Hard One, Not Done


A commemoration of the 100-Year Anniversary of the Ratification of the 19th Amendment from an Iowa Perspective

Charlotta Gordon Pyles

The women’s suffrage movement grew out of the abolitionist movement. Many prominent abolitionists like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass, also worked for women’s suffrage. Charlotta Gordon Pyles was one of those abolitionists who ultimately settled in Keokuk, Iowa.

Ms. Pyles was born into slavery in the late 1700s in Kentucky. In the 1850s, Ms. Pyles and her family were freed after their plantation owner died. Tragically, one of her twelve children, a son, was kidnapped by the sons of the deceased plantation owner before the family could complete their journey North. She also had two sons-in-law who remained enslaved.


April 28, 1790 - January 19, 1880

Ms. Pyles and her family were enroute to Minnesota from Kentucky when a harsh winter prevented them from completing their journey. They stopped in Keokuk, Iowa, where the family settled permanently.

Once in Keokuk, Ms. Pyles and her husband, Harry, were able to legally marry on April 2, 1857. She was also able to work and save enough money to purchase the freedom of her two sons-in-law.

To achieve this, Ms. Pyles spoke in cities across the Eastern part of the United States. It is during this speaking tour and because of her advocacy that Ms. Pyles reportedly met prominent abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony, a leading women’s suffrage leader. In just six months, Ms. Pyles was able to raise $3,000 to free her sons-in-law and bring them to Iowa to help support the family. Ms. Pyles’ son remained enslaved and the family lost contact with him.

One of her children, Charlotta Smith, was an advocate as well. Ms. Smith enrolled her son in school after winning a case in the Iowa Supreme Court to desegregate the schools.

Author: Allyn Benkowich, Office on the Status of Women

Photo credit: Mississippi Valley Traveler





Charlotta Gordon Pyles