The period between 1890 and 1920 is often called the “Progressive Era,” a time recognized for an interest in applying scientific principles to improving civilization by eliminating government corruption, modernizing the infrastructure of roads, bridges and public buildings, and enhancing people’s everyday lives.
Among issues confronted by the progressives were public health, especially the passage of pure food and drug laws, the elimination of child labor, the scientific improvement of agriculture and homemaking through university extension programs, the expansion of access to high school education, and the development of public parks.
Although women could not vote at this time, they actively worked toward these goals. Individual women expanded their influence through participation in clubs organized to encourage state legislatures to pass laws that furthered the aims of the progressive movement.
Included in the progressive’s goals was the expansion of the right to vote. Sedalia women actively participated in the movement for women’s suffrage. In 1919, local women invited Missouri Gov. Fred D. Gardiner to speak in Sedalia in support of women’s suffrage.
Gardiner, Missouri’s 34th governor, was a St. Louis businessman. He had worked as a funeral director and later as a manufacturer of coffins, hearses and ambulances.
He brought his business skills to his role as governor. His primary accomplishment was the elimination of the state’s debt, which was $2.25 million when he took office in 1916; when he left office in 1920, the state had a surplus of $3.5 million.
Gardiner married Jeanette Vosburgh in 1894. She had worked for women’s rights in Missouri for many years. The couple saw women’s votes as an essential part of the ultimate passage of legislation benefiting women and children.
When Governor and Mrs. Gardiner arrived in Sedalia on March 17, 1919, members of the local St. Patrick’s Day committee, banker W.H. Powell and a member of Powell’s staff met them. They were joined by representatives of the Equal Suffrage League, including league president Mrs. J.R. Van Dyne, Mrs. W.H. Powell, Mrs. Sallie Potter Sneed, and Miss Varina Jackson.
The group traveled to the Sedalia Public Library where a large crowd of Sedalia’s “representative men and women” packed the library’s second floor assembly room. The audience, led my Mrs. Helen G. Steele, opened the program by singing “America.”
Mrs. Gardiner, who despite her strong support of women’s suffrage had not yet made a public speech on the issue, addressed the Equal Suffrage League. She was followed by Gov. Gardiner, who affirmed his desire to sign the bill proclaiming Missouri’s ratification of the women’s suffrage amendment.
He also emphasized the role women could play in passing legislation such as the Children’s Code, a much-needed revision of the laws concerning policies toward children, including mandatory education, protective labor legislation, juvenile courts and reformatories, the age of consent for marriage, and care of orphans.
After the speech, organizers of the event served refreshments while visitors greeted the governor and his wife.
The 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, was ratified Aug. 18, 1920. Next week’s column details Sedalia women’s reaction to their newly granted right.
Rhonda Chalfant is the president of the Pettis County chapter of NAACP and the Pettis County Historical Society.