Barnard, Kate (1875–1930)

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Barnard, Kate (1875–1930)

Political reformer and first woman voted into statewide elective office in the U.S. Born Catherine Ann Barnard in Geneva, Nebraska, on May 23, 1875; died in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on February 23, 1930; daughter of John (a lawyer and surveyor) and Rachel (Shiell) Barnard (who died in 1877); attended St. Joseph's Parochial School in Oklahoma City and Oklahoma City Business College; never married; no children.

Born on May 23, 1875, Kate Barnard would spend much of her life working for Oklahoma's poor and dispossessed, many of them children. Her own childhood was marked with difficulties. When she was only 18 months old, her mother Rachel died, and her father was forced to leave Kate with relatives off and on throughout her youth. At 16, she rejoined him to help homestead 160 acres of land in the newly opened Oklahoma Territory, only to be isolated for months at a time while he was away on surveying trips. A lonely teenager, she often dreamed of accomplishing some "bold and heroic" deed to win her father's love and approval.

In 1892, the two moved to Oklahoma City, where, after graduating from high school, Barnard taught for a few years in rural schools. Restless and disillusioned with teaching, she decided to train as a stenographer. A job as a clerk for the Democratic Party in the Oklahoma territorial legislature provided her first taste of politics and made her some valuable friends and contacts. In 1904, she was chosen to serve as secretary and hostess for the Oklahoma Territory's pavilion at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, held in St. Louis. In the slums of St. Louis, she witnessed the poverty that accompanied industrialization and urbanization, and vowed to help the less fortunate in Oklahoma avoid a similar fate. Returning home, she wrote a series of articles for the Daily Oklahoman, detailing the deplorable working conditions and child-labor abuses she had seen and warning Oklahoma City about its own developing slum districts. Her efforts yielded an outpouring of donations of clothing and food and resulted in her appointment as matron of the newly established Provident Association of Oklahoma City.

In that position, she directed relief to hundreds of poor families and saw to it that their children attended school. Realizing the limits of charity and the need for, in her own words, "justice and the chance to do an honest day's work for a fair wage," she organized Oklahoma City's unemployed into the Federal Labor Union and secured its association with the American Federation of Labor. In 1906, as part of the "Shawnee Convention" (a coalition of farm and labor representatives who met to devise a common platform for the upcoming state constitutional convention), she was instrumental in pushing through planks on compulsory education, child labor abolition, inspections of mines, and an eight-hour work day. The union leaders also wanted to include a suffrage plank, although state Democrats did not support it. For her part, Barnard had no interest in the suffrage issue, possibly because of her father's opposition to women securing the vote.

Barnard's vigorous campaigning helped elect a Democratic majority for the constitutional convention, which met in the fall of 1906. They not only adopted her planks unanimously but established the state Department of Charities and Corrections to oversee the state welfare programs. Barnard addressed the conference in a speech against child labor, among other things, that was later described as "one of the notable events of that historic body."

Leaving her post at the Provident Association, she ignored her father's disapproval of her growing political involvement and decided to run for commissioner of the newly formed charities and corrections department. She launched into another vigorous campaign, utilizing her great personal appeal and eloquent, impassioned speaking ability. One newspaper reporter would later declare, "this 'little ninety-six pound bunch of nerves' held more political power in the state of Oklahoma than any man in either party." She defeated her Republican opponent by over 35,000 votes, making her, at 32, the first woman ever elected to statewide post by an all-male electorate. Now, as the country swept into the Progressive Era, Kate Barnard was in a position to help Oklahoma lead the way.

For seven years, serving two terms, she was an active, successful reformer. Using what she termed a "Scientific Statecraft" approach, she brought to Oklahoma national experts on social welfare issues—child labor, juvenile delinquency, mental health, and prison reform—to speak to the public and the legislature, and even to help draft reform bills. With public and legislative sympathy aroused, Barnard then lent her voice to the battle for legislation. Under her method, child-labor laws and compulsory education were strengthened and progressive labor legislation was passed. She was also instrumental in improving care of mental patients, providing juvenile offenders a better chance for reform, and securing pension benefits for laborers' widows. In addition, she worked for homeless children and for safety laws and inspections in mines and factories.

In the summer of 1909, her unannounced inspection of the Kansas State Prison in Lansing, where Oklahoma convicts were housed on "contract" because their home state had no prison, turned up deplorable conditions and numerous cases of mistreatment. Prisoners were overworked and subjected to inhumane punishments. Barnard's scathing report, and the resulting uproar, inspired Oklahoma to build its own penitentiary, and the state of Kansas to make some needed prison reforms.

In 1911, during her second term, Barnard launched an investigation into widespread fraud in the state court-administered system of guardianship for orphaned Indian minors. Turning up one guardian who had over 50 children in his custody, though he didn't know where any of them were, Barnard uncovered a system which, under the Oklahoma probate court system, was overrun with graft and corruption. The minors were regularly cheated out of their inheritance of land, which was often rich in natural resources.

Knowing she could only do so much on her own, Barnard added attorney J.H. Stolper to her staff, and, within a year, they had recovered close to $1 million for 1,361 defrauded children. But her investigations often implicated the influential as well as the common crooks, and as the probes continued the politicians decided to stop Barnard by first going after Stolper. After forcing him out on a trumped-up charge of wrongdoing, they contrived a political blackmail scheme that ultimately resulted in Barnard losing her budget and staff. Exhausted and demoralized, she did not run for reelection in 1914.

Barnard raised her own money and borrowed from friends to continue battling Indian guardianship fraud by drawing national attention with articles in major city newspapers, including The New York Times. But her impassioned plea on the floor of the Oklahoma

Senate—the first by a woman—fell on deaf ears. After a letter to President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, asking him to help her cause by reinstating federal jurisdiction over the Indians, she disappeared from sight, finally giving in to what she regarded as "the hypocrisy, deceit, selfishness, and intrigue of modern politics." Her remaining years were spent battling depression, allergies, and a debilitating skin disease, probably psoriasis. She died of heart failure on February 23, 1930, three months short of her 55th birthday.

Although 1,400 gathered for her funeral, and all seven of Oklahoma's former governors served as honorary pallbearers, Kate Barnard was all but forgotten in Oklahoma. Two histories of the state failed to mention her name and her grave remained unmarked until 1982. At that time, a group dedicated a small stone which read, "Intrepid pioneer leader for social ethics in Oklahoma."


McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

Peavy, Linda, and Ursula Smith. Women Who Changed Things. NY: Scribner, 1983.

Truman, Margaret. Women of Courage. NY: William Morrow, 1976.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Barnard, Kate (1875–1930)

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