by Jeanne Gehret

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Woman in high-necked dress with long curls
Clarina Nichols was an early suffragist

Clarina Nichols was a woman alone for most of her life. And some of the time she was married, she was miserable.

Like D.R. Anthony, Nichols emigrated to Kansas in 1854 with one of the earliest parties of the Emigrant Aid Company. By the time she set foot in Kansas, D.R. had returned east to save money for permanent relocation.

Both made the journey in response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. That law decreed that citizens of the new territory should determine whether Kansas entered the Union as a slave state or free state. At the time, Kansas was then a rough frontier territory. In one letter Clarina Nichols described ten thousand rowdy pro-slavery Missourians storming the state polling place and preventing antislavery voters from casting their ballots.

Clarina Nichols Career as Writer and Reformer

Nichols wrote many letters to eastern newspapers. In them, she cheerfully described the austere conditions in Kansas and noted that many male emigrants abandoned Kansas because they could not farm and manage a household at the same time. She, however, had to do just that. Shortly after moving to a remote, pro-slavery area outside of Lawrence, her husband and adult sons died leaving her among political enemies and needing to homestead by herself.

Not only did she want to fight slavery in the territory, but aimed to convince midwestern states to have a more open mind on women’s rights. To that end, she addressed numerous legislatures in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Kansas, declaring that women should either be allowed to vote or excused from taxation. She was responsible for gaining women the right to vote in the school elections of Kansas in 1860 and many other gradual victories. Always, her ultimate goal was for woman suffrage.

Wisdom Born of Pain

Much of Clarina’s devotion to righting the wrongs of married women came from her three marriages, especially the first to fellow Vermonter Justin Carpenter. Moving around New York State, Carpenter depleted his wife’s dowry, had an irascible and erratic temper, and tried to kidnap the children. Nichols’ family prevailed upon state legislators to modify divorce laws and, in the late 1830s, she could legally leave Carpenter behind. Nevertheless, she suffered psychologically and financially. During those painful years, she began her long career of newspaper correspondence and publishing. Early on, she created a humorous pseudonym Deborah Van Winkle, an outspoken Yankee who spoke of “wimins wrongs.”

For information about this foremother I am indebted to Kansas Historical Quarterly and American National Biography.

Photo courtesy of  Kansapedia.

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