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Pima County women voting long before national suffragists

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The way we were

Pima County women voting long before national suffragists

  • This map appeared in the magazine Puck during the Empire State Campaign, a hard-fought referendum on a suffrage amendment to the New York State constitution — the referendum failed in 1915
    This map appeared in the magazine Puck during the Empire State Campaign, a hard-fought referendum on a suffrage amendment to the New York State constitution — the referendum failed in 1915

Every American knows that the right of women to vote was recognized nationally with the 19th Amendment in 1920. Some folks will point out that in many western states this happened sooner. In Arizona, for instance, women's suffrage was enshrined in the state Constitution via an initiative passed by voters in 1912. What is less known is that women in Pima County were exercising their right to the franchise as early as 1884.

Western states and territories tended to be more open to the idea of women's suffrage, something that historians attribute to the dynamic nature of politics on the frontier, in which one faction or another was constantly vying to win over new constituencies. Perhaps most important, however, was a legal tradition that recognized the right of women to inherit and own property, a legacy of Spanish colonial rule. This meant that western women were often taxpayers.

Voting list

The first serious effort in Arizona to recognize women's voting rights came during the Twelfth Territorial Legislature of 1883. A bill to allow women to vote in territorial elections failed in committee, but a comprehensive bill establishing a territory-wide system of public schools provided that "no person shall be denied the right to vote at any school board election, or to hold any school district office, on account of sex."

The first election in Pima County under the new law came at an interesting time for District No. 1 in Tucson. Criticism of the school board's handling of a contract for the construction of a new school drew the attention of a territorial grand jury, who came back with criticism of cost overruns and characterized the building as a "death-trap." For their part, the board incumbents dismissed these attacks as having been based on rumor, the term "fake news" having not yet been coined.

A "Citizens and Taxpayers Committee" organized in Tucson in July 1884 to take action against both the school board and the County Board of Supervisors, whom they saw as complicit in the scandal. Eventually, the committee would assert itself at the county and territorial levels by pushing a reform agenda at the upcoming Democratic convention, but for now, they would nominate a slate of candidates for the school board elections scheduled for August 2. Among the nominees was Maria Fish.

Mrs. Fish, then Maria Wakefield, had arrived in Tucson from California in 1873 at the invitation of Governor A.P.K. Safford to run Arizona's first public school. She married E.N. Fish, one of Tucson's most prominent merchants a few months later. In addition to serving as a schoolteacher, she was active in local suffrage and temperance movements.

The novelty of women at the polls was noted by the local press. The Tucson Citizen, noting the "unusually large" turnout, printed a list of the 100 enthusiastic women who voted that day, most of whom, like "Mrs. E.N. Fish," were identified by their husband's names. Clearly, there was still much work to be done in this regard. The Citizen also reported that "perhaps thirty-five or forty" women were turned away from the polls on account of being underage.

Ultimately, only one of the "Taxpayers Ticket" was elected, though the board incumbents were turned out of office. Fish came out last in a field of six named candidates. Perhaps Pima County was not quite yet ready for the idea of women in office, but the fact that Fish was taken seriously as a candidate was an important milestone.

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