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Cool Things - American Woman and Her Political Peers Painting

This pastel titled American Woman and Her Political Peers was designed as a lesson on the relative political status of women in the 1890s.

Painting, American Woman and her Political Peers

Pictured at the center is Frances E. Willard, American educator and reformer. Portrayed around Miss Willard (clockwise from upper left) are a mentally disabled man, a convict, a madman, and a disenfranchised Native American. The contrast between the men and Willard was intended to make it clear to the viewer that neither American women nor the "undesirable" classes of men depicted were granted equal voting rights.

Henrietta Briggs-Wall of Hutchinson,  Kansas designed the picture and commissioned W. A. Ford, also of Hutchinson, to execute it. Briggs-Wall was active with the Kansas Equal Suffrage Association and with national and state chapters of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The WCTU at this time was allied with other reform movements, including woman's suffrage. As early as 1884 the WCTU of Kansas had adopted a strong suffrage resolution and had a suffrage department of its own. The feeling among WCTU members was that if women were granted suffrage, they could bring about reform through their votes.

Frances Willard (1838 - 1898) was president of the national WCTU from 1879 until her death in 1898. She also helped to organize the Prohibition Party in 1882, and supported suffrage, women's rights, equal pay for equal work, and an eight-hour workday. She was one of America's most well-known women during the time American Woman was created.

Although this painting depicts Frances Willard in an unflattering light, she apparently cooperated with Henrietta Briggs-Wall on the portrait by providing several images of herself from which Briggs-Wall and the artist chose. The completion of the portrait was held up while Briggs-Wall tracked down photographic models for the portrayals of the four men. The convict was said to have been modeled after a real-life criminal. Briggs-Wall and Ford compiled several photographs for the mentally disabled man and the Indian, and the madman was drawn from memory.

American Woman and Her Political Peers was finished in time for Briggs-Wall to take the 58 inches by 48 inches painting at her own expense to the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. Crowds gathered around the portrait, and its subject matter created quite a stir in the media. The Alger County Republican in Michigan reported that American Woman would be to suffrage what Uncle Tom's Cabin was to abolition. Briggs-Wall stayed with the picture almost constantly to lobby for the woman's suffrage cause. Photographic postcards of the picture were available for purchase during and after the fair and were internationally distributed.

Briggs-Wall said of American Woman in 1894:

"It strikes the women every time. They do not realize that we are classed with idiots, criminals, and the insane as they do when they see that picture. Shocking? Well, it takes a shock to arouse some people to a sense of injustice and degradation."

The state of Kansas granted women the right to vote in school elections in 1861 and in municipal elections in 1887. Susanna Salter of Argonia was elected the United States' first woman mayor. In 1912, a woman suffrage amendment was added to the state constitution, a full eight years before the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution granted the same right to women nationwide.

American Woman and Her Political Peers was exhibited at several other local and national fairs and expositions before it was donated to the Kansas Historical Society by Henrietta Briggs-Wall around 1918. It may be seen in the main gallery of the Kansas Museum of History.

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Entry: Cool Things - American Woman and Her Political Peers Painting

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: November 1999

Date Modified: December 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.