Anna Potter and the Suffragettes

It was something of a political revolution when Anna Potter of Kansas City, Kansas, announced her candidacy for mayor.  Potter told the Kansas City Gazette that there was no reason why “a woman who is capable of managing her own business affairs successfully, cannot with equal success manage the affairs of a city like the metropolis of Kansas […].” Her election, she predicted, would bring about “a revolution in municipal government.” The pro-GOP Kansas City Journal praised Potter’s “courage and zeal,” commenting that her candidacy was “only proper” in demonstrating women’s ability to exercise “the full measure of political rights they already possess.”[1]  The pro-Democrat Wyandott Herald thought she would bring “some very beneficial reforms.”  He

Clarissa Howard NicholsShe was not the first Kansas woman to be active in politics or even to run for mayor.  Clarissa Howard Nichols of Quindaro had beenSusanna Salter home present at the Kansas territorial convention of 1859, where she fought for equal rights for women in the constitution of the future state, including the right to hold property and to sue and be sued. In the small town of Argonia, Susanna Salter had been the first woman in Kansas, and by some accounts in the U.S., to be elected mayor, an event noted in newspapers across the country. Salter was so effective as mayor that several Kansas towns subsequently elected woman mayors, Cottonwood Falls electing not only a female mayor but a full board of councilwomen. Anna Potter, however, was the first Kansas woman to run for mayor of a large city.

Having won the right to vote in school board and later municipal elections, Kansas suffragettes were in 1893 bidding to gain the right to vote in state elections. A statewide vote to approve a constitutional amendment enfranchising women was scheduled for 1894.  Kansas suffragettes were, according to the Kansas City Journal, determinedly organizing a campaign and sending what the paper called “a thrill of astonishment up and down the spinal columns of the ward politicians.”

Astonishment was accompanied with a belief among many that there was something not quite respectable about suffragettes. The Kansas City, Missouri, Equal Suffrage Association, hoping to assuage male concerns, declared that if one of their members appeared in public in a “walking length common sense suit” it was not out of ambition for political honors or because she was a “man hater” but only because she was resolved to be “a slave no longer, but a womanly woman worthy the name of mother, sister, wife or daughter of a true gentleman. The idea of this society is not that women may obtain the ballot, to gratify a long cherished desire to go to the polls, but that through the ballot she may be enabled to use her God given powers to aid in the advancement and elevation of humanity […].”

Suffragettes were, after all, breaking taboos just by going out of doors, in dresses newly shortened a few inches to clear notoriously muddy city streets,  in order to register to vote at offices inhabited by men of doubtful character. Respectable women, whose doings were covered in society pages, gave luncheons and card parties at each other’s homes; they did not venture into the smutty world of “rings” and ward bosses where political power resided.

CorsetWomen's fashionIf respectable women did step out of the home, their rightful domain, they were expected to go in company with their husbands or other women, and to organize spelling bees in church parlors or attend uplifting lectures. Respectable, middle class women supported charitable institutions like a home for fallen women in Kansas City, Missouri, that sought to restore “erring girls” to “a life of virtue,” or attended literary groups like the “Every Other Week Club” and the “Tuesday Afternoon Literary Conclave.” And, of course, they were expected to emphasize their womanly characteristics by squeezing into tight-fitting corsets to create the fashionable wasp-waisted look and dressing up like wedding cakes in multi-tiered, flounced dresses and ornate hats utterly unsuitable for the workplace.

Except that things were changing quite rapidly, in social manners as much as in politics. Women were enthusiastically joining the new fad for riding bicycles, playing sports, and appearing at public swimming pools in bathing costumes. The Ladies’ Home Journal advertised a feature written by several prominent women, including Mrs. Henry Ward Beecher, Julia Ward Howe, and Rebecca Harding Davis, on whether to address a married woman by her husband’s Christian name or her own baptismal name. The Kansas City Times ran an editorial acknowledging women’s right to smoke: “Of course the dear creatures have such rights,” the editors wrote with a sneer. Since the Governor of New York had just granted two female farmers the right to wear trousers, and Populist firebrand Mary Ellen Lease dropped the “Mrs.” from her name, and “when there are female doctors, female lawyers, female bankers, female druggists, and female every thing except fathers of families, why should the sex be declared ineligible to smoke or ‘chew terbaccer’?” What with women smoking, chewing, drinking, and wearing trousers, responded the Kansas City Mail, wasn’t it time for women to “pop the question”?  Ladies Home Journal ad

Women were even working in City Hall in Kansas City, Missouri,  preserve of the all-male Democratic “gang” or “push.” William Rockhill Nelson’s Star, relentless foe of the “push,” highlighted the case of a female stenographer in the Board of Public Works whom the County Assessor wanted to dismiss because she was holding down a job that would otherwise be a plum patronage post for a party hack at twice the salary, even if the hack in question knew nothing of stenography. Another Kansas City woman attracted press attention because she chose to become an American citizen, a newsworthy event because, the Times noted, usually a woman “has no political ambition to gratify, no property interests to protect, no speculations that require her citizenship […].”  This woman, however, a Canadian, had lived in the U.S. for sixteen years and owned land in a state which required she be a citizen.

Resistance to women’s emergence from a subordinate role took various forms. One strategy was to express paternalistic concern for women’s welfare. An editorial in the Kansas City Times opened by conceding that attitudes toward “the propriety of women engaging in some lines of business” were changing and that women could now be found in all lines of work, but closed with the argument that a line had to be drawn so the ambitious woman was not “pushed into things for which she is and ever will be unfitted. […] There are limits to the work which each sex can best perform, and so nicely adjusted are the forces of nature that each sex will find full opportunity for the display of its perfect powers without encroaching upon the other.”

The editors were not explicit about what “things,” “limits,” or “forces of nature” they were thinking of, but were obviously uncomfortable with the idea of women competing with men. Another editorial, this one in the Star, lectured women on the need to eat better; a woman, the editors thought, is so easily distracted she “allows any small excitement to run away with her appetite,” and thus, half-starved, loses control over her “hysterical self,” unlike males, who devote “care and regularity” to eating. The idea that females are delicate creatures needing protection was also represented in the opinion that girls were harmed by getting too much education, a fairy tale so widespread that J.M. Greenwood, respected supervisor of Kansas City, Missouri’s, public schools had to devote a public address to refuting it. Girls, he said, “are generally the best scholars.”

Suffragette cartoonSome were ready to fling themselves against the barricades to resist changes in women’s status. Reverend J.M. Cromer of the First English Lutheran Church in Kansas City, Missouri, cited St. Paul’s admonition that women should be “obedient to their own husbands”  to argue that God did not make woman to be “a rival for man to the honors and pursuits for which he was specially qualified.” The home, Cromer preached, was the “crowning institution of earth,” and women’s “God-ordained and historically-proven sphere is in the home.”  “Public women,” as Cromer called the suffragettes, all come from “wrecked homes” where they “failed in that which God gave [them].”   James K. Cubbison, a Wyandotte County state representative, drew fire from suffragettes for reportedly saying on the floor of the Kansas House that “80 percent of the women in Wyandotte county who voted were disreputable.” The Times printed a cartoon depicting a stereotypical suffragette as an unmarried crone adorned with a prohibitionist teapot, flirting with a predatory looking male who asks where she is going: “A-voting, Sir,” she replies. Asked who she will vote for, she replies “I haven’t the least idea,” signaling that politics was beyond women’s comprehension.

It was prejudices such as these that made the Suffrage Association of Kansas City, Kansas, wary of Anna Potter’s mayoral aspirations, since Potter was far from the paragon of gentility preferred by women running the Association. Before declaring for mayor she was mainly known for having sued three insurance companies to recover $2500 from each so she could rebuild her house, a grand edifice that had burned down. She replaced it with a brick structure which proved not to her liking, so she tore that one down and by election time was at work on a third incarnation of the Potter home.

Suffragette organizations were concerned about their public image; at their meetings there was “no tobacco smoke,” one paper reported, and “no bursts of flowery eloquence, none of the women made pleas for office […].” Women, urged on by the Wyandotte County Equal Suffrage Association, were registering in the largest numbers in the city’s history, accompanied, the Star reported, by their husbands or going “in twos and three to the register’s office.” Association leaders were intent on quietly getting as many women as possible registered to vote in the city election so their earnest commitment to suffrage could be demonstrated by force of numbers, thus gaining credibility in advance of the 1894 state vote. They wanted to avoid alarming male voters by suggesting that women had personal aspirations to public office or that approval of the amendment would benefit one political party over another.  

Mrs. Potter, however, was not the retiring type. She refused to allow her name to be associated with any political party, running instead as an independent. Instead of being demurely modest about her chances, Potter talked as though she had already been elected while admitting she was too busy building her new home to pay much attention to politics. “However,”Anna Potter she told the Times, “I will say that when elected no man will run my office,” precisely the kind of idea local suffragettes did not want said. The employees she engaged to build her new home told a Times reporter that Potter had “great executive ability.” The Chicago Tribune agreed, reporting that Potter “weighs 200 pounds, wears glasses, and looks as though she could run the town.” The San Francisco Chronicle was kinder, saying she weighed at least 170 pounds, and continued with information about Potter that make it clear why women of the Suffrage Association viewed her candidacy with alarm:

She has long been known as one of the most peculiar characters in Kansas City. In her own home it is equally well known that she has long worn the trousers. She built a home – nobody thinks of referring to Mr. Potter in touching on domestic history of the family – at Eighth and State streets using Mr. Potter’s money as fast as he made it, until she had a magnificent piece. But it was all frame, and when a fire started in it last fall the house was wiped out in a twinkling. Mrs. Potter carried $30,000 insurance and at once built a brick house on Minnesota avenue. But it didn’t suit, and she is now rebuilding the old place. She is now her own superintendent of construction, and is on the ground every day ordering the workmen about with a harsh, strident voice which has a ring in it that causes hodcarriers to fairly make the ladders smoke in an effort to see how quick they can reach the last round.

Mrs. Potter does her bossing around attired in a dress of heavy black silk velvet plush, a sealskin coat of generous proportions and a big hat showing a labyrinth of flowers and feathers. She wears diamonds in her ears as big as hickory nuts, and gems flash from her fingers. But despite her wealth and the undoubted richness of her clothing, and speaking with all due respect, Mrs. Potter’s appearance always reminds one of a Christmas tree.  She never pays calls and she makes no visits. She is always outspoken.

As an example of Potter’s outspokenness, the paper described an incident in which she gave a tongue lashing to two men on a cable car who were talking politics. The men “fled as if possessed, while Mrs. Potter’s tone and manner caused every face in the car to be rigidly set as if not a soul had heard.” 

Wyandotte County suffragettes above all did not wish to be seen as termagants, but Annie Potter was confident she would get their vote anyway. On election day she hired two brass bands to precede her to the polls, with banners reading “Vote the Independent ticket. Honesty and integrity in municipal government.” She had 40,000 ballots printed up with a list of independent candidates, none of them beginning with “Mrs.,” as the Times pointed out.  She told a reporter she had “just fixed” the ticket, selecting the candidates herself: “I don’t know all there is on it, “she admitted. “It is a sort of a mixed ticket. Some Irish, some German, some negroes, some women. They are all there. We did not skip anybody.”

Most women would not vote for Potter, the paper predicted: suffragette leaders had decided that “Anna Potter was to be sacrificed for the good of the order,” not because she would not make a good mayor or because others were jealous of her notoriety:

There is a better and nobler reason for their action. The world is to be shown that it is a principle for which the women of the Sunflower metropolis are fighting, and not the greed of office.  They do not care who is elected. If he is a Democrat, all well and good. If a Republican, it makes no material difference. What they want is to vote. The intoxicating idea has taken entire possession of them.  And the leaders want to make such a demonstration that all opposition to universal suffrage will be forever crushed.

It was necessary to “sacrifice” Potter to demonstrate that women were all about principle and did not want office – which might, of course, result in their having authority over men.  Mrs. D.T. Bradford, described in the Times as the “power behind the throne” in the Universal Suffrage Society of Wyandotte County, made it clear that Potter would not have the Society’s support: “Why,” said Bradford, “she went around promising every woman who voted for her an office,” an exaggeration, no doubt, although promising patronage jobs to supporters was  standard practice in elections. Potter was too much of a loose cannon for Bradford and the Society, who were busy arranging carriages to carry women to the polls on election day and lining up members at voting precincts “to see that the women vote correctly […].” As the Times put it, “the feminine political ‘push’ had organized to bury Mrs. Potter under an avalanche […].” 

Mrs Potter is agin itTimes reporters visited Potter at home just before election day, finding her busy with plastering, her sleeves “rolled up above the elbows, her hair unkempt and her skirt tattered and torn.” “I don’t know and I don’t care, “she said of the Suffragists’ opposition. “I don’t know anything about Republicans or Democrats or Populists. I am an Independent. If this Woman’s Suffrage means to go around and break into saloons and throw the bottles of whisky into the street I am agin it.” Wasn’t she referring to the Temperance activists, asked the reporters? “All the same thing,” replied Potter. “Same outfit in both. Why, when they held the first meeting and I told them that I was a candidate for mayor they wanted to know how I stood on saloons. I said that depends. […] You never saw a woman just like me, now did you? I am none of your namby-pamby sort. I speak right out, I do. That’s what I believe in.”

On election day, women turned out in numbers estimated at twice that of any previous election since passage of municipal equal suffrage in 1887. Universal suffrage “has received an impetus which will in all probability result in the adoption of the constitutional amendment extending equal suffrage to all elective offices in the State at the next general election by an overwhelming majority,” the Times predicted

Even though the Equal Suffrage Association was determined to “knife Mrs. Potter,” as the paper put it, she made herself theMrs Potters band center of attention on election day, arriving at the polls in a coach driven by her agreeable husband Eli, an insurance executive, behind “a handsome team of black ponies. Dressed in rich black satin with eyes peeping through golden rimmed glasses, Mrs. Potter occupied the back seat.” Following the carriage were two brass bands, “John Brown’s band” of young black musicians “chiefly celebrated for its execrable music,” said the paper, and a white band employed, the paper supposed, to show voters that under Potter’s rule “there would be no class distinctions.”

Potter was confident, telling a Times reporter that as of noon she was 3,000 votes ahead. Things were going so well, it seemed, that the people she’d hired to represent her at the polls asked her to print 15,000 tickets in addition to the 40,000 she'd already printed. There was yet a third order for 5,000 additional tickets, all distributed by Mr. Potter as he drove his wife around to the various voting precincts.  By the end of the day Mr. Potter was described as looking “care-worn and unkempt.”

The New York Times estimated that Anna Potter spent $9,000 on her campaign, an  astonishing sum for the time if true, equivalent to perhaps $200,000 in 2017 values. Although the New York Times story is as specific about the cost of Anna Potter’s diamond jewelry ($10,000) and home ($80,000) as her political campaign, it provides no evidence for the amounts given. Potter’s own statement of campaign disbursements, required under Kansas law, was much more modest, totaling $79.50: $59 for the two bands and wagons to carry them, $18.50 for the multitude of tickets, and $2.00 for banners. Regardless of cost, it was “what might be truthfully called a spectacular and resounding campaign,” commented the Brown County World of Hiawatha, Kansas. "There was plenty of music, and as one of the bands was of the African variety, the element of color was not lacking.”  Mrs. Potter made an aggressive fight, the paper conceded, “She did not hide her political light under a bushel. She let every one know, with flute, clarionet [sic], tom-tom, bass drum, fife and symbals, [sic] that she was in the field for votes. She woke the echoes of the town.”

In the end, Anna Potter received a total of 25 votes, against almost 6,000 for the winning candidate, a Republican, and over 4,000 for the second place Democrat. Of the 3,000 or so women who voted – 90 per cent of those registered to vote -- only 22 voted for Potter.  When a Star reporter came calling, he found Potter busy superintending construction on her new home. She claimed that votes intended for her had been counted for other candidates and that votes had been bought, presumably with money or liquor, “but neither my husband nor I would treat,” she said. “We told them that it was not legal.”  Yet she was not out of politics: “The idea of a woman being disheartened! I intend to make the race two years hence and I intend to keep the fight up until the women reform the city. That is about all I have to say on the subject.” But it wasn’t:  soon after she told a Times reporter that her tickets in their thousands were destroyed at every precinct. “If I had had time this year,” she said, alluding to the demands of house construction, “things would have been different, but the next time I will enter the fight to win.”

Papers locally and nationally thought there was more to Potter’s shellacking than that. In a press summary in the Detroit Free Press, the St. Paul Globe said it showed “that women will vote, but not for a woman.” The Washington News opined that the problem was that Potter “made the mistake of appearing at the polls in overwhelmingly gorgeous bonnets.” The Chicago Times had the same view as the News, that Potter’s Easter bonnet had “eclipsed the springtime headgear of her constituents.” The Boston Herald thought the real problem was that Potter had “no better sense of the proprieties” than to drive about accompanied by two brass bands, “wearing $7,000 worth of diamonds in her ears or on her fingers […].” The New York Times suggested that Potter had entered the race out of pique with a decision of the Street Commissioner over a sidewalk and had then been taken advantage of by “ward heelers” who profited from creating a fake campaign. “Whenever she appeared on the streets,” said the paper, “she was cheered by enthusiastic men – at least they were apparently enthusiastic – and she always responded with smiles and bows.” In the election, three of Potter's twenty-five votes came from men; one was presumably Eli Potter.

Days after the election, Mrs. Potter finally sat in the mayor’s chair. In the course of a continuation of her dispute with the city about the sidewalk in front of her house, Potter marched into city hall with the Street Commissioner in tow while council was in session.  The mayor, Thomas Hannan, gallantly offered her his chair. “She took it,” the Kansas City Gazette  reported, “and through her gold-rimmed eyeglasses surveyed the assembled solons with the most natural and self possessed air imaginable. Then she set about to manipulate that council in a manner that would have filled the heart of an equal suffragist with delight. She played on their gallantry and other masculine weaknesses, rang in a little ancient history and at the proper time and place daubed on a little soft soap.” The upshot was that the Street Commissioner was told to leave her sidewalk undisturbed for the present; she had gained what she had sought in running for mayor.

Perhaps her brief occupancy of the mayor’s chair re-awakened Potter’s ambition, or perhaps she was enjoying the attention and respect her campaign had given her. When she visited Leavenworth for a charity event, for example, she was treated as an honored guest and called “a woman whose fame had preceded her […].” Socially, the Leavenworth Times reported, “she is a very pleasant lady, interesting in conversation, and agreeable in manners. She also bears the stamp of marked character, power and individuality.”  

For whatever reason, Potter declared that she was already mapping out a campaign plan for the mayoral election two years hence that included becoming a member of the Woman’s Suffrage Association of Kansas City, Kansas, whom she expected would support her if she were a member. This led to the next chapter in the saga of Anna Potter and the Suffragettes.  The Kansas City Times reported that Association members were “dead agin” her becoming a member, giving as a reason that the organization was non-partisan and “could not possibly get strong enough to elect a candidate nominated by themselves. They argued that if Mrs. Potter was admitted she would undoubtedly make a partisan campaign and thereby cause dissension.” It was not Mrs. Potter’s partisanship that the women feared, however, but her lack of it. In terms of gender or ethnicity, she did not care who was with her on her ticket, while Suffrage Association members, most of them middle class and Republican, had definite opinions on the subject.

Rather than present herself to Kansas suffragettes for sure rejection, Potter appeared at a monthly meeting of the Kansas City, Missouri, Equal Suffrage Association, where she was not recognized until she signed her name on the enrollment register, at which point, the Times reported, “a stillness fell upon the house that could be felt.” But the deed was done and Anna Potter, “fought by and at outs with all the suffragists of her home,” was an enrolled suffragist on the east side of the Kaw. Potter did nothing to endear herself to suffragists on the Kansas side when she “roundly abused” members of the School Board at a meeting organized in June by the Suffrage club to discuss a proposed bond issue for school improvement. Potter owned a number of properties and was dead set against the bond issue, arguing that the schools were already well supplied.  School Board members, according to the Times, almost felt “they wanted to resign their ‘thank you position” after Potter’s tongue lashing. 

Soon after, Kansas suffragettes were busy organizing a convention to be held in early September, in advance of the state vote on women’s suffrage. It would feature addresses by nationally known figures like Susan B. Anthony, and Potter again roiled the movement by threatening to “capture the State convention […] in September if she had to wade through blood up to her ears,” or so reported the Kansas City Times. The issue was, once again, partisanship; Potter accused a suffragette leader, Mrs. A.E. McKee,  of “trying to work that organization for Republican ends,” to which McKee replied that Potter was a liar. “It came pretty nearly being a free-for-all,” the paper reported, “and only the opportune arrival of their husbands saved the suffragists from actual warfare.”

Laura M. JohnsThe pro-Democratic Kansas City Times naturally took great interest in Potter’s attack on Republican suffragettes. Mrs. Potter, the paper reported, “thinks she sees a dark plot among the leaders of the suffrage movement to make the organization an adjunct of the Republican party and proposes to stop it.” Her accusations of partisanship extended from Mrs. McKee’s county Association to the Kansas State Suffrage Association, headed by Laura M. Johns, an ardent Republican.  By way of proof, Potter – accompanied by her devoted husband Levi -- came to the office of the Times with a letter she’d received from Johns on Equal Suffrage stationary but enclosed in a Kansas Women’s Republican League envelope. Asked if she would be attending the Suffrage club meeting the next day, Potter told the paper, “I certainly shall. I am going to dress in white so that I will be ready for the cooling board, as I understand they intend to lay me out.”

Potter’s mordant wit didn’t end with reference to a “cooling board,” a platform on which a corpse temporarily rested before a funeral.  She showed up at the next meeting of the Kansas City, Kansas, Equal Suffrage Association, determined to become a full-fledged member. The Times gleefully described the scene as Potter entered the room where members nervously awaited arrival of “the enemy”:

When the ladies were engaged in the momentous question as to whether boiled or fried cabbage would be the more palatable to politicians, Mrs. Anna Potter walked gloriously into the room, arrayed in dead white from the feather of her bonnet, one of the ornaments of which was a nestling white dove, to the narrow tips of her satin slippers; elbow gloves and a white fan completed her paraphernalia.

There was a ripple of applause at her appearance, quickly stifled by the Association’s President, and Potter was shut out from club proceedings.  Her “coup d’état,” said the Times, failed, but she was not discouraged, saying she would be present at every meeting until the Suffragists admitted her. For Laura Johns, all the publicity Potter was getting over her wrangle with the Association was undesirable and she asked the Kansas City women to persuade newspapers not to write so much about Potter.  “The fact is,” opined the Times with obvious relish, “that Mrs. Potter has the suffragists of this city terrorized, but just why no sane person can understand. No member of the club has behaved any better than she, and there is no reason given why she should be deprived of membership,” except that perhaps, as the contretemps over school bonds showed, “she was not only better posted on political affairs” than other women in the Association but “could outtalk them.”

Potter also terrorized opponents in the Association by threatening to sue for slander the person who circulated a report that she had applied for membership in the Kansas Association and been refused, just as soon as she discovered who that person was. Probably a number of people had circulated, if only verbally, such a report.  Potter was known for her lawsuits, and she added to the pressure by saying that her attorney had advised her not to apply immediately for membership. “The women here can have nothing against me,” she told the Times, “and I am sure that none of them act more ladylike than I do at the meetings. The only reason I can assign for a fight being made on me is that some of them want to run the club in the interests of the Republican party, and they know they can not do it while I am present.”

Potter finally got her way. Proclaiming herself an “avowed suffragist,” she was in September enrolled in the Equal Suffrage Association of Kansas City, Kansas, and, vowing to break the ties between the Association and the Republican Party so women would support her nonpartisan candidacy in the mayoral race, paid her $1 initiation fee.

Anna Potter did not run for mayor of Kansas City, Kansas, in the following election, but her story, as well as that of her pet issue of partisanship in the suffrage movement, was not yet over.  Party affiliations were a major subject of dispute in the city’s Equal Suffrage Association before the September state rally; some of the members, the Times reported, were beginning to think that Potter was right about the movement’s leaders attempting to affiliate their organization with the GOP.  The paper thought, or hoped, there might be a split in the organization between pro-Republican and nonpartisan women: “Mrs. Potter has finally convinced the women that she is only a woman, fee simple, and now is working hand in hand with that class who believe that the club should be independent of party.”  What caused the break, according to the paper, was a rumor that Potter had paid officers of the club $5 each to sign a letter stating that she had never been “black balled” by the club. Since then, “the two factions have been openly at war,” and there were predictions that either another club would be started or that the equal suffrage cause in Wyandotte County would be “killed forever.”

Mary K. LeaseThe September rally, with an attendance of 1500, a fifth of them male, was intended to kick off a series of rallies to persuade voters to adopt aCarrie Lane Chapman constitutional amendment, already approved by the legislature, that would give Kansas women suffrage in state elections.  The city mayor, Nat Barnes, opened the meeting with a speech supporting the amendment. Two of the country’s foremost suffragettes, Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Lane Chapman, spoke, as did Laura Johns, head of the Kansas Equal Suffrage Association, and Anna Diggs, a firebrand Kansas Populist. Johns introduced Diggs by saying that the Suffrage club “knows no politics, consequently we have with us Mrs. Anna L. Diggs,” and Diggs obliged by avoiding partisan allusions in her address. The report in the Kansas City Journal noted one conspicuous absence from the event, that of Mary E. Lease, a formidable Populist, who was listed on the speaker roster.

The nonpartisan air continued through the second day of the meeting, with one speaker saying that the enemy of equal suffrage was not one or another party but politics in general, meaning male politicians, “and the women should make every politician in the country understand that they can not afford to vote against the suffrage amendment, much less work against it in the campaign.” But Mary Lease had not yet been heard from, and when she was, the nonpartisan balloon was punctured.  Laura Johns wrote Lease chiding her for not attending the rally, or communicating with Johns: “You are largely responsible for this amendment,” she told Lease, and you know you must not neglect your child.”

Lease, the equal of Anna Potter for scorching rhetoric, wrote in return that she would not attend meetings of John’s club and resented John’s putting her on the speaker list. “What time have we to jog along in your little one-horse Suffrage cart,” she asked, “engaged in an effort to make people think we are non-partisan? I am glad of your candid admission; I am responsible for the amendment in our platform and largely responsible for it in the Republican platform. The Populists forced the Republicans to put it there. When your non-partisan horse becomes uncomfortable, stop at the station of Political Repentance, and as our car sweeps by, we’ll take you aboard, and continue our journey to the land of national prosperity, where injury to one shall be the concern of all.”  Lease resented Republicans appropriating what she regarded as a Populist idea and even more, for their seizing control of the legislature from the Populists earlier in the year.

Anna Potter continued to play a role, if a smaller one, in the life of Kansas City, Kansas, for years to come.  Now a member of the Wyandotte County Equal Suffrage Association, she tried to stiffen the backbones of members by opposing their decision not to vote on issuance of bonds to build a new bridge across the Kaw. The women were not sure if they had the right to vote on bond issues, so decided not to do so; Potter, no friend of bond issues in general, declared she would vote on the proposition “if no other woman in town did.” In the following year, 1894, Eli and Anna Potter, among others, were subjects of a lawsuit that led to a sheriff’s sale of two lots they owned in Kansas City, Kansas. In 1896 they lost a lawsuit brought against them by the Northrup Banking Company, perhaps a continuation of the earlier real estate dispute, in which the Northrup bank had also been involved.

In the same year, Anna Potter was among a group of prominent citizens, including politician W.J. “Billy” Buchan and George W. Martin, editor of the Daily Gazette, who established the Wyandotte County Historical Society. Two years later, Martin’s paper reported that Anna Potter, “one of the foremost women politicians of Kansas City, Kan.,” as it called her, was planning to run for mayor in 1899; “She had many staunch supporters who worked for her with might and main,” the paper recalled, inaccurately, or perhaps ironically, “and it is these supporters who have induced her to again become a candidate.” Whoever runs against her, said the Gazette, must be prepared to spend money on the race: “Mrs. Potter has a contempt for the cheap politicians, and she believes in paying as she goes. […] The livery stables of Kansas City, Kan., did not have teams enough to supply her demands on election day.” Potter will be an independent candidate, the paper predicted, and if elected “will not owe her success to any particular class, political party, sect or creed.” The paper quoted Potter as saying about the suffragists’ reluctance to seek office, “What do you bother with politics for if you don’t want office? […] A woman has as much right to a city office as a man.” 

In 1898, Potter was the victim of a robbery after driving her seamstress to a distant part of the city; on her return she was set upon by two men who knocked her unconscious and tore her clothes to get at the ten thousand dollars reportedly sewn in her skirt. Whether for this reason or another,  Potter did not run for mayor in the 1899 election.

In 1900 Potter got into a dispute with a neighbor, the deputy county treasurer, who had her arrested on charges  of destroying boundary markers he’d paid a surveyor to set up. In the following year, Anna Potter was nearly killed by a falling chimney during a storm; her life was saved by a child, Ella Drysdale, who screamed a warning. Eli and Anna Potter subsequently adopted and raised the child as their own.

Anna Potter died in 1912, in what an obituary called “the Potter mansion” in Kansas City, Kansas. The building “covers half a block and contains a large number of rooms. The present building is the third which Mrs. Potter built on the site. The other two were destroyed by fire.” In fact, only one was destroyed by fire; the second Anna Potter tore down because she wasn’t satisfied with it. Also with questionable accuracy the obituary refers to Potter as “one of the pioneer equal suffragists and temperance workers” of Kansas, a label which would have amused her and distressed surviving members of both the Wyandotte Suffrage Association and Women’s Temperance Union, since she disparaged both organizations.

The obituary is accurate, however, in revealing that Anna Potter was born in Tennessee in 1847, and there married Eli Potter, an agent of the Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company, and that she ran for mayor of Kansas City, Kansas, in 1893, on an independent ticket, which was soundly defeated, “the men not yet being convinced of woman’s right to vote or hold public office.” It was a conclusion Anna Potter would surely have appreciated. Anna left her estate, of about $10,000, to her husband Eli, as well as one dollar to a William Bowman, who claimed Potter mausoleumto be her son.

A dollar was also left in Anna’s will to adopted daughter Ella, but Ella would come into her own nine years later when Eli Potter died. He  left his entire estate, primarily real estate and bonds valued at $100,000 to $150,000 – close to two million dollars in current values – to Ella as “material evidence of an act of the child which in all probability saved the life of Mrs. Anna Potter, my wife,” as Eli stated it in his will. Ella, now Ella Potter Jones, lived with her husband in Kansas City, Missouri.

Levi lived with Ella and her family in his final years.  The “Potter mansion” was eventually demolished, but Eli built a fourth home for Anna, a grand Greek style mausoleum which still stands in Highland Park Cemetery in Kansas City, Kansas. On the lintel he had carved not the name “Potter,” as one might expect, but “Anna Potter.” Apparently Eli Potter, doting and admiring husband, did not intend to join Anna in her final home, a home she could never rebuild, or if he did join her, was content to let her name outshine his, as it had done for the forty-four years of their married life.


 February 20, 2017






[1] Potter was frequently referred to as “Annie” in newspaper stories.