Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Chariton Suffrage heroes: The Branners, Part 2

I wrote yesterday about Chariton sisters Victoria (Branner) Dewey and Virginia M. Branner, leaders of the women's suffrage movement in Lucas County --- and Iowa --- incorporating a biography of Victoria found in the Iowa Women's Archives at University of Iowa Libraries and presented in a digital collection entitled "Women's Suffrage in Iowa." You'll find the cover page for that collection here with links to its various parts. The "Iowa Suffrage Scrapbook" provides a good overview.

The Branner sisters and their mother, Jane (Cowan) Branner, who died in 1911, had been active in the suffrage movement since the late 1880s, but progress was slow --- men were reluctant. Modest victory came in 1894, when the Iowa Legislature approved a measure allowing women to vote on "yes and no" issues --- a bond referendum for example, or a surtax --- but women were denied the right to participate in elections that involved candidates for a quarter century more.

The Branner women were among principal organizers of the Lucas County Suffrage Association and regional suffrage conventions held in Chariton during 1897 and 1898. Women and their male backers gathered during 1897 at First Christian Church and during 1898 at First Baptist Church to hear nationally known speakers, to strategize and to inspire each other.

Finally, during its 1916 session, the Iowa Legislature passed for the second time a universal suffrage amendment to the Iowa Constitution and scheduled a ratification vote for June 5.

At this point, the effort in Lucas County and elsewhere shifted into high gear. Public informational meetings were scheduled across the county --- in towns and in rural churches --- an effort organized by Victoria, Virginia and their many associates with Victoria's daughter-in-law, Ruth Leonard Dewey, leading the effort on the ground. All of Lucas County's newspaper editors were strongly in favor of the amendment and both The Herald and The Leader donated space for a regular column, written by Virginia, updating readers on campaign activities.

The June 5 vote resulted in disappointment, however, when the issue failed statewide by a margin of 173,020 "no" votes to 162,679 "yes" votes. The principal opponents of suffrage were liquor interests in the state and elsewhere who feared that granting women the right to vote would advance the prohibition movement in the state (the Women's Christian Temperance Union and its members were among the principal proponents of universal suffrage). Liquor interests were well organized and had deep pockets and were very influential, especialy in Iowa's "wet" counties. (Lucas County was "dry.")

The map at the top of the post, also from the Women's Suffrange digital collection, was compiled during a post-election investigation by the WCTU that found substantial voter fraud in many counties, too --- enough to tip the outcome toward rejection of the amendment.

Liquor interest opposition to the amendment was supplemented, proponents also felt, by opposition from those who shared conservative views about the role of women, most notably the Catholic Church and groups of recent immigrants, especially Germans.

Yellow counties backed the amendment, Lucas County by a 540-vote margin. White counties voted against the amendment. The "no" votes in Dubuque, Jackson, Clinton, Scott and Linn counties were enough to ensure defeat. The flags indicate election irregularities detected by investigators.

Although disappointed by the outcome, the Branner sisters and their colleagues in the Lucas County Suffrage Association were by no means defeated. A "note of appreciation" from the association published in the editions of Lucas County newspapers in which results of the vote were announced, singled out for "special thanks" the "pulpit and press for their most generous and kindly support, which was invaluable at the time" and promised, "We will enter another campagn immediately and with our past experience to guide us, and knowing where to look for assistance, we will buckle on our armor with more faith and courage and with more assurance of the final result."

Suffragist focus now shifted from state to national level and, during 1919, Congress passed the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and passed it on to the states for ratification. Iowa became the 10th state to ratify the amendment on July 2, 1919; and on August 26th, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify, thereby enacting the amendment.

But suffragists had been active on the state level in Iowa, too --- although passage of the 19th amendment trumped state law, the Iowa General Assembly had during April of 1919 approved a bill giving women the right to vote in presidential elections.


Here's the biography of Virginia M. Branner, found in the Iowa Women's Archive. It is far less detailed than the biography of her sister, Victoria J. (Branner) Dewey, but probably written by the same author. That's kind of unfortunate. Virginia's efforts certainly equaled, if not exceeded, those of her sister. She was the "voice" of the suffragist movement in Lucas County and a foot soldier, too --- traveling statewide, even moving to Des Moines to work in the state suffrage office.


Virginia M. Branner, a pioneer suffragist in Iowa, was a native of Tennessee, born December 5th, 1852, in the town of Dandridge. She was the youngest child of her parents, Judge John Branner and Jane Cowan Branner, and a sister of Victoria Josephine Dewey. She was educated in the Brazelton School for Girls in Dandridge and in the Episcopal School for Girls in Dubuque, Iowa. Moving with the family to Chariton, Iowa, in 1873, she married Charles H. Palmer of that city from whom she was divorced twenty years later, when she resumed her maiden name of Mrs. Virginia M. Branner. No children were born to her.

Mrs. Branner was an adherent of the Presbyterian faith and a member of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union for forty years. She was an early member of the woman suffrage work in Chariton and identified in the state work many times in an official capacity. In 1908 in the convention at Boone, she gave a report as a member of the National Committee from Iowa for Peace and Arbitration, which indicates her especial interest in these questions. At the close of the convention at Corydon in 1910, she was elected treasurer of the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association with Mrs. H.E. Evans, president; she served through 1911 at the Headquarters of the state association in the Equitable Building. These headquarters were established after the death of Mary J. Coggeshall who left a generous bequest to the society for the suffrage work in the state.

Mrs. Branner gave generously of her time and energy to these causes and also gave liberally of her income, a goodly portion of it to Parsons College of Fairfield, Iowa. In 1920, she went to California in search of health, but becoming very ill, returned to her friends in Fairfield and finally to her old home in Chariton, where she died at the home of her sister, Mrs. Victoria Dewey, September 16th, 1921, beloved of her friends and acquaintances, which she numbered in many states.

Mrs. Branner and Mrs. Victoria J. Dewey were sisters living at Chariton, and the period of their labors for the cause of equal suffrage covered nearly fifty years. Before 1900 they had been largely instrumental in holding a three-day county suffrage "convention" at Chariton, which was very successful. In the state campaign for a "suffrage" amendment, in 1916, they organized a county caravan which was conducted by Mrs. Dewey's daughter-in-law, Mrs. Ruth Leonard Dewey, and which with national speakers, visited every town in Lucas county, which county gave a large majority for the amendment. In this period of work, they became acquainted with most of the state workers for suffrage, and many of the national leaders, Susan B. Anthony, Anna Howard Shaw, Mary G. Hay, and others had visited them in Chariton, and made addresses in that town.


Another point to mention is the fact that Victoria and Virginia played a major role in development of the Chariton square, too. Jane (Cowan) Branner and her children, Victoria, Virginia and N.B., had inherited the east half of the south side of the square from John Branner. As the years passed, Victoria built the Dewey Block on the corner, occupied until recently by Chariton Floral. Virginia built a triple-front structure known as the Branner Block just to the west on the lots now occupied by the Ritz Theater/Connecticut Yankee Pedaller building and the Harbor House Christian Bookstore building; and Victoria built the three-story Temple Theater Building, destroyed by fire in 1930, on the site now occupied by Hammer Medical Supply.

These were women made wealthy initially by inheritance from their father who were astute  businesspeople themselves, but strong-minded and community-minded --- determined to make a difference at a time when women's rights were not guaranteed.

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