During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, women organized clubs dedicated to church mission work, social improvement, education, and the arts.
Though men frequently ridiculed women’s clubs, they were eventually forced to acknowledge that women raised money to support mission hospitals and schools in China, India and various African nations, that women helped make communities beautiful by planting flowers and shrubs, and that women supported the nation’s military efforts in World War I by working with the Red Cross and by selling war bonds.
Sedalia women participated in the club movement. The two oldest independent women’s clubs in Sedalia — Sorosis and the Ladies’ Musical Club (now the Helen G. Steele Music Club) — actively confronted the issues of the day, including women’s suffrage. Other women’s organizations also worked for the right to vote.
According to club minutes, Sorosis members first discussed women’s right to vote at the Oct. 28, 1907, meeting. The next year, Sorosis observed Women’s Day on Oct. 23; the ladies engaged in a “spirited debate” on the issue of women’s suffrage. Those in favor of women voting noted that women should vote because they paid taxes to support the government and that government officials made decisions that directly affected women. Some opposed to women’s suffrage believed politics to be “dirty” and unfeminine.
Sedalia women organized an Equal Suffrage League. Mrs. J.R. Van Dyne was president, and Mrs. Sallie Potter Sneed, Miss Harriett Longan and Mrs. George Longan were delegates to the Missouri Suffrage League Guild. Mrs. Henry W. Harris, Mrs. Sylvan Kahn and Miss Varina Jackson were alternates. Mrs. W.H. Powell and Mrs. Helen G. Steele were active members of the league. Most of these women were also members of Sorosis or the Ladies’ Musical Club.
Helen Gallie Steele, the organizer of the Ladies’ Musical Club, was a formidable club woman. In addition to directing the ladies’ chorus, she was active in other local clubs, including the Red Cross. She was also active in the fight for women’s rights, and in 1919 attended the National Women’s Suffrage convention. Following her participation in the national convention, she presented a program to Sorosis on the convention.
Other local women’s organizations participated in the women’s suffrage debate. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, with separate chapters in Sedalia catering to well-to do women, black women, and working class women, supported women’s right to vote. The WCTU’s primary interest, however, was the elimination of the sale and use of alcoholic beverages.
The combination of the issues of women’s suffrage and prohibition caused problems for members of the WCTU. Local folklore suggests some ministers were so opposed to women’s voting that although they disapproved of alcohol, they refused to allow the WCTU to meet in their churches. The alcohol industry, including Sedalia’s distillery, brewery, and many saloons, vigorously opposed the WCTU because they believed that if women could vote, Prohibition would be enacted.
The discussion of women’s suffrage continued despite opposition. Next week’s column continues the story of Sedalia women’s attempt to gain the right to vote.
Rhonda Chalfant is the president of the Pettis County chapter of NAACP and the Pettis County Historical Society.