Without women, the Davenport Public Library would not be here today, and this space would be taken up with a lament on the city’s shocking illiteracy rates.
Sure, Andrew Carnegie was the one who challenged Davenporters to vote for a tax-supported library, promising to make a sizeable donation towards the building. But it was Alice French, that literary grand dame, who reminded her good friend Andrew that he’d been an honorary member of the Davenport Library Association for years.
We won’t even mention that without the generosity of Mrs. Clarissa Cook, the Cook Memorial Library–the subscription precursor to our present system–wouldn’t have made the Davenport Library Association necessary in the first place.
But Mrs. Cook had, and the Association was, and Mr. Carnegie did. Which brings us to April 1900—and the first Davenport election in which women were allowed to vote.
A little background history first: although the first suffrage meeting in Iowa took place in 1861 (in Dubuque), Iowa women had to wait almost sixty years before the US Congress settled the issue nationwide by passing the Nineteenth Amendment. Naturally, this being Iowa, the controversy about granting women the vote became tangled up with the issue of alcohol. Prohibition has historically been a controversial issue in our fair state, and it was widely assumed that if women could vote, they would side with their sisters in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
So, if you wanted a dry Iowa, you were all for women’s voting rights. If, however, you owned a tavern or a brewery (and so many did at that time), you naturally believed that women had better things to do with their time than worry about public matters. It didn’t help that the Iowa legislature only voted every two years, so even non-controversial issues (whatever those might be) tended to crawl towards ratification at a snail’s pace.
Regardless, in 1894, Iowa women were granted the right to vote—but only on specific issues, and never (heaven forfend!) for actual candidates for public office.
Davenport women had to wait six more years for an issue, but in April of 1900, they were finally able to vote for (or against) a tax-supported public library.
According to the Daily Times for April 7, 1900:
“Women are voting on the library today. There are no inconsiderable number taking advantage of the opportunity of should that they are for the betterment of the city by providing a public library . . .The Republican central committee was asked to send a carriage to Moline to get a Davenport lady who is visiting there and to bring her home so that she could vote for the library proposition. Captain Lou Bryson balked. No carriage was sent after the valuable vote”
Luckily, the library managed to squeak through without that one missing vote. Of the 3,827 Davenporters who voted on the issue, 2,570 wanted the library. We can’t confirm it, but we’re pretty sure the other 1,257 repented in 1904, when the Davenport Public Library opened the doors of its beautiful Carnegie building.
To be fair, we don’t have a gender breakdown of the vote. Perhaps some of the dissenters were women. If so, maybe they thought they were voting for prohibition, instead of progress?
The old Carnegie building of the
Davenport Public Library, 1954