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The Iowa Origins of Organized Republican Women
by Jo Freeman (2000)

At 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, 251)
With 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.
Born 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.
Foster's 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.
Her 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.
Throughout 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)
In 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.
Foster 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, in 1889.
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.
The 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.
Foster 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.
Throughout 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.
Not 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.


Adams, 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 Press, 1971.

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,

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