the suffrage issue. In 1895, women’s suffrage sentiments resurged in Oklahoma when the National American Woman Suffrage Association sent a representative, Laura Gregg. The established WCTU network enabled Gregg to evangelize for suffrage throughout the area as she campaigned along the Rock Island and Santa Fe railroad.
For the next several years, suffragists repeatedly petitioned the Territorial Legislature. In 1899, the situation soured as legislators broke their promises to aid the suffragists and NAWSA president Carrie Chapman Catt accused legislators of being bribed with “saloon money.” The crushing reality of politics left many Oklahoma suffragists discouraged and exhausted.
The second suffrage surge began when Oklahoma statehood was imminent. In November 1906, Oklahoma Woman Suffrage Association opened an office in Guthrie two blocks away from the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention. Suffragists walked over, cornered delegates, and tried to convince them to support women’s suffrage. Allies inside the Convention assured them that suffrage would pass. Unfortunately, the delegates were split. Convention leader William “Alfalfa Bill” Murray opposed women’s suffrage. Charles Haskell supported it until his wife, Lillie, said that women were too emotional to vote because during a school board election back in Ohio, she had refused to listen to reason and had voted for a “saloon bum.” In persuading her husband, Lillie inadvertently demonstrated the anti-suffragist alternative to allowing women to vote: if they want a say in government, they should tell their husbands how to vote.
The suffrage issue met a divided convention in February 1907. Suffrage committee chair George Henshaw said that males could vote, but criminals, “lunatics,” and “idiots” could not. Suffragist ally Pete Hanraty made a motion to strike the word “male” from the law. A barrage of intense pro and anti speeches flooded the convention before a full gallery, which included suffragists who fumed at the implication that women were in the same category of non-voters as criminals, the insane, and the mentally deficient. When delegate David Hogg declared that the majority of women do not want the vote, a frustrated suffragist shouted at him from the gallery, “Yes, I do, Mr. Hogg. I want the vote the worst kind!” In the end, delegates narrowly voted to allow women to continue voting in school board elections.
Once again, OWSA had fallen short of victory after an exhausting fight. Aside from having more supporters than before, the suffrage movement had gained no ground. Yet Oklahoma suffragists were not finished. The progressive-minded Oklahoma Constitution had introduced a new method of agitation: initiative petition.
Initiative petition created a third wave of suffrage during the legislative session of 1909. OWSA sent multiple petitions to the legislature, but the political machinery ground each one to pieces. When one petition came to the floor of the House, a representative ripped out the pages with signatures from his constituents, tore them into pieces, and threw them into a wastebasket. The representatives then diverted the mangled petition to the committee on geological surveys for burial. Another petition nearly met its end when Secretary of State Bill Cross decided to refuse petitions from persons who had no political existence—specifically, women. After male allies stepped in and submitted the petition themselves, this petition made it to the ballot in 1910, but Oklahoma voters rejected it.
OWSA was quiet until 1916, when many women campaigned for the re-election of Woodrow Wilson, who won in seven of the nine states that allowed women to vote. Oklahoma Democrats realized the power of the female vote and many of the remaining anti-suffragists in the party converted. That same year, Carrie Chapman Catt of NAWSA devised the “Winning Plan,” which focused on winning woman suffrage in each state until every state allowed women to vote. Suddenly, Oklahoma women mattered more than before.
In 1917, following another initiative petition, the Oklahoma Legislature voted to place the women’s suffrage issue on the November 1918 ballot as a state constitutional amendment. The suffragists reassembled for another major campaign but struggled with insufficient funding. In 1918, NAWSA sent a representative named Marjorie Shuler to guide the local suffragists. NAWSA also poured more funding into the Oklahoma suffrage campaign than it had in any other state suffrage campaign. Every dollar mattered because the Oklahoma had a unique problem: the silent “no.” If a voter neglected to mark “yes” or “no” on his ballot regarding a state question, the state election board counted it as a “no” vote. Indifferent voters could passively defeat woman suffrage.
There was also opposition from female anti-suffragists. It was not unusual for Oklahoma women to be opposed to their own suffrage, but this time they were organizing their own campaign. The Oklahoma Anti-Suffrage Association included politically minded women, such as Sallie Sturgeon, Alice Robertson, and Meldia Constantin, whose husband owned Constantin Refinery of Tulsa. Oil money, along with funding from the liquor industry, flowed freely into the anti-suffrage movement, which put on a pretty face of being feminine, gentle, and concerned about proper womanhood. They contrasted against the underfunded suffragist agitators, who publicly condemned the anti-suffragists’ filthy affair with alcohol money.
In September 1918, the head of the election board, anti-suffragist W.C. McAlester, tried to block the suffrage question by claiming that the Secretary of State had worded the state question improperly on the ballot. He was overruled, but government leaders still had two more months to devise other plans of attack.
October was a month of demoralizing attacks. Governor Robert L. Williams, an anti-suffragist, declared in October 1918 that meetings of 12 or more people would be banned because of the Spanish flu epidemic. He scheduled the ban to go into effect on October 19, the day after anti-suffragist Charlotte Rowe was scheduled to speak in Oklahoma City but the day before Carrie Chapman Catt was scheduled to speak at a local suffrage event. Anti-suffragists took another swipe at the validity of the original initiative petition; fortunately a judge ruled against them. Anti-suffragist political leaders confronted suffragists and threatened to stop them by any means necessary.
W.C. McAlester struck again with the old-fashioned tactic of voter fraud. During this era, Oklahoma elections had separate ballots for public offices and state questions. In an attempt to generate silent “nos,” he ordered an insufficient number of state question ballots. Fortunately, the ballot printers noticed the “error” in the order and corrected it. McAlester decided to manipulate the number of envelopes instead. Anyone who voted by mail had to place their ballots for public office and state questions in separate envelopes. When the state election board sent ballots to soldiers stationed in camps, it sent only one envelope for each soldier, meaning they could vote for public office or for state questions. In its quest to deny women suffrage, the political machine denied suffrage to Oklahoma soldiers as well.
On Election Day, November 5, OWSA members believed that in they had enough votes to win. Many of them volunteered as poll watchers to keep the political machine in check as much as possible. As the votes came in, the state election board panicked and tried to count the invalid “spoiled” ballots as silent “nos.” In conjunction with Governor Williams, they withheld the results for the suffrage question
for nearly a month. However, with a newly elected pro-suffrage governor set to be sworn in the next month, the state had no choice but to reveal the results. The measure had passed 106,909 to 81,481.
Victorious, OWSA focused its energy on the next crucial suffrage cause: the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Suffrage was now in fashion, and Oklahoma ratified the 19th Amendment on February 28, 1920.
Having reached its goal after three decades of persistent agitation against sexist politicians, opposition from other women, and political corruption and fraud, the Oklahoma Woman Suffrage Association passed away. Its members reorganized as the state’s chapter of the League of Women Voters.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 4, February 15, 2014.