Boone and Women’s Voting History

If you are looking for something interesting to do in Boone this weekend, check out this article from the Des Moines Register. It is about a historical re-enactment of the only Suffrage March to occur in Iowa. It occurred in Boone almost 100 years ago.

It is interesting to think that this kind of history was made in a town like Boone. It is interesting to think that only 100 years ago women weren’t allowed to vote.

Boone Lead the Way

If you haven’t heard of this milestone event in women’s rights, you’re not alone.

Suzanne Caswell, who helped organize the re-enactment as a way to celebrate the parade’s 100th anniversary, says for the most part Boone’s marching suffragists have vanished from public consciousness.

Caswell hopes the re-enactment – which will include the dedication of a memorial – changes that.

“I think people need to realize that a small town was able to be in the vanguard of an important movement in American history,” she said.

The gathering

It was just before lunch hour on a windy October day in 1908 when the women gathered in front of the Universalist Church in downtown Boone.

Some were eager; others, afraid.

All were growing impatient with a struggle that showed no sign of ending, especially their leader, the Rev. Eleanor Gordon, a “relief minister” at First Unitarian Church in Des Moines and president of the Iowa Equal Suffrage Association.

“Perhaps the dreariest of all the dreary meetings of the summer were the monthly meetings of the Des Moines Political Equality Club,” Gordon recalled later in a first-person account compiled by the Iowa Suffrage Memorial Commission. “We listened to an earnest paper written by an earnest woman, read in an earnest manner, giving good and sufficient reasons why women were entitled to vote. … As I walked slowly home over the hot and dusty pavement, I said to myself, ‘Something must be done and done quickly or we shall learn to hate the whole business.’ ”

Less aggressive mood

Gordon was in the mood for more aggressive action, similar to the stories she was hearing from England, where a group of suffragists had led a march through the rain and mud that drew 3,000 participants.

Although Gordon didn’t want to take things quite as far as some of the more militant English leaders, who were waging hunger strikes from their jail cells, she thought it was time to take the movement to the masses.

With Iowa suffragists’ annual convention coming up in late October in Boone, Gordon enlisted the help of Rowena Edson Stevens, president of the Boone Equality Club, in planning a parade for the convention’s last day on Oct. 29.

The only thing not in the women’s control was the blustering wind that October day, which whipped dust into the faces of the marching women – some accounts say there were 30, others 100 – as they followed the band down Seventh Street, the hems of their long skirts brushing the dirt roads.

Accompanied by a few high-profile guests, including the Rev. Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, they carried banners that read “We have knocked on Iowa’s door for 37 years, is it not time it opened” and “Like the daughters of Zelophehad, we ask for our inheritance.”

Many of the marchers were the wives of leading community professionals and Caswell, who has a doctorate in history and has done extensive research on the parade, said accounts written at the time clearly show they were worried about the possible ramifications of their involvement.

What if the townspeople disapproved and stopped going to their husbands’ businesses?

What if their daring cost their husbands their jobs?

“It took a lot of courage to do this,” Caswell said.

The women needn’t have worried. By all accounts, the town of Boone gave them a warm welcome. A large crowd quickly formed, politely cheering the speakers rather than jeering them, as had happened other places.

News of the event made the New York Times (which erroneously reported 600 participants) and the Boston Daily Globe.

First of its kind?

Some historians — mostly Iowans — maintain the Boone event was the first official suffrage parade in the nation but Caswell says you have to define the word “parade” pretty narrowly for that to be true. Female suffragists had marched through the streets that same year in New York City and Oakland, Calif., she said, although without bands or speeches.

After Boone, parades and open-air meetings became staples of the suffrage movement across America. Among the Iowa women who led the way, there was a strong feeling of satisfaction, as if they’d struck a powerful enemy a mortal blow.

One successful parade, though, didn’t change the law.

In the 1923 book “Women Suffrage and Politics,” authors Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Shuler recounted how every two years, a contingent of women would go before the Iowa Legislature to ask for suffrage only to be steamrolled by liquor lobbyists who feared – correctly, as it turned out – that a prohibition on liquor sales would follow if women earned the right to vote.

It wasn’t until the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1919, 50 years after Iowa suffragists first took up the fight, that they finally were able to celebrate victory. Some of those who marched in Boone that October day, like Mary Jane Coggeshall, a charter member of the Polk County Woman Suffrage Society, died before they were able to cast a ballot.

Larger than original

Barring bad weather, Sunday’s re-enactment is likely to be larger than the original event.

Caswell expects more than 100 marchers, among them members of the First Unitarian Church, the League of Women Voters, and 20 to 30 descendants of Rowena Edson Stevens.

Parade participants are asked to wear period clothing and some marchers will carry 26-star flags. In one departure from history, though, Caswell said, men and children are welcome to march.

Several female marchers will have speaking parts, including Marcheta Munoz of Findlay, Ohio, who had her hair permed and dyed brown to portray Stevens, her great-grandmother.

Munoz said what she knows about her great-grandmother came from Stevens’ daughter, who lived with Munoz’s family after she was widowed.

“Voting was not something we were allowed to choose in our house,” she said. “My grandmother insisted we were going to vote.”

Would follow footsteps

At 57, Munoz is only a year older than her great-grandmother was in 1908 but describes herself as a humanist rather than a feminist. Still, if she’d been alive in 1908, she thinks she would have marched too.

“I don’t think I would have been the first one in line – I’m not a naturally brave person like that – but it would have been important for me to live in a country where the government is responsible to the people and doesn’t exist just for the benefit of the few people at the top,” she said.

Boone High School friends Hanna McCubbin and Marjie Tometich are earning extra credit from their history teacher for playing the roles of two British college students at Bryn Mawr in Philadelphia who participated in the first march.

“Even today, I don’t think a lot of us would have the courage to do that,” McCubbin said. “It’s kind of why I like being involved in this now. I wasn’t alive back then but I feel I can carry on the memory by participating now.”

Accent possible

McCubbin, 16, who was born in Russia and has lived in Fort Dodge for about 10 years, said she and Tometich are even giving speeches, adding that she hasn’t decided yet whether to attempt an English accent.

“I can kind of do one,” she said. “I think I’m going to practice to see how it sounds. If it sounds horrible, I’m not going to use it, but I’d like to because it gives it more that real feel.”

Etta Berkowitz, a member of First Unitarian Church and a familiar face in Des Moines theater, plans to wear a long skirt, white blouse with tucks and frills, a velvet jacket, and a Edwardian-style hat with a big white ostrich plume to portray Anna Howard Shaw.

At the original event, Shaw stood on an open-air car seat and made a speech, so Berkowitz will do the same, quoting Shaw.

Berkowitz, 63, said she doesn’t agree with Shaw on everything, including her assertion that women are innately morally superior to men. She admires Shaw’s dedication to improving the lives of women, though, and doubts if Shaw were alive today, she would consider the battle completely won.

“Women have the right to vote in this country now but there are still basic issues of justice and equality where we do not really live up to the ideals that our country should represent,” Berkowitz said. “I was in a conversation with someone the other day who said, ‘I’m not going to vote, it doesn’t make any difference.’ I think it’s worth remembering how much of a struggle it has been for some people to have a voice.”

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I’m definitely going to check it out.