Women's Suffrage: Notes from the City Historian

Brandi Burns, historian for the City of Boise, offers some context to the national suffrage movement and the contributions of Boise women to that cause through monthly notes. 

Quick Links

Part I: A Brief History of Women's Suffrage
Part II: Indigenous Women & Women’s Rights before Seneca Falls
Part III: Dual Inequalities—Women and People of Color
Part IV: La mujer luchando. El mundo transformando —  Women in struggle transform the world 
Part V: Boise's Chinese Suffragettes
Part VI: Honest History

 

Part I: A Brief History of Women's Suffrage

Hello Readers! 

This is Brandi, historian for the City of Boise. The 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment is upon us and we have a full calendar of related events throughout 2020. To help commemorate the anniversary, I would like to offer some context to the national suffrage movement and the contributions of Boise women to that cause. 

The story of suffrage in Idaho begins in 1870. Representative Joseph William Morgan proposed a bill to ensure voting rights for women. Morgan argued that women “ranked as a person, a citizen, and as such, being affected by the laws of the country, it was in accordance with democratic teachings that she be allowed a voice in the making of those laws. That government derived its validity and just power from the consent of the governed—that is, all who were governed.”

Sadly, Morgan’s bill failed in an 11-11 tie vote. The issue of women’s suffrage surfaced again in 1885 and 1887 in Idaho, but both efforts were defeated. As the capital city, Boise became the center of the suffrage work in the state, and many Boise women actively engaged in the movement at the local and national level. They, like women across the state, initiated community grassroots efforts to gain support for an amendment to the Idaho State Constitution in 1896. 

Our goal this year is to tell these women’s stories. But we also will seek out and share the experiences of women who were marginalized or unable to participate because of racism. As the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) state in their definition of women’s suffrage, this history is “about women’s rights, but it is also equal parts an American story of race, class, citizenship, gender, immigration, political identity, and values, and the intersections where those meet in America’s collective narrative and history.” 

Evidence of this more complex history exist at all levels of the movement and throughout the various decades, from 1851 when Sojourner Truth, a black woman born into slavery, delivered her powerful “Ain’t I A Woman” speech at the Women’s Rights Convention to the iconic 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, D.C., where organizers insisted on a segregated parade. Ida B. Wells refused to march at the back and joined the women representing her state, Illinois. 

It is essential that we explore these experiences to more fully understand our sometimes uncomfortable and difficult history of exclusion and racism that prohibited many women to secure their rights and participate politically in their communities.

We need your help to learn more about women’s suffrage in Boise. Please send me your suggestions for local women to research, keeping in mind that priority will be given to Indigenous women, Latinas, African American and Asian American women and other minority women who have been left out, one way or another, in this history. This is going to be a year of discovery, a year of adding more voices to our local history, and a year to celebrate our collective achievements and to reflect on the work yet to be done. 

Best wishes, 
Brandi Burns
History Programs Manager

Part II: Indigenous Women & Women’s Rights before Seneca Falls

This month’s installment of “Notes from the City Historian” touches upon the basics of Indigenous women’s access to voting rights. Despite my best intentions, one small essay does not adequately address the topic of Indigenous women and their advocacy for rights as women, as well as members of independent nations. But they are a vital part of the story and must not be left out. With that in mind, most narratives of the women’s movement begin with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. But did you know that it was Indigenous women who provided the model of autonomy to the early feminists before they ever gathered at Seneca Falls, New York?

Early suffragists pointed to the Haudenosaunee women as an example of what equality among the sexes looked like for Indigenous people: Matilda Joslyn Gage, writing in 1875, said, “Division of power between the sexes in this Indian republic was nearly equal.”[1] The life that white women were living in America was much different. In the eyes of the law, they were children: they couldn’t own property, they were not enfranchised, and they had nowhere to turn for recourse. Alice Fletcher, a controversial figure that helped create the 1887 Dawes Act,[2] gave a speech to suffragists in 1888 that illuminated the contradiction:

“As I have tried to explain our statutes to Indian women I have met with but one response. They have said: “As an Indian woman I was free. I owned my home; my person, the work of my own hands, and my children could never forget me. I was better as an Indian woman than under white law."”[3]

In Idaho, rights for Indigenous women and those of European-descent were similarly disappointing. Once Idaho became a state in 1890, native-born Indigenous men were able to vote, but did not have full citizenship. Indigenous women were kept from Idaho polls until the state constitutional amendment in 1896. Nationwide, state and local laws dictated whether Indigenous people were able to participate politically; that is, until the signing of the Indian Citizenship Act on June 2, 1924.[4]

It was hoped that the Act would close the gap for Indigenous people to become citizens, but voter suppression continued through the enforcement of state and local laws until the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965.[5] Indigenous people persevered in their struggles to obtain representation and Indigenous women faced unique challenges in that struggle. As historian Sally Roesch Wagner wrote:

“These women lived in native nations that tenaciously held on, as well as they could, to their system of real equality despite the best efforts of missionaries, boarding schools, and federal and state governments alike to deprive them of it. They still do, and are reclaiming their identity as ‘sovereign women in sovereign nations.’”[6]

During our “Spill the Tea...on Suffrage” presentations (postponed due to COVID-19), I will continue to explore the struggles Indigenous women faced in the women’s suffrage movement and share stories of individual women who worked to secure their rights in the face of the colonial society. Indigenous women continue to face difficult issues particular to them: they are six times more likely to be murdered and are more likely to experience some form of violence in their life.[7] Ensuring the safety of all women, regardless of ethnicity, is still part of the work to be done.

[1] Matilda Joslyn Gage, “The Remnant of the Five Nations,” (New York) Evening Post, September 24, 1875, quoted in Sally Roesch Wagner, ed., The Women’s Suffrage Movement (London: Penguin Classics, 2019), 14. 

[2] The Dawes Act forcibly divided reservations into individual allotments and sold the ‘excess’ land to white settlers.

[3] Alice Fletcher, “The Legal Conditions of Indian Women,” Report of the International Council of Women Assemled by the National Suffrage Association, Washington D.C., March 25 to April 1, 1888 (Washington, DC: Rufus H. Darby 1888), 237-41, quoted in Sally Roesch Wagner, ed., The Women’s Suffrage Movement (London: Penguin Classics, 2019), 37.

[4]  U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, “Today’s Document from the National Archives: Act of June 2, 1924,...which authorized the Secretary of the Interior to issue certificates of citizenship to Indians,” National Archives, https://www.archives.gov/historical-docs/todays-doc/?dod-date=602 (accessed March 10, 2020). The Indian Citizenship Act states: “...That all non-citizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States be, and they are hereby, declared to be citizens of the United States: Provided, That the granting of such citizenship shall not in any manner impair or otherwise affect the right of any Indian to tribal or other property.”

[5] Library of Congress, “Voting Rights for Native Americans,” Elections...the American Way, https://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/elections/voting-rights-native-americans.html

[6] Sally Roesch Wagner, The Women’s Suffrage Movement (London: Penguin Classics, 2019), 1. 

[7] Mary Teegee, quoted in Jessica McDiarmid, Highway of Tears: A True Story of Racism, Indifference, and the Pursuit of Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (New York-: Atria Books, 2019), xi. André B. Rosay, “Violence Against American Indian and Alaska Native Women and Men,” National Institute of Justice, https://nij.ojp.gov/topics/articles/violence-against-american-indian-and-alaska-native-women-and-men (accessed March 10, 2020).

Part III: Dual Inequalities—Women and People of Color

The topic of this month’s “Notes from the City Historian” planned to focus on the 150th Anniversary of the Fifteenth Amendment and the efforts of Black women to secure the right to vote. With the recent killing of George Floyd and the resultant national focus on our country’s long history of racial injustice, the contributions of women activists towards equality, particularly Black, Brown, and Indigenous women, are crucial to our understanding of the present moment. From the beginning of our efforts to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, we have centered our discussions on the women left out of our country’s traditional suffrage narrative. Our goal is echoed in an article by the Southern Law Poverty Center:

“We must recognize that women of color live in the world as women and as people of color simultaneously. Their experiences cannot and should not be separated to prioritize equality for one marginalized identity over another. The black and brown suffragists of history refused to do it—and so should we.”[1]

These statements describe many experiences that Black women had securing women’s right to vote. Black women, like Indigenous women, are notoriously left out of suffrage narratives. Their story is often one of being left with the short end of the stick; they created early efforts for abolition, led organizations and groups campaigning for women’s suffrage, and when individual states prevented them from voting, they persevered and fought for the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Little is known about the exact role that African American women played in Idaho’s suffrage campaign, especially in Boise, but efforts to prevent Black women and men from casting their vote in the state’s capital city have been documented. This month I’d like to share their stories and the effect of the Fifteenth Amendment in Boise.

The Fifteenth Amendment was adopted on March 30, 1870 and guaranteed that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” When the amendment passed, Idaho had been a territory for seven years and had a population of sixty African Americans (twenty in Ada County).[2] The right to vote was denied to John West, a Black man in Boise, in early June 1870 when he tried to participate in a contentious local election. The Idaho Tri-Weekly Statesman wrote that West tried several times “to deposit his ballot, but was refused the right. Probably those who had charge of the polls on Monday have not yet learned that congress has made provision to enforce the carrying out of the 15th amendment.”[3] During an ensuing court case to resolve the results of that local election, the judge ruled John West’s vote valid and it was incorporated into the overall election tally.[4]

In another example, efforts to invalidate votes in a 1909 Boise City election were reported by the local newspaper. While more than a dozen votes were challenged in various precincts, The Idaho Statesman specifically named two African American women, Mrs. Hazel Beck and Mrs. B. Thompson. The women, enfranchised by Idaho’s suffrage amendment of 1896, were challenged on the grounds that they were not legal residents, which would, in turn, nullify their votes. Like John West’s vote in 1870, the challenges were not sustained, and their votes were counted.[5] It is important to remember that these incidents made it to the paper—there are likely more that were never reported on.

Outside of these incidents, we see from local newspapers in Boise that African Americans were politically active in the city during the 1910s. Members of the Black community held public meetings to discuss candidates and platforms, and, much like today, we can assume participants of said meetings were more likely to vote in the elections they discussed.[6]  One way to honor these stories of perseverance is by voting. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Fifteenth Amendment, the 100th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, and the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Acts. Despite these landmark victories for citizen rights, there are still very real barriers preventing individuals from voting. These barriers include modern-day poll taxes, gerrymandering, voter identification laws, voter roll purges, and fears of voter intimidation at the polls in the wake of riots and political agitation. On top of this, everyone has a common barrier to voting: the coronavirus pandemic. These barriers, including the pandemic, disproportionately affect the poor, the elderly, and Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities. We should not accept this reality and work to change it, like the suffragists of history. As the City historian, you can expect me to continue highlighting diverse individuals from Boise’s past. History includes everyone.

Suggested Reading

Boise & Idaho:

National:

[1] Southern Law Poverty Center, “Weekend Read: Challenging the whitewashed history of women’s suffrage,” Southern Law Poverty Center, accessed March 25, 2020, https://www.splcenter.org/news/2019/06/01/weekend-read-challenging-whitewashed-history-womens-suffrage.

[2] United States Census Bureau, 1870 Census: Volume 1. The Statistics of the Population of the United States, “Population by Counties--1790-1870, Table II. Territory of Idaho,” United States Census Bureau, accessed May 18, 2020, https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/decennial/1870/population/1870a-06.pdf?#.   

[3] “[John West; Boise; Monday],” Idaho Statesman (Boise, ID), June 7, 1870: [3], Newsbank.com, accessed May 18, 2020.

[4]  “People vs. L. B. Lindsey and W. Bryon.” Idaho Statesman (Boise, ID), December 22, 1870: [3]. NewsBank.com, accessed May 19, 2020.

[5] “New Democracy Victorious In Boise. Elects Joseph T. Pence Mayor Over John M. Haines by Small Majority.” Idaho Statesman (Boise, ID), April 7, 1909: [1], 3. NewsBank.com, accessed May 18, 2020.

[6] “Colored Voters Protest Capital News Report.” Idaho Statesman (Boise, ID), November 5, 1916: 4. NewsBank.com, accessed May 5, 2020.

Part IV: La mujer luchando. El mundo transformando — Women in struggle transform the world[1]

When I started this particular “Notes From the City Historian,” I struggled to find information about Boise Latinas. The absence of their stories speaks volumes about their exclusion from Boise’s dominant recorded local history narratives. The best local sources included Errol Jones’ “Latinos in Idaho: Making Their Way in the Gem State” in Idaho’s Place: A New History of the Gem State and the book, Latinos in Idaho: Celebrando Cultura. Efforts to document the story of Mexican Americans in Idaho have also been greatly furthered by Ana Maria Nevárez-Schachtell and Kathleen Hodges. During the research for this “note,” my research assistant and I delved into newspaper articles, census records, Boise voter registration records from the early twentieth century, and city directory databases. We looked for women, even an individual woman, that we could explore in further depth. I wanted to find our own local Dolores Huerta or Maria Moreno, stalwart women who fought for their people’s rights. Instead, I found omission.

This omission is a compelling call to document the lived experiences of Boise Latinas in all of Boise’s decades as a city, as well as the Indigenous and Mexican women who came before the establishment of our municipality. Historian Vicki Ruiz, in her landmark study, From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America, writes, “Spanish-speaking women as family members, as workers, and as civic-minded individuals have strived to improve the quality of life at work, home, and neighborhood.”[2] We know these women existed in Boise.  In our research, we found an early documentation of a Mexican woman, a Mrs. Greer and her mother. An 1867 meeting with the women is described by Bishop Daniel Tuttle, an Episcopalian missionary who spent time in Idaho:

"In the evening we called on Mrs. Greer. We found in her a bright, cheery, dumpy young Mexican, very intelligent, speaking broken English with the utmost piquancy. While we were conversing, her mother, who cannot speak English, was busy, I saw, rolling up something. By and by she came towards us and with her bright eyes sparkling with hospitable feeling said something gracefully polite in Spanish about cigaritas. As she did so she held out one of said articles for each of us, which she had been making with tobacco and paper. Although no smoker, as you know, I could do no less than accept mine for politeness’ sake, showing all my teeth in amends for my ignorance of Spanish. M. of course accepted both the cigarita and the match the old lady also extended to him, and forthwith began puffing away.  She, returning to her seat, having provided us, made a cigarita for herself; this she lighted and smoked in company with M. Mrs. Greer and I laughed at them and chatted away by ourselves while they smoked."[3]  

Further research about Mrs. Greer revealed that her name was Clara Tevenar, and she was born in Mexico around 1846. She married Joseph Greer on May 1, 1867 in Ada County. Joseph served as the internal revenue collector for Idaho Territory. Clara and Joseph had two children by the 1870 census and continued to live in Boise until they eventually moved to Portland, Oregon, appearing there on the 1880 census. They made another move to Modesto, California by the 1890s, where they both lived out the remainder of their lives.[4]

Another Boise woman we have information for, but precious little of, is María Dolores “Lola” Urquides Binnard. Lola was the daughter of Jesús Urquides, Idaho’s “premier muleteer.” Instrumental in keeping her father’s memory alive in Boise, Lola is one of the very women that is included in Ruiz’s description of women improving the quality of life in their neighborhoods. After her father’s death, Lola became the landlord of his “Spanish Village,” a collection of small cabins rented to packers and single men that was located at First and Main streets. One resident described Lola,

"I speak for Mrs. Lola Binnard. I might say first why I praise her as a fine person. She is very careful to have about this quaint little village a good law abiding and a good clean minded people. If in case of illness of any person in this little village, Mrs. Binnard is on the job to see all is attended in the proper way. In case it becomes too much for her she sees to it that will take care of the patient. Yes, this place has been a haven for poor good and just people and Lola has been the queen and judge. Would anyone ask for more security in a haven of relaxation for tired people...Well I might add that I have been rather well contended here and expect to remain here."[5]

During her lifetime, she worked at the State Land Department as secretary to Commissioner I. H. Nash, was a registered Boise voter, and was described as “real lively. She talked a lot of politics, [and] she was right in the conversation all the time.”[6] Idaho women secured the right to vote in 1896, creating an environment where Lola could vote before the majority of the women in the country.

During the fight for the Nineteenth Amendment, women also actively participated in other social movements that were near and dear to their hearts such as labor organizing, access to education, and children’s rights. Nationally, we find many Latina women working as activists and fighting for changes in labor laws and workers’ rights. These women embody the motto of Fuerza Unida, “La mujer luchando. El mundo transformando.” [“Women in struggle transform the world”].”[7] Fuerza Unida was a group of women who organized support for workers when Levi’s Strauss Co. closed its factories in San Antonio, Texas. Women have been at the center of social movements improving the world around us, and the next installment of our “notes” series will explore more such women and how they used their voices, and their ballot, for change. Su voto es su voz — your vote is your voice.

 [1] Vick L. Ruiz, From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, 2008), 151.

 [2] Ruiz, From Out of the Shadows, 73.

 [3] D. S. Tuttle, Reminiscences of A Missionary Bishop (New York: Thomas Whittaker, 1906), 164-165.

 [4] Information based off of the 1870 US Federal census, the 1880 census, a marriage record, and a voter registration record for Joseph Greer. Year: 1870; Census Place: Boise, Ada, Idaho Territory; Roll: M593_185; Page: 23A; Family History Library Film: 545684; Year: 1880; Census Place: Portland, Multnomah, Oregon; Roll: 1083; Page: 290A; Enumeration District: 097; Ancestry.com. Idaho, Select Marriages, 1878-1898; 1903-1942 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc, 2014; "California Great Registers, 1866-1910," database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:VYDJ-2DS : 25 July 2019), Joseph Cary Greer, 02 Jul 1896; citing Voter Registration, Stanislaus, Stanislaus, California, United States, county clerk offices, California; FHL microfilm 978,590.

 [5] Max Delgado, Jesús Urquides: Idaho’s Premier Muleteer (Boise: Idaho State Historical Society, 2006), 54.

 [6] Delgado, Jesús Urquides, 55.

 [7] Ruiz, From Out of the Shadows, 151. 

Boise’s Chinese Suffragettes

The “Notes From the City Historian” series has endeavored to discuss Boise’s minority women and establish the difficulties that these women experienced during the women’s suffrage movement. While in some cases, minority women in Boise found themselves able to exercise their citizenship rights more than their counterparts in the United States as a whole, others faced just as much discrimination and disenfranchisement. One lesson learned from this year is that sweeping statements do not begin to convey the complexities and intricacies of the past. Those very complexities are what make history worth examining, especially local history. For this month’s “Note,” I’d like to explore the contributions of Boise’s Chinese women, exposing their forgotten activism for women’s rights knowing that this very exploration will be incomplete. 

Historically, Asian Americans have faced rampant discrimination in the United States, particularly in the American West. Historian Erika Lee, in her book The Making of Asian America: A History, writes “Once here, Asian immigrants have ‘become American’ by becoming U.S. citizens when they could and by participating in American life….But Asian Americans have often encountered an America that has excluded them from full participation in American life based on their race. The history of Asian Americans is thus also a history of how race works in the United States.”[1] This paradigm existed throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Boise. Despite Boise’s large Chinese population, community members were subjected to racism on multiple fronts: property and business ownership, ability to engage equally in the economy, and personal safety. Regardless of this, Boise’s Chinese persevered and were pivotal community members, though they never achieved the recognition and treatment their white counterparts experienced. This extended to the voting franchise.

When it came to exercising the right to vote in Idaho, the state’s 1896 constitutional amendment recognizing women’s suffrage extended the vote only to those Chinese women who were “native-born.” White suffragists in Idaho wrote in the resolutions of the state equal suffrage association, “The Idaho state constitution provides that Chinese born in the United States may vote; and thus are the Chinese the political superiors of native born American women.”[2] They included this to capitalize on stereotypes held towards the Chinese as a “class of people wholly unworthy to be entrusted with the right of American citizenship.”[3] Even with these deeply ingrained stereotypes, Chinese women born in the U.S. could vote in Idaho after 1896.  

Chinese women in Boise were aware of suffrage developments occurring across the country in the effort for a national amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as of social reform efforts in China. In October 1911, The Idaho Statesman reported on the activities of Dr. Sun Yat-sen and his representatives in Kansas City stating that if Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s revolution efforts were successful, women would “…vote for presidents, congressmen and all public offices in China….”[4] Seven months later, on May 5, 1912, New York suffragists held a parade and “Among them was Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, the Chinese suffragist whose presence had been much anticipated in the papers for weeks beforehand.”[5] In fact, The Idaho Statesman printed a photo of Mabel Lee on April 22nd under the headline, “Chinese Woman Who Is a Suffragette.” The image caption included that “All Chinatown is proud of Mabel, who has been in this country seven years and is now ready to enter Barnard college. She and her mother are suffragett es [sic], and will participate in the great suffrage parade on May 4.”[6] It is unclear whether the “Chinatown” referred to was Boise’s, but considering the context of the image, it would make sense for the caption to refer to Boise’s Chinatown. Boise’s Chinese were very connected to events happening across the United States as well as to political developments in China. In 1913, newspaper editor and friend of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, Ng Poon Chew, spoke in Boise about the Chinese Republic and Boiseans, such as Lena Ah Fong and her father Dr. Ah Fong, even traveled to conferences held elsewhere in the U.S. where the politics of China were discussed.[7] 

Prior to the passage of the 1943 Magnuson Act, Chinese men and women were unable to become naturalized citizens, which prevented them from voting unless they had been born in the U.S. Still, women of Chinese descent, both those born in China and those born in the U.S., chose to work towards the enfranchisement of women in the U.S. and joined in national efforts to support the Nineteenth Amendment. In Boise, a group of women known as the “Chinese suffragettes” entered floats in the July Fourth parades in 1917 and 1919, effectively taking advantage of the fanfare and attention granted during Independence Day celebrations. The Idaho Statesman reported about their 1917 efforts: “Three prominent members of the local Chinese colony, whom their husbands designate as the 'Chinese suffragettes' when they learned that the parade of next Wednesday was to exemplify the 'spirit of liberty,' decided they would take the matter into their own hands this year and plan a float themselves, one which should typify the Chinese spirit of liberty.”[8] The women referenced were Mrs. Lucille (Lucy) Emow, Mrs. Fong Bow, and Mrs. Fong You. They created a float with a small Washington monument, with “one side of which will be a picture of George Washington, father of the American republic, and on the other side the picture of Dr. Sun Yet Sen, father of the Chinese republic, who took the United States as his model.”[9] The Chinese suffragettes entered another stellar float in the 1919 parade: “The Chinese section was led by the float put on by the Chinese suffragettes, which was purely a patriotic affair. Nothing would induce these Chinese women to arrange any other kind. They are proud of being Americans, and wished to show their allegiance to the country of their adoption in their float.”[10] Their 1919 float won second place and a $50 prize. We also know that one of the participants, Lucy Emow, was registered to vote in Boise during 1917, as was her husband, Charles Emow.[11]

The ability of women like Lucy Emow to register and vote in Boise was accomplished because of the efforts to enfranchise Idaho women, which dated back as early as 1871. The right was not secured until 1896, and that effort was significantly organized around an anti-Chinese sentiment. Despite this view, Chinese women could theoretically vote in Idaho before most of their counterparts in the American west. This specific example is yet another reason to apply serious study to local history; when such efforts are made, it is possible to begin interpreting the intricacies of the past and to move away from sweeping generalities. My hope for this “Note” is that it makes clear that there is still much to do to document the Chinese experience in Boise, especially the lives and efforts of the women. 

[1] Erika Lee, The Making of Asian America: A History (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2015), 5.

 [2] Minute Book, 1895, Equal Suffrage Association of Idaho, MS 2/100, Idaho State Historical Society.

[3] Quote said by Representative Horace Page of California. Quoted in Cathleen D. Cahill, Recasting the Vote: How Women of Color Transformed the Suffrage Movement (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2020), 28.

 [4] “Will Give Votes To Women: Chinese Revolutionists, Declare Strongly for Equal Suffrage,” Idaho Daily Statesman, October 16, 1911, page 1, Newsbank.com.

 [5] Cathleen D. Cahill, Recasting the Vote: How Women of Color Transformed the Suffrage Movement (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2020), 25.

 [6] “Chinese Woman Who Is a Suffragette,” Idaho Sunday Statesman, April 22, 1912, page 12, Newsbank.com.

 [7] “Chinatown is Surprising to Mrs. Chue,” Idaho Daily Statesman, September 2, 1915, page 7, Newsbank.com; “Leading Speakers at Boise Chautauqua,” Idaho Daily Statesman, May 18, 1913, page 2, Newsbank.com; and “Chinese Talk Politics: Visitors Discuss Issues at Home With Countrymen Here,” Idaho Daily Statesman, December 1, 1914, page 5, Newsbank.com.

 [8] “Picturesque Floats To Be In Line July 4.” Idaho Sunday Statesman, July 1, 1917, page 3, 15, Newsbank.com.

 [9] “Picturesque Floats To Be In Line July 4.” Idaho Sunday Statesman.

 [10] “Joy Reigns As Heroes Parade By.” Idaho Daily Statesman, July 5, 1919, page 1, 3, Newsbank.com.

 [11] Elector’s Registers, 1911-1916, City of Boise, Boise City Records Center.

Honest History

Through the “Notes from the City Historian,” I have been able to explore several aspects of Boise’s suffrage history. Throughout the series, we have examined women’s stories and events that took place before, during, and after the period that is traditionally defined as the suffrage movement. The year 2020 has shown there are still gaps to explore in the history of how women secured the vote and that this history is richer than most have been led to believe. We have spent the last year commemorating 100 years of woman suffrage in the United States, but did you know 2021 marks the 125th anniversary of women securing the right to vote in Idaho? I would like to take this opportunity to highlight Idaho’s anniversary and explore what women did after the vote. For Idaho, this focuses specifically on the years after 1896. What strides did they make towards women’s equality and the betterment of their communities? As Boise’s City Historian, I would like to spend 2021 exploring Boise women and their community activism.

The history of women is often not front and center, even though women make up half of the human population. Public historian Heather Huyck writes, “Often, women’s history has been portrayed as a small slice of the pie of distinct human groups rather than being understood as encompassing half of that pie, including all races, classes, and sexualities.”[1] Women working for suffrage were not only working for the vote; as was emphasized in an earlier note, many women had other movements they were dedicated to, and fought for the vote as a means to an end and as a way to affect these other issues and causes. They believed being able to vote would make a difference and allow for incremental progress. In 1898, three women were elected to the Idaho Legislature: Clara Campbell, Mary Allen Wright, and Hattie Noble. However, efforts for change did not always find success and progress was difficult to achieve. For example, consider a 1919 potato chip factory strike in Meridian and the failure of the Idaho State Legislature to pass the women’s welfare commission bill during that same year.

Twenty women went on strike at the Idaho Products Company in Meridian on Thursday, January 16, 1919. The area was dealing with the recent end of World War I, as well as the Influenza pandemic. The business had a contract to supply potato chips to the US Army: “About  a hundred people are employed at this busy place, drying potatoes on a big government contract.”[2] The Evening Capital News reported that the women at the factory worked ten hour-days for $2.50 and wanted their schedules reduced to a nine-hour workday, as well as a pay increase to $3. Negotiations failed, and the paper reported, “It is understood that a force of men was secured to operate the factory last night.”[3] The next day conflicting reports surfaced. The Idaho Statesman reported that when they reached out to the manager of the factory on the night of the 16th, he denied any workers were striking. Conversely, the last page of The Meridian Times contained a short summary of the strike situation, a want ad from the Idaho Products Company wishing to hire ten women to trim peeled potatoes, and a social notice that Miss Kathryn Stirm, the company’s bookkeeper, had resigned and returned to her home in Payette.

On Monday, January 20, 1919, The Idaho Statesman stated that a representative of the women relayed “…the manager declared that the price at which the product was contracted did not admit of a higher wage being paid, but not withstanding this, the men with whom the quitting girls were replaced were hired at $3.50 per day, although less efficient in the work than the women whose places they took.”[4] Two days later, the strike ended, and twelve of the women asked for their old jobs back, at their original payrate. In a rare moment of editorializing, The Meridian Times reported that the women in their demands “did not figure, however, that we do not now have the war time scarcity of labor, and their places vacated were soon filled by others.”[5] The situation these women faced was difficult: continue to strike and lose money that would support them and their families, or continue to work for wages that equaled less than today’s minimum wage.[6]

Of all the women who struck, we only know the name of Miss Kathryn Stirm and so we cannot find additional sources that let us know whether the strikers were single, married, had children, or other revealing details about their lives that might shed light on their individual motivations to return to work at their original payrate. Likely, the women were from low-income households and had few options available to them as returning soldiers from World War I took up jobs in the community that had been filled by women during the war years. Kathryn Stirm appears to have returned to live with her parents in Payette.

A few short weeks later, two female legislators attempted to pass bills that would directly affect women such as the strikers. Dr. Emma Drake and Carrie Harper White, Representatives in the Idaho Legislature, proposed House bills number 82 and 112. House Bill number 82 was written to create an eight-hour workday for women, and House Bill 112 was designed to set a minimum wage for female workers, as well as ensure equal pay for equal work. Ultimately, both bills failed. House Bill 112 received a vote of 34 to 23; if it had passed, the strikers from the Idaho Products Company would likely have been able to resolve their labor concerns through the new director of women workers’ welfare, a position outlined within the bill.

Rediscovering stories of women such as these anonymous female strikers is important and allows for a more complete version of the past. I cannot find a better way to express this  than in the words of Heather Huyck: “Honest history tells the story of everyone who once lived here, including women who left only fleeting hints or whose history is found hidden under many layers of other people’s views and biases.”[7] We will (I will) always work to provide the honest history of Boise, Idaho. 

[1] Heather Huyck, Doing Women’s History in Public: A Handbook for Interpretation at Museums and Historic Sites, (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020), 5.

[2] “Strike At Spud Factory Is All Over Now.” The Meridian Times (Meridian, Idaho), January 24, 1919: 1, Newspapers.com. Accessed January 12, 2021.  

[3] “Women Workers at Meridian On Strike. Twenty Employes [sic] of Potato Chips Factory Quit Jobs; Demand Nine-hour Day and $3 Scale.” Evening Capital News, January 16, 1919: 7. Library of Congress. Accessed January 11, 2021.

[4] “Strikers At Meridian Charge Discrimination. Women Employes [sic] of Idaho Products Company Claim Men Paid Higher Wages Than They Receive.” Idaho Statesman, The (Boise, ID), January 20, 1919: 6. NewsBank. Accessed January 11, 2021. 

[5] The women were referred to as “girls” in the article. “Strike At Spud Factory Is All Over Now.” The Meridian Times (Meridian, Idaho), January 24, 1919: 1. Newspapers.com. Accessed January 11, 2021.  

[6] According to the CPI Inflation Calculator, offered by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the wage the women received in 1919 ($2.50) had the same buying power as $39.47 does today. Idaho’s minimum wage is $7.25, which would result in $72.50 after a 10-hour day. See U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

[7] Huyck, Doing Women’s History in Public: A Handbook for Interpretation at Museums and Historic Sites, 13.