The women prominent in the great farmer manifesto of this present time were long preparing for their part; not by consciously, not by any manner of means even divining that there would be a part to play. In the many thousands of isolated farm homes the early morning, the noonday, and the evening-time work went on with dreary monotony which resulted in that startling report of the physicians, that American farmers were recruiting stations from whence more women went to insane asylums than from any other walk in life.
Farm life for women is a treadmill. The eternal climb must be kept up through the altitude never heightens. For more than a quarter of a century these churning, washing, ironing, baking, darning, sewing, cooking, scrubbing, drudging women, whose toilsome, dreary lives were unrelieved by the slight incident or byplay of town life, felt that their treadmills slipped cogs. Climb as they would, they slipped down two steps while they climbed one. They were not keeping pace with the women of the towns and cities. The industry which once led in the march toward independence and prosperity was steadily falling behind as to remuneration. Something was wrong.
Politics for the farmer had been recreation, relaxation, or even exhilaration, according to the varying degree of his interest, or of honor flatteringly bestowed by town committeemen upon “solid yeoman” at caucus or convention. The flush of pride over being selected to make a nominating speech, or the sense of importance consequent upon being placed on a resolution committee to acquiesce in the prepared document conveniently at hand — these high honors lightened much muddy plowing and hot harvest work.
But the farmers’ wives participated in no such ecstasies. Hence for them no blinding party ties. And therefore when investigation turned on the light, the women spoke right out in meeting, demanding explanation for the non-appearance of the home market for the farm products, which their good husbands had been prophesying and promising would follow the upbuilding [sic] of protected industries. These women in the Alliance, grown apt in keeping close accounts from long economy, cast eyes over the long account of promises of officials managing public business and said, “Promise and performance do not balance.” “Of what value are convention honors, or even elected eloquence in national Capitol, if homelessness must be our children’s heritage?”
Strangely enough, the women of the South, where women, and men’s thought about women, are most conservative, were first to go into the Alliance, and in many instances were most clear of thought and vigorous of speech. Though never venturing upon the platform, they contributed much to the inspiration and tenacity of the Alliance.
In several states, notably Texas, Georgia, Michigan, California, Colorado, and Nebraska, women have been useful and prominent in the farmer movement, which indeed is now widened and blended with the cause of labor other than that of the farm.
Kansas, however, furnished by far the largest quota of active, aggressive women, inasmuch as Kansas was the theater where the initial act of the great labor drama was played. This drama, which, please God, must not grow into tragedy, is fully set on the world’s stage, and the curtain will never ring down nor the lights be turned off, until there be ushered in the eternal era of justice to the men and women who toil.
The great political victory of the people of Kansas would not have been won without the help of the women of the Alliance. Women who never dreamed of becoming public speakers, grew eloquent in their zeal and fervor. Farmers’ wives and daughters rose earlier and worked later to gain time to cook the picnic dinners, to paint the mottoes on the banners, to practice with the glee clubs, to march in procession. Josh Billings’ saying, that “wimmin is everywhere,” was literally true in that wonderful picnicking, speech-making Alliance summer of 1890.
Kansas politics was no longer a “dirty pool.” That marvelous campaign was a great, thrilling crusade. It was religious to the core. Instinctively the women knew that the salvation of their homes, and more even, the salvation of the republic, depended upon the outcome of that test struggle. Every word, every thought, every act, was a prayer for victory, and for the triumph of right.Victory was compelled to come.
Easily first among the Kansas women who rose to prominence as a platform speaker for the political party which grew out of the Alliance, is Mrs. Mary E. Lease.
An Irishwoman by birth, Mrs. Lease is typically fervid, impulsive, and heroic. All the hatred of oppression and scorn of oppressors which every true son and daughter of Erin feels, found vent in Mrs. Lease’s public utterances as she denounced the greedy governing class which has grown rich and powerful at the expense of the impoverished and helpless multitude.
Mrs. Lease came to America when quite a little girl. Her father went into the Union army and died at Andersonville. She was educated a Catholic, but thought herself out of that communion, and is now not over-weighted with reverence for the clergy of any sect. She not infrequently rouses their ire by her singing taunts as to their divergence from the path marked out by their professed Master, whose first concern was for the poor and needy.
A most trying experience of farm life on a Western claim taught Mrs. Lease the inside story of the farmer’s declining prosperity. Turning from unprofitable farming, she began the study of law, in which she was engaged when the Union Labor campaign of 1888 claimed her services as a speaker. During this campaign she only gained local notoriety. Further study, larger opportunity, and the bugle call of the Alliance movement roused her latent powers, and in the campaign of 1890 she made speeches so full of fiery eloquence, of righteous wrath, and fierce denunciation of the oppressors and betrayers of the people, that she became the delight of the people of the new party, and the detestation of the followers of the old. Seldom, if ever, was a woman so vilified and so misrepresented by malignant newspaper attacks. A woman of other quality would have sunk under the avalanche. She was quite competent to cope with all that was visited upon her. Indeed, the abuse did her much service. The people but loved her the more for the enemies she made.
The jauntiest, sauciest, prettiest little woman in the whole coterie of women in the Alliance is piquant little Eva McDonald-Valesh. A fun-loving, jolly, prankish [sic] elf of a woman, quite as much at home on an improvised store-box platform on the street corner, speaking earnestly to her toil-hardened brother Knights of Labor, as in the drawing room, radiating sparkling wit and repartee. All places and experiences fall naturally within Mrs. Valesh’s versatile sphere. Her career as a public speaker, covering a period of about two years, has been one of brilliant and efficient service to the cause of the political reform. She was state lecturer of the Minnesota Alliance, and has spoken in several states, never failing to captivate her audiences. Her youthful appearance is quite in contrast to the maturity of her thought. She is conversational rather than elocutionary in style. Her voice is clear and strong. She uses apt illustrations, strong statement, and good logic.
At the state convention of the People’s Party of Ohio, held at Springfield in the summer of 1891, she was the principal speaker at the evening mass meeting. Her address was rapturously applauded. In the course of her remarks she referred to the opposition of woman on the rostrum, saying that she hoped to be able to speak for woman’s cause as long as there were homeless, voiceless women, helpless to cope with the hard conditions of life. This she intended to do regardless of the prejudice that would relegate her to the four square walls of her home. At this point a gray-haired convert, won by the power and pathos of her plea, called out, “You are at home now; you are in the sphere for which God designed you.”
Mrs. Valesh is as efficient with her pen as on the platform. She has been a self-supporting newspaper writer for several years, and has written several strong papers on economic topics which have been widely noticed.
A little more than a year ago she was married to Mr. Frank Valesh, a superior young man prominent in labor organizations, and in the employ of the Bureau of Labor Statistics at St. Paul, Minnesota, where they both now live.
One thinks of a choice poem, of a sweet song, of delicate perfume, of all things gracious and true, in the presence of Marion Todd. Such exquisite, subtle charm of personality as is hers is only gained by a life of pure unselfishness and of high culture.
Mrs. Todd was born in New York, of New England parentage. Her mother was a woman of much intelligence and great brilliancy. She was her daughter’s high exemplar. Her father was Abner Kneeland Marsh, a Universalist preacher. He made the education of his daughter a matter of chief concern, thus enabling her at a very early age to take a position as a teacher in a public school, which vocation she pursued until she was married to Mr. Benjamin Todd of Massachusetts. Her husband was a man of rare attainments, a fine public speaker, and an ardent advocate of an enlargement of woman’s sphere of action. Under such hospitable conditions it became easy and natural for the young wife to take her place beside her husband in his public work. She made her first speech during the first year of her married life. Temperance, woman suffrage, and politics have successfully engaged her service on the platform.
In 1879 Mrs. Todd entered the Hastings Law College, remaining two years, after which she easily passed the ordeal of examination before the Supreme Court of California. She then opened an office in San Francisco, and was a successful practitioner.
Mrs. Todd had made a specialty of the study of finance some years prior to taking up law. Her researches led her to see the monstrosity of our national legislation on the money question. In 1882 she was nominated by the Greenback party of California as attorney general and ran ahead of her ticket.
In 1880 Mrs. Todd was left a widow with one child, now a most accomplished and lovely young woman, above all things proud of and devoted to her gentle-mannered mother.
Mrs. Todd left California in 1890 and went to Chicago, where she edited the Chicago Express, a reform paper of national circulation. She is the author of three books: one a tariff, one on suffrage; and a third, Pizarro and John Sherman, is a work on finance of great value. All three have had a large sale.
Mrs. Todd, like the other women speakers and writers of the rising political movement, believes that homelessness threatens the masses of the American people, and that the danger is so imminent as to demand unanimity of action in order to arrest the encroachments and shake off the domination of corporate power. Hence, though an ardent Prohibitionist and woman suffragist, she would, for the immediate future, leave those great questions to philanthropic and educational methods of propagandism [sic] — at least so far as national politics are concerned.
At the famous Cincinnati conference of industrial reformers on the 20th of May, 1891, Mrs. Todd was chosen to present the chairman, Senator Peffer, with a floral testimonial. Without the least time for preparation, her presentation was a marvelous combination of poetic, graceful utterance and of profound thought. Her perfect readiness, her attractive personality, rendered the episode a pleasing picture always to remain in the memory of those present.
In the far West are many capable, earnest women enlisted in the Home Crusade. Mrs. Annetta Nye of California, writer and general promoter, is of the splendid Wardell family. Mrs. Sophia Hardin of South Dakota occupies the responsible position of secretary of the State Alliance. Mrs. Elizabeth Wardell, wife of Alonzo Wardell of South Dakota, is an able writer and an untiring worker in Alliance ranks.
These and hosts of others are busy working out manifest destiny toward a higher civilization. Even thus at the South are numberless enthusiastic Alliance women, the most of whom must here be unnamed. The past decade has marked wonderful progress among Southern women. The advent of their charming and distinctive personality into larger circles of activity has added much to the history of American women.
It is a great inspiration to have a great ancestry. To be much expected of is to induce much performance. This is true either of man or a state. Kansas was a well-born state — well fathered and mothered. New England colonized and preempted her for freedom and for progress. Consider her record: Kansas has nine men in the national Congress, all woman suffragists — not merely acquiescent, but reverent, believing that woman should be enfranchised in justice to herself and for safety to the state.
Susan B. Anthony gauges the wives of men by the estimate which their husbands hold of womankind. Her rule proves itself in the case of the Kansas congressmen. Their wives are all suffragists. Mr. Broderick, one of the representatives, and one of the two Republicans from Kansas, is a widower; but his three intelligent, accomplished daughters make it a matter of conscience to vote at municipal elections, at their home in Holton, and to vote for the best man for mayor and councilmen, thus making party subservient to merit.
Seven of the nine Kansas congressmen are of the new political faith which seeks to provide ways and means whereby each member of the nation’s family may have fair chance to work for life, liberty, and happiness. These men are fresh from the rank and file of toilers, most of them practical farmers, whose wives have shared their labors and their hardships. And now that official duties have transferred them to the most beautiful city on the continent, the family unity is preserved, and the good wives share their enlarged experience.
Thus splendidly do the facts about women in politics refute the frivolous theories of timorous or hostile objectors. The women prominent as active, responsible factors in the political arena are those who are characterized by strong, common sense, high ideals, and lofty patriotism.
Reference: Woman: Her Position, Influence and Achievement Throughout the Civilized World. Designed and Arranged by William C. King. Published in 1900 by The King-Richardson Co. Copyright 1903 The King-Richardson Co.