The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Coggeshall, Mary Jane Whitely
(January 17, 1836–December 22, 1911)

–"the Mother of Woman Suffrage in Iowa"—was born in Milton, Wayne County, Indiana. Her father, Isaac Whitely, was a farmer and kept a station on the Underground Railroad. Her mother, Lydia (Gunderson) Whitely, contributed to the family's finances by taking on sewing jobs for neighbors. Mary Jane Whitely was raised as a Quaker. She attended public schools in Milton, teaching after completing her own studies.

    In 1857 Mary Jane Whitely married John Milton Coggeshall (1829-1889). After their marriage, the couple moved to Indianapolis, where their first child was born and died unnamed. The Coggeshalls had two more children in Indiana, Clair (b. 1862) and Anna

   Mary Coggeshall had been a dedicated women's rights advocate since girlhood, when she was influenced by the writings of Hannah Tracy Cutler and Frances Dana Gage in the Ohio Contender. After moving to Iowa, Coggeshall became a charter member of the Polk County Woman Suffrage Society in 1870. She served as secretary during the early years of the organization. On its 25th anniversary, Coggeshall remarked, "Twenty-five years has but deepened our conviction that the reform is the need of the age.... We only hope that the next generation of women may find their work made easier because we have trodden the path before them."

    Coggeshall served as president of the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association in 1890, 1891, and from 1903 to 1905. She served as honorary president of the organization from 1905 to 1911, and, as such, she marched behind the brass band at the head of the suffrage parade in Boone, Iowa, in 1908 (the third suffrage parade known to have taken place in the United States). Coggeshall also served as editor of the association's monthly newspaper, the Woman's Standard, from 1886 to 1888, and continued to contribute articles long after her initial tenure as editor ended. (She once again served as editor in 1911.) She also served as president of the Des Moines Equal Suffrage Club in 1898.

    Coggeshall was also active on the national level of the woman suffrage movement. She wrote articles for several national newspapers, and in 1895 she was elected to the board of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the first woman from west of the Mississippi River to be awarded such an honor.

    In 1908, at the age of 72, Coggeshall initiated a lawsuit after Des Moines women were denied ballots during a city bond election, a form of election in which it became legal for women to vote by state law in 1894. The Iowa Supreme Court held that the election was void because women, as a class, were barred from voting.

    Coggeshall often acted as a spokesperson for woman suffrage, addressing the Iowa House, Iowa Senate committees, and innumerable woman suffrage meetings, but her interests extended beyond woman suffrage. She sat on the board of directors for both the Home for the Aged and the Humane Society in Des Moines, and she was a member of the Professional Women's League, the Monday Club, the Chauncey Depew Club, and the Playground Association.

    Coggeshall died on December 22, 1911, from pneumonia. After her death, a proposal to build a monument to her on the state capitol grounds in Des Moines was quickly quashed by her family, who believed that she would not have approved. In her will, Coggeshall bequeathed $10,000 to the National American Woman Suffrage Association and $5,000 to the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association, which joined forces with the Men's League for Woman's Suffrage to form the Mary J. Coggeshall Memorial Fund, the sole purpose of which was to support the campaign for a suffrage amendment to the Iowa Constitution.

    In 1977 Coggeshall's name was placed among other "noted Des Moines residents" on a roadside marker erected by the State Historical Society of Iowa and the Iowa Department of Transportation. In 1990 she was inducted into the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame.

    During the last year of her life, when the Iowa legislature had once again rejected a woman suffrage amendment, Coggeshall commented, "Friends, it does test the mettle of women to walk steadily forward year after year and be misunderstood."Carrie Chapman Catt, who would lead the next generation of women's rights advocates, said in 1905, "When I get discouraged I think of Mrs. Coggeshall. She has been one of my strongest inspirations."Although Catt worked with national suffragists, such as Susan B. Anthony, she always cited the early Iowa suffragists as her mentors, and she dubbed Coggeshall "the Mother of Woman Suffrage in Iowa."
Sources The Mary Jane Whitely Coggeshall Papers are at the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Other sources include the Margaret Atherton Bonney Papers and the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame Records, both in the Iowa Women's Archives, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City; and Louise R. Noun, Strong-Minded Women: The Emergence of the Woman-Suffrage Movement in Iowa (1969). More information is in the Woman Suffrage Collection, State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines. The Woman's Standard is available on microfilm at numerous sites, including the State Historical Society of Iowa in Des Moines and Iowa City and the University of Iowa Libraries.
Contributor: Lisa Mott