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Differing Opinions – Women & Suffrage in the 19th century

August 4, 2020

On August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment was passed into law, giving women the right to vote. As we celebrate the 100th Anniversary of women’s suffrage, LHF is looking back at how Iowa women’s opinions changed over time. Iowa has produced well known suffrage leaders—such as Amelia Bloomer and Carrie Chapman Catt. But not every Iowa woman sided with the suffrage cause. In the 19th century, many Iowa women did not think they needed to vote. They even actively campaigned against it!

Ellen FlynnOur own Ellen Keane Flynn is a great example. From the 1870s through the early 1900s, Ellen worked with local anti-suffrage leagues to block passage of a suffrage amendment. In February 1898, Ellen joined fellow “anti’s” in the Iowa state capitol to speak at a legislative committee hearing. According to The Des Moines Leader, Ellen stated that voting, “would endanger the sanctity of the home. It would lessen the mother’s influence, and, in political crises, would create domestic dissension. She was willing to trust, as in the past, to the manhood of the state.” Ellen’s arguments were common. Anti-suffrage women felt the vote would make women less feminine by thrusting them into the corrupting political arena. Many felt they could better exercise their influence through their menfolk rather than voting themselves. Ellen was the matriarch of a large Irish-American family; no doubt, she felt she already had influence over her sons and husband.

Then, things changed for her. Her husband died in 1906, placing Ellen in charge of her own affairs. In the 1910s, Ellen’s children were entering into business and moving to other states with different ideas. Her son John and his wife had moved to Douglas, Wyoming to run the family sheep ranch. Wyoming had given women the vote in the 1870s. Ellen’s daughter Annabelle managed the Flynn business building in downtown Des Moines and her daughter Mary became secretary for the Flynn Farm Company. These positive images of active women working outside the home made an impression.

In May, 1916, Mrs. Flynn stood up at a pro-suffrage rally in the Younkers Tea room and addressed over 600 people there. The Des Moines Register and Leader quoted her saying, “I have watched my daughters go out into the business world. I have visited in Wyoming where my son says the women have civilized the state, and I have spent this winter in California where the leading women of the state are suffragists. And I have decided that voting doesn’t take away our femininity.” Mrs. Flynn was in her 70s. What a change of heart! The Iowa Legislature voted to pass the 19th amendment on July 2, 1919, becoming the 10th state out of the 36 needed to do so.

You can learn more about Iowa women’s suffrage struggles by joining us for Election Day on August 8, 2020. Our 1876 town of Walnut Hill is electing a new mayor and the ladies of town will promote their opinions on the Flynn Mansion lawn at 1:30pm and 2:15pm. There will also be a period-style debate in town between the mayoral candidates at 11:30am and 12:15pm.


Read more posts on the LHF Blog


19th Century Politics   Historic Snapshot   Women’s History

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