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. 

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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 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:


[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.