Make room for Clara Irene Howard Nichols

Joseph Aistrup

By A Contributor

This Kansas Day, Jan. 29, will mark the end of our sesquicentennial year. To celebrate, Gov. Sam Brownback’s office has released a list of 12 notable events and developments that have shaped us.  

The list includes the development of overland trails in the 1820s, which facilitated the westward movement of pioneers; the Indian Removal Act of 1838, which forcibly moved Native American tribes from the east to Kansas; and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which turned the Kansas Territory into “bloody Kansas,” as abolitionists and pro-slavery forces battled for control.  

Brownback’s historians also listed several major economic developments, including the expansion of railroads, and the introduction wheat and cattle in the early years of statehood.  The emergence in the 1920s of the aviation industry in Wichita helped turn a cow town into urban area. Rural electrification (government did something right?) in the late 1930s brought modernity to rural areas. Also listed is the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, which for many rural areas of Kansas represents the starting point of a long-term trend toward depopulation.

Properly included in Brownback’s list are the impacts of Kansans on the reform movements of the late 1800s and early 1900s, including prohibition, populism and progressivism. Even though Kansas was not the center of the civil rights movement, Brown v Topeka Board of Education in 1954 is the hallmark case in the epic struggle against segregation and represents the modern beginning of the long, slow process of the United States providing equal rights to historically oppressed groups. Last but certainly not least is the inclusion of women’s rights in the 1859 Wyandotte Constitution, which became the Kansas Constitution upon admission to the Union in 1861.  

This list provides Kansans some food for thought because within each of these movements and events are individuals who stepped up to provide us with examples of true leadership: profiles of courage, to be sure.  

For example, take Clarina Irene Howard Nichols. She and her family were Vermont abolitionists who packed up their belongings in 1857 to settle in the Kansas Territory, a territory rife with violence. Moving here, she sought to assure that Kansas would be a “Free State.” Nichols and the many other abolitionists who settled the Kansas Territory were people of conviction. They matched words and principles with action.  

Nichols is important to Kansas history for another reason. In 1859, she was one of the few women allowed to participate, but not vote, in the drafting of the Wyandotte Constitution. She used an abolitionist’s emphasis on Christianity combined with a focus on motherhood to successfully promote women’s rights.  

As a consequence, the Wyandotte Constitution granted women the right to own property and a homestead exemption naming them as equal partners. Women also won the right to control their earnings, divorce men if they were abusive, child custody and the right to vote in local school board elections. The convention might have granted women the right to vote in all elections, but delegates feared that Congress would reject the constitution if it included this provision. Even so, the Wyandotte Constitution placed Kansas at the vanguard of the women’s rights movement in the 1860s.

In the lower chamber of the Kansas Capitol, the names of famous men associated with the founding of the state can be read above the windows of that renovated space. Perhaps we should make room for one more name: Clarina Irene Howard Nichols. She is a leader who is deserving of this honor and recognition. Happy Kansas Day!

Joseph A. Aistrup is a professor of political science at Kansas State University and the co-author of a book on Kansas politics

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