“Some sour fellows are ridiculing the Oskaloosa city government. It makes them mad to see a woman do anything but fry beefsteak.” The Topeka Journal
By Jane Hoskinson*
In 1887, Kansas women gained the right to vote in municipal elections. On April 4, the first city election that year, Susanna Madora Kinsey Salter was elected mayor of Argonia, Kansas, in a failed attempt to defeat Prohibition Party candidates. Also on April 4, Syracuse, Kansas, elected five women to its city council, to serve with a male mayor.
One year later, on April 2, 1888, Oskaloosa, Kansas, elected Mary D. McGaughey Lowman mayor, with city council members Hanna Pym King Morse, Sarah E. “Sadie” Bonifield Balsley, Nancy “Emma” Kirkpatrick Hamilton, Carrie Lura “Caddie” Critchfield Johnson, and Mittie Josephine Ervul Golden.
The first all-woman municipal government, a female mayor and city council, vaulted Oskaloosa – soon to be nicknamed “Oskalucy” – into the nation’s consciousness.
Many newspapers treated the small-town election as a joke, the writers amusing themselves with suggestions that the women governors would spend their time in office perfecting jelly recipes, mandating control of men’s leisure activities and passing ordinances to discern the best sewing methods.
But the women’s Oskaloosa accomplishments were pure gold for any town: they made significant sidewalk and street improvements, added lights on the courthouse square, spiffed up the place. They also sanitized some aspects of the town of about 800 people for the sake of its youth. The women’s performance was good enough to get them elected to a second term in office, with a small change of personnel.
How it Began
Party politics were secondary to local concerns in choosing Oskaloosa’s women’s ticket. Many of the town’s businessmen felt that the incumbent (male) council had failed to carry out civic improvements and campaign promises. Oskaloosa was the county seat of Jefferson County and drew visitors and business.
Dr. John Balsley (husband of Sadie Balsley) proposed an all-female city government and, after some joking, received support for the idea from the townsmen. The list of candidates was finalized only a day before the election. One of the original nominees declined to run and was replaced on the ballot on election morning.
From the Oskaloosa Independent, Mar. 31, 1888
“There is considerable talk of electing a city ticket composed mostly of ladies, and a selection has been made of ladies who are entirely competent, we think, to manage our municipal affairs. We believe if the ladies had control, a better system of sidewalk and street improvement would be inaugurated at once. The present walks are a disgrace to the town.”
Many citizens considered the women’s ticket something of a joke. On election day, a few young men proposed an alternative slate of candidates with the slogan, “YOUNG WOMEN FOR OFFICE; New ideas, new issues and new notions.” They got as far as presenting their candidates to the printer, but the women, all single, and their families objected
The women’s ticket swept the polls.
The Election and Media Frenzy: From the Oskaloosa Independent, Apr. 7, 1888
“OUR NEW DEPARTURE: Oskaloosa to be Governed by Women Officials.
“As is well known by the world at large now, Oskaloosa elected Mary D. Lowman mayor, and Mrs. Morse, Mrs. Balsley, Mrs. Hamilton, Mrs. Johnson and Mrs. Golden, members of the council, at the election last Monday. The action was taken in good faith, in the belief that needed public improvements would be pushed through better by the ladies.—Notoriety was not sought or expected, and a very brief associated press dispatch announced the result.—Then, suddenly, our lady officials found themselves famous, and the name of our little city is on everybody’s lips. The like had never before been done in the wide world, and telegrams, letters and special reporters have deluged us, while interviews and photographs are in great demand.
(Pictured above are drawings of Councilwomen Hanna Morse, Nancy “Emma” Hamilton and Carrie Critchfield Johnson from the Chicago Tribune, March 25, 1889. Image from newspapers.com. See the article here. )
“Our good-looking and intelligent but retiring and modest city officials have been sorely amazed and perplexed at the turn of affairs, but finally concluded to good-naturedly bear the honors thrust upon them and make the best of the novel situation. Accordingly, they took the oath of office yesterday, and will bravely assume the responsibilities made doubly great by the fact that the eyes of the whole country are upon them.
“The ladies have no light task before them, and they should have the utmost encouragement and assistance from all good citizens. We believe that they will demonstrate that they can wisely govern the city, and that we will have something to show for their work at the end of the year.”
Newspapers from all over the country printed their reactions to the results. The extent of interest in the “new departure” became apparent as the month went on and journalists poured into town from as far away as Chicago. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, a national literary and news magazine published in New York, ran portraits of the mayor and council, along with a panoramic sketch of 1888 Oskaloosa.
An Avalanche of Bad Jokes:
The jokes began immediately. Wilson & Conant’s Drug and Bookstore in Oskaloosa ran an advertisement in the form of a mock council ordinance requiring women to shop in their establishment. Wits predicted that the council’s husbands would have to stay home to mind the children, that women would arrest men for drunkenness, and that the council would discuss recipes for angel food cake in preference to civic affairs.
A fictional gentleman proposed to release live mice at council meetings. A newspaper suggested the “petticoatocracy” was quarreling over whether the city flag should be shirred, cut bias or trimmed with lace. Another said the women would curtail the number of clubs and lodges men could join as well as how many meetings they could attend.
The Topeka Journal retaliated: “Some sour fellows are ridiculing the Oskaloosa city government. It makes them mad to see a woman do anything but fry beefsteak.”
By April 21, the nationwide reaction had reached such a pitch that the Independent devoted its front page to other newspapers’ coverage of the “petticoat government.”
The reporters and correspondents considered it pertinent to mention that the women were not noted for suffragist opinions, that they were not, in the words of the Wyandotte Gazette, “the ‘short-haired,’ speech-making, office-seeking sort, but good wives and mothers, who will bring to bear in their new responsibilities the same good sense used in keeping their houses and homes.” (Despite this attitude, Kansas, eight years ahead of the nation, in 1912 gave women the right to vote in national elections.)
The town band came out in support of the winning candidates and paraded through the city serenading the mayor and council-elect.
The Right Stuff:
Mary Abarr reported for the Topeka Capital in April 1888:
“The ladies now have an ample field. The city needs a system of street lighting, new walks, better street grades and macadamizing, especially around the court-house, and a system of waterworks would not be amiss. The taxes have been very light in the past and doubtless there will be some growling if an improvement tax is levied. The city is hoping for an appropriation from the county for the purpose of beautifying the court house park by way of ornamental and drinking fountains.
“Truly are the mayor and members of Oskaloosa council representative women. They are bright, cheery, intelligent, womanly women with a large share of common sense. They are representative mothers and housekeepers too, for, although the house cleaning season is on and some were washing, all busy with or directing their house work, not one was found untidy, not one whose hair was not neatly done, not one but whose house was in perfect order.
“If they can direct their individual households so well can they not direct and guide the municipal affairs of their city?
“They have every appearance in their favor. They may differ politically, but they are all staunch prohibitionists. They are for principle more than party. Long may the ‘city mothers’ of Oskaloosa rule.”
In a traditionally Republican town, it was a surprise, especially to many of the men, to learn that the new council was composed of four Democrats and two Republicans.
The tally of religious affiliations was of equal interest: four Methodist, one Episcopal, one Presbyterian. It became immediately apparent that the women were all independent thinkers, not to be unduly influenced by their families.
By Mr. Ellis, special reporter for the Kansas City Times:
“It was not known until a couple of days after that the council had a democratic majority, for Oskaloosa is strongly republican. Among those who were surprised, none were more so than Dr. Balsley who prepared the ticket. He is a staunch republican, but found after the election that Mrs. Balsley had placed herself on the democratic side. . . . Mrs. Balsley said that she couldn’t go back on the democratic party just because her husband was a republican.
“Since coming into official positions the opinions of these ladies on certain political matters have been plainly expressed. Some of these expressions go to show that the women of Oskaloosa intend to think differently from their husbands just as much as they please, and hold up their end of the family opinion in the council just as well. . . . All of the ladies are decidedly in favor of prohibition and, strangely enough, . . . only one pronounces herself a thorough woman’s suffragist.”
A Granddaughter and GOP Politico Tells the Story:
More than 100 years later, in an address to the Jefferson County Historical Society, Ailee Decker Henry, granddaughter of Mayor Mary Lowman, outlined the accomplishments of the mayor and council.
“Many obstacles confronted this new council. The town was in debt and had only 85 cents in the treasury when they came into office. The City Marshal would not enforce the ordinances so Mayor Lowman promptly removed him and appointed a man upon whom she could rely. Then began a crusade as never before had been known.
“For years the town had been annoyed with bad boys or the young toughs of the place loafing around the streets at night, molesting and moving signs and belongings of others. The Mayor and Council issued a proclamation commanding all boys under 18 years of age to be off the streets at eight o’clock in the evening under penalty of arrest.
“The ladies were concerned about the subject of tobacco-chewing and looked carefully through the statutes for an ordinance that could be used to stop men from squirting tobacco juice on the sidewalks. There was none so they made a personal request asking every tobacco-chewer in town not to expectorate on the sidewalks. This had just as much effect as an ordinance, for the men were so respectful of the wishes of female guardians that they unhesitatingly complied with the request and now a lady may fearlessly sweep her skirts over the side walks without danger of getting them all stained up with nicotine.
“All seemed to be going along very well with the ladies until they passed an ordinance prohibiting stallions from being kept within the city limits. On one corner of the public square there was a big, red barn owned by the proprietor of the Jefferson Hotel. He owned the finest breeding stallion in the county and kept him at this barn on the public square. It was on the way to and from school for a lot of children, and young boys had a tendency to loiter around the place. This situation had worried many parents and citizens, and it took a women’s council to do something about it.
‘The ordinance was passed, and the owner was in a rage. He procured an attorney and filed a bill for an injunction and at the same time presented a petition signed by many of the businessmen to rescind their action.
“The night the petition was brought in, the Council Chamber was filled to overflowing and Mr. [A.J.] Buck’s attorney made an oral argument against the enforcement of the ordinance. Mrs. Hamilton and Mrs. Balsley answered him, and the logical and determined manner in which they overwhelmed every point of the lawyer’s argument won for them a wide degree of admiration. Finding the women obdurate, the lawyer went before the District Court and was again defeated, the judge deciding the case in favor of the women.
“The ladies also met with poor cooperation on the matter of making necessary sidewalk improvements, but they went to work with a will and in the course of their administration there is scarcely a bad walk in town. They had trouble with the richest man in town, who owned an entire block in the heart of town and refused the request of the council that he put a sidewalk in front of it. The plucky women warned him that they would have the walk constructed and compel him to pay for it.
“The women were not stubborn but they would not be daunted. The walk was laid in spite of its causing them another law suit. In contrast to this we find the women taking up a subscription to pay for the part of the sidewalk in front of a poor widow’s property so that she would not be taxed for it. This sidewalk was necessary as it led to the school house. It had been ten years since anything had been done about sidewalks, and there was none to the school. This the women also accomplished.
A Second Term:
“At the end of their first year, this first ‘Petticoat Government’ had made enemies as well as friends, but there was yet work to be done. They were asked to run again, and all but Mrs. Hamilton, who for domestic reasons could not, and Mrs. Johnson, who had never been active through this first year and was not interested, said they would serve again if elected.”
The “domestic” reasons influencing Emma Hamilton’s decision not to run for the city council again may have been connected to the birth of her sixth child, Albert Wallace, in September 1889. Carrie Johnson also had personal reasons to retire from the council. In September 1888, her son Terry was born; he died just a month later, according to the Independent. Her daughter and only surviving child, Roxlena, was born in October 1890.
As the 1889 election neared, opposition to and support for the council grew. The McLouth Times wrote, “The ‘woman’s government’ took hold of Oskaloosa with a depleted treasury and lots of poor streets and dilapidated sidewalks, but during the year they have made many needed improvements and have over $100 in the treasury. It would only be justice to give them another term at the helm.”
The Oskaloosa Independent reported on the election and its results, April 5, 1889:
“The city election last Monday was the most hotly contested one in our history. The opposition to the woman’s government developed surprising strength and left no stone unturned to gain their point. At a caucus on Saturday night, T.H. Noble was selected for mayor; Deibert, Geo. Wise, Hofmann, Lohman and Monroe for council, and V.M. Stevens for police judge. The ladies’ ticket was the same as last year excepting that Mrs. W.H. Huddleston and Mrs. D.H. Kline were put in place of Mrs. Hamilton and Mrs. Johnson.
“All day long hacks and carriages were run, and many were those who obtained the unwonted luxury of a ride in state. We were glad to see some of our democratic friends made converts, not only to negro suffrage but to woman suffrage, also. We congratulate them on their progression.—The result was the election of the entire woman’s ticket, Mayor Lowman receiving 68 majority, Mrs. Morse 33, Mrs. Balsley 36, Mrs. Golden 47, Mrs. Kline 41, Mrs. Huddleston 36 and Police Judge Hamilton 72.”
Three other Kansas towns, Baldwin City, Rossville and Cottonwood Falls, elected women as city officials in 1889. In Valley Falls a woman’s ticket was nominated but defeated by an average margin of 45 votes. Perry reported that only two women voted in its city election.
The new Oskaloosa council members, Maria Snyder Emert Huddleston and Irena D. Cole Kline, received much less attention from the press than the original six women. They took their duties just as seriously, however, serving on committees for claims, streets and alleys, and ordinances.
Ailee Decker Henry – a former Kansas Republican Party vice chairman and a Kansas delegate to the 1960 Republican National Convention — continued her account of the women’s work:
“To further the improvement of their streets they deemed it wise to purchase a road grader. To make it more economical they suggested they buy it in conjunction with the township for road maintenance. That idea was rejected by the township officials and so the women ordered the purchase of a road grader independently. They then constructed a shed to shelter the grader and other tools. This allowed the streets to be much improved, widened, straightened and made more uniform. Several new streets and alleys were opened up.
“New improved street lamps were installed. They were gasoline instead of coal oil and so constructed that they were supposed to burn out about midnight. [The lamps, installed on a trial basis, were eventually rejected as “no good.”]
“It seems the city had been careless with the fire department equipment. City Marshal Golden was instructed to gather together the ladders and buckets, hooks and chains in various places and new ladders were also made.
“A city pound was established in which to keep stray livestock that wandered the streets. Citizens were urged to keep their cows, pigs and chickens shut up.
“The railroads that furnished transportation in and out of Oskaloosa, especially the Leavenworth, Topeka and Southwestern, were a source of concern to the Mayor and Council and they repeatedly appealed to the Railroad Commission for better service and better schedules.
“Their second term in office drew to a close and a job well done. They had executed the work equally as well and somewhat better perhaps than any group before them. It is interesting to note, there was still a difference because of their womanly instincts. There were a number of bills allowed for meals for tramps. The local paper made mention of the fact that tramps were more numerous of late and suspicioned that they knew about our women Mayor and Council and no doubt expected aid and comfort from that source. This small benevolence was not missed—there was still a balance in the treasury of $165 and better than that, a lot of public spirit and good will in the community in which they served. But they did not choose to run again.”
An Initial Introduction: Hair Styles, Home-keeping and Political Parties:
Mary Abarr described each woman in detail for the Topeka Capital in April 1888:
“It is with extreme pleasure the worthy ladies of this wonderful council is introduced to the readers of the Capital this morning. Call on them separately and without warning and you will see six earnest mothers engaged in home duties, but still broad enough to be deeply interested in their sons, daughters and husbands even beyond the threshold of home, out in the busy field of life.
“The mayor, Mrs. Mary D. Lowman, you will see in the office of register of deeds, where she has been for nearly five years, under the different administrators. She is 49 years of age and has led a busy life. When not at present employed she taught school. She looks at you out of pleasant eyes and gives you the impression of exactness, firmness, kindness and a woman of great force of character. Her dark brown hair streaked here and there with a silvery thread is becomingly done in a French twist. She is attired in a suit of brown and receives her guests cordially. She is a native of Pennsylvania and has lived in Kansas twenty years, eighteen of which have been spent in Oskaloosa. She is the mother of two children, a son and a daughter, both grown. Mrs. Lowman is republican in politics and a Presbyterian in religious faith. That she will fill the mayor’s chair acceptably is universally conceded. She is fitted for it in every way, in business training and executive ability. Her husband was for some years the register of deeds of Jefferson county.
“Mrs. Hanna P. Morse you will find in her cozy home on the hilltop, gay with the songs of her feathered pets, a canary and a mockingbird. She is of medium height with plump, round form, very dark brown hair and eyes, hair worn in a coil at her neck, with a cluster of ringlets in each temple. She is neatly attired and meets you with a smile of welcome. Mrs. Morse is 45 years old and was born in England. She has lived twenty-two years in Oskaloosa. She is the mother of one child. Her political faith is democratic and her religious belief Methodist. Her husband is a genial, jolly attorney who by his good grace always wins his cases.
“Mrs. Emma Kirkpatrick Hamilton, a near neighbor of Mrs. Morse, is 39 years of age and is a native of Indiana. She has lived in Oskaloosa for fifteen years. Mrs. Hamilton was educated in Oxford, O., and received her musical education in Findley of the same state. She is the mother of three children, and though one of the chief officers of the city, neglects none of her household duties, but is a patient, faithful mother, whose influence will be felt for good in the council chamber. She is a staunch republican and is also a member of the Methodist church. In appearance Mrs. Hamilton is a little above the medium height with dark blue eyes and dark hair that persists in assuming pretty wavy lines over her head. Her husband is a member of the real estate firm of Insley & Hamilton.
“Mrs. Sadie Balsley was born in Ohio 35 years ago. The past fifteen years she has lived in Oskaloosa. Mrs. Balsley is politically a democrat, religiously a Methodist. She kindly came in to receive her callers in a cozy sitting room flooded with sunshine, fragrant with flowers and cheery with the song of birds. Her height is slightly above the medium, with dark hair and eyes and rosy cheeks. Her wavy hair was coiled neatly on her crown. Her appearance is such that you would be willing to trust to her judgment even in weightier matters than helping to rule a city. She is the better half of Dr. Balsley, a skilled physician whose healing powers are phenomenal.
“Mrs. Mittie Josephine Golden spent twenty-two years of her life in Topeka and the past eight in Oskaloosa. She was born 31 years ago at Independence, Mo. Politically she is a democrat, religiously a Methodist. She has a slender, girlish figure of medium height. Her eyes are of the deepest blue, hair light and was prettily coiled high. Notwithstanding, she was initiating a new laundry woman and caring for a sick child, she was neatly attired and her cozy home was in perfect order. She is the fond mother of two little girls. Her husband is a mechanic of great skill.
“The youngest member of the council-elect is Mrs. Carrie Johnson. She is only 23 years old and was born and brought up in Oskaloosa. She is the eldest daughter of Terry Critchfield. She was for a time a student at Bethany college, Topeka. Her political views are democratic, religious Episcopal.—The reporter was shown into a pleasant parlor, fragrant with the scent of roses and bright with pretty things wrought with her own dainty hands. There were books and magazines in profusion and music too. The hostess received her guest in a pretty “at home” of some dark surah. Her blue eyes were shaded by fluffy blonde hair which was loosely coiled. Her husband is the cashier in the Oskaloosa bank.”
The new council members elected for 1889-90, Maria Snyder Emert Huddleston and Irena D. Cole Kline, were not interviewed or sketched by the press.
Maria Huddleston was 59 years old, a native of Illinois and the mother of three from her previous marriage. Her daughter, Brittie Emert, was one of the “young women” proposed to run for the council in 1888.
Irena Kline was 52 years old and a native of Ohio. She came to Kansas in 1867, where her family farmed northwest of Oskaloosa for 14 years before she and her husband retired and moved to town. She had four grown children when she was elected to the council.
Mary Lowman died June 2, 1912, as a result of a kitchen fire. Her clothing caught fire while she was reviving the coal embers in the cook stove. She ran to her porch, where a passerby heard her cries and put out the flames with his coat. She died several hours later. According to F.H. Roberts, editor of the Oskaloosa Independent, Lowman “was above reproach. . . . Her portrait and life sketch are found in a book published by Frances Willard and Mary Livermore, entitled, ‘A Woman of the Century.’ She became famous unexpectedly when she was elected mayor of Oskaloosa in the spring of 1888, and received letters from all parts of this country and many foreign parts.” Her husband, George W. Lowman, died in 1930. Her children were Dr. Richard C. Lowman (1867-1954) and Monica S. “Montie” Lowman Decker (1870-1968). The New York Times carried Mary Lowman’s obituary, saying that her administrations “were marked as much for efficiency as honesty.”
From the Oskaloosa Independent, June 7, 1912: “Mrs. Lowman and her women friends on the council modestly deprecated all this notoriety but went on with their duties courageously and well, Mrs. Lowman’s self-poise and fine temper greatly assisting in keeping things harmonious and free from bickering or criticism.”
Rest in Peace:
Hanna Morse died May 2, 1911, in Oskaloosa. Her husband, Dennis H. Morse, died in 1913. Her son was William Justin Morse (1864-1938).
Sadie Balsley died Feb. 20, 1907, in Lawrence, Kan. Her husband, Dr. John W. Balsley, died in 1895. Her adopted daughter was Helen Claire “Nell” Needham Balsley (1881-1971).
Emma Hamilton died Feb. 18, 1913, in Oskaloosa. Her husband, William A. Hamilton, died in 1912. Her children were Leila Hamilton Buck (1875-1935), Sada Hamilton (1879-1886), Johnnie Hamilton (1883-1886), Mary Emma “Mayme” Hamilton (1884-1969), Margaret Hamilton Perry (1887-1957), and Albert Wallace Hamilton (1889-1952).
Carrie Johnson died Oct. 5, 1929, in Chicago, Ill. Her husband, Charles F. Johnson, died in 1914. Her children were Myrna Johnson (1885-1886), Terry Johnson (Sept. 1888-Oct. 1888), and Roxlena Johnson Hargreaves (1890- ? after 1930).
Mittie Golden died Jan. 7, 1934, in Oskaloosa, the last survivor of the women’s council. Her husband, Charles E. Golden, died in 1945. Her children were Nellie Gertrude Golden Hosford (1878-1941) and May B. Golden Snellgrove (1881-1955).
Maria Huddleston died May 26, 1894, in Oskaloosa. Her husband, William H. Huddleston, died in 1910. Her children were Samuel Emert (1861-1942), Estelle Emert Gillham (1865-1909), and Brittie Emert Huddleston (1867-1928). She is buried with her first husband, William Emert, in Illinois.
Irena Kline died Nov. 1, 1907, in Oskaloosa. Her husband, David H. Kline, died in 1902. Her daughter Amanda died in infancy. Her surviving children were William Henry Kline (1859-1946), Robert Lincoln Kline (1861-1936), John G. Kline (1864-1917), and Clara Elizabeth Kline Davison (1866-1958).
All the council members except Maria Huddleston are buried in Pleasant View Cemetery, Oskaloosa, Kansas.
* Written and researched by Jane Hoskinson, editor of the Jefferson County Genealogical and Historical society publication, Yesteryears. Jane was an editor for University Relations at the University of Kansas for 35 years but got her start in journalism at age 11 working for her father, John P. Hoskinson, at the Oskaloosa Independent. Jane has written for this blog before, a well-researched piece about slavery in Jefferson County, Kansas.
 Susanna Madora “Dora” Salter is profiled (and Oskaloosa is mentioned) in an episode of KMBC Chronicle: Pioneers. Patriots. Trailblazers: https://www.kmbc.com/article/chronicle-pioneers-patriots-trailblazers/33579212 . See also the Kansas Historical Quarterly, Autumn 1954: https://www.kshs.org/p/kansas-historical-quarterly-susanna-madora-salter/13106. Mrs. Salter became, in 1887, the first woman mayor elected in the United States. See the National Park Service article about Kansas and women’s suffrage: https://www.nps.gov/articles/kansas-and-the-19th-amendment.htm#:~:text=In%201912%2C%20eight%20years%20before,Amendment%20on%20June%2016%2C%201919.
 On April 7, the Oskaloosa Independent, a weekly paper, listed election returns: “Following is the vote cast at the city election for the respective candidates: Mayor, Mrs. Lowman 110, J.M. Dick 44. Council, Mrs. Morse 110, Mrs. Hamilton 112, Mrs. Johnson 108, Mrs. Balsley 114, Mrs. Golden 111. Mr. Huddleston 46, Macomber 42, Williamson 42, Wilson 41, Patterson 41. Police judge, W.A. Hamilton 111, J.F. Bliss 42.”