Iowa Origins of Organized Republican Women
by Jo Freeman (2000)
the Republican convention of 1892, Iowa lawyer J. Ellen Foster stood
before the delegates assembled in Minneapolis to introduce the Women's
National Republican Association. "We are here to help you,"
she told them. "And we have come to stay." (Curtis, 1904,
this presentation Foster was proclaimed by the Republican National
Committee as the mother of organized Republican women. Before she
died in 1910 Foster campaigned throughout the country for Republican
candidates and helped local women organize Republican women's clubs
in many states, even though women could only vote in a few of them.
Judith Ellen Horton in 1840 in Lowell, Massachusetts, she came to
Iowa in 1869 as the wife of lawyer Elijah Foster. She read for the
law while raising her children. After admission to the bar in 1872
she practiced with her husband, becoming the first woman to appear
before the Supreme Court of Iowa.
real calling, however, was as an orator and political organizer. The
"Woman's Crusade" against the saloon that began in Ohio
in 1874 aroused her reform instincts. She spread its message in Iowa,
helping found the Women's Christian Temperance Union later that year.
As head of the WCTU's legislative department, she wrote state laws
and constitutional amendments limiting the sale and manufacture of
alcohol and campaigned for their passage.
fame attracted much attention. Opponents of temperance burned her
home in Clinton, Iowa. James S. Clarkson, editor and part-owner of
the Des Moines Iowa State Register, and member of the Republican
National Committee from Iowa, recruited her considerable oratorical
talents for the Republican Party.
the 1880s, the Republican Party lost elections due to the acrimonious
cultural conflict created by prohibition, especially in the midwest.
Either those favoring prohibition ran their own candidates, taking
enough votes away from Republicans for the Democrats to win, or they
took over local party committees to run prohibitionists as Republicans,
alienating enough normal Republican voters for the Democrats to win.
(Kleppner, 1970, 138; Jensen, 1971, Chapter 4)
1884 the Republican Party blamed the Prohibition Party for the loss
of the White House to Grover Cleveland, the first Democrat to be elected
President since 1856. Its candidate, aided by active campaigning by
the WCTU, won just enough votes in crucial states for Cleveland to
win in the electoral college.
had campaigned for Republican James G. Blaine, and for the next few
years campaigned within the WCTU for it to get out of electoral politics.
When Foster could not persuade the WCTU to become and stay non-partisan,
she seceded and formed her own organization, the Non-Partisan WCTU,
Encouraged by the Republican National Committee, Foster had already
made plans for an organization of women's Republican clubs. In 1887
she had visited England, where she was quite impressed by the work
of the Women's Liberal Federation for the Liberal Party and the Primrose
Dames for the Conservative Party. (WJ, 9/1/88, 276). Clarkson
had organized the National League of Republican Clubs in 1887, and
Republican women regularly organized campaign clubs for major elections
in about half the states. The time seemed ripe for Republican women
to have their own national organization.
WNRA didn't get off the ground until 1892, and never quite made it
as a federation of women's Republican clubs. It operated as the women's
committee of the RNC during campaigns and as an advisory body in between.
However, Foster traveled widely to speak for the Republican Party
and encourage the organization of local women's Republican clubs.
These helped Republican candidates during campaigns and educated women
about politics between them.
actively discouraged Republican women from merging reform and partisanship.
She felt that women could participate in reform work, including the
movement for woman suffrage, as individuals, but that as Republicans
they should support the party's candidates, whoever they might be.
the 1890s women moved into politics, organizing hundreds of political
clubs to campaign for their party's candidates, and sometimes for
other women. Kansas elected fifteen women mayors. In 1894 women ran
for public office in thirteen states. In 1896 Republican women had
their own headquarters at 1473 Broadway in New York City. By the century's
end, 16 women had been elected to the legislatures of three states,
and several as state superintendents of public instruction.
until 1912 would the national Democratic Party make a serious effort
to organize women, even in the six states where they could vote for
President. By then, the legacy of Iowan J. Ellen Foster was that Republican
women in many more states were experienced campaign workers.
Elmer Cleveland, and Warren Dunham Foster, "J. Ellen Foster",
Heroines of Modern Progress, New York: Sturgis & Walton
Co., 1913, pp. 245-279.
Curtis, Francis, The Republican Party: A History of Its Fifty Years
Experience and a Record of its Measures and Leaders: 1854-1904,
2 vols. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1904, pp. II:251-3.
Gustafson, Melanie Susan, "Partisan and Nonpartisan: The Political
Career of Judith Ellen Foster, 1881-1910," in Melanie S. Gustafson,
Kristie Miller, and Elisabeth I. Perry, eds., We Have Come to Stay:
American Women and Political Parties 1880-1960, Albuquerque: U.
New Mexico Press, 1999, pp. 1-12.
Jensen, Richard, The Winning of the Midwest, Chicago: U. Chicago
Kleppner, Paul, The Cross of Culture: A Social Analysis of Midwestern
Politics, 1850-1900, New York: 1970.
Mott, David C., "Judith Ellen Foster", 19:2 Annals of
Iowa: A Historical Quarterly, October 1933, pp. 126-138.
Willard, Frances and Mary A. Livermore, eds. Women of the Century:
A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of the Lives and Achievements of American
Women During the Nineteenth Century, New York: Mast, Crowell &
Kirkpatrick, 1897. Reprinted as American Women, Detroit: Gale,
1973. "J. Ellen Foster," pp. 296-7
"Women's National Republican League", Woman's Journal,
Sept. 1, 1888, 276.
New York Times, March 8, 1891 3:3,