Dubbed by Carrie Chapman Catt as “The Mother of Woman Suffrage in Iowa” and “my greatest inspiration,” Mary Jane Coggeshall lived at the center of the Iowa suffrage movement for more than 40 years. Born in Indiana, she moved to Des Moines in early adulthood and lived there until her death at age 75. Coggeshall was a charter member of the Polk County Woman Suffrage Society and the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association (IWSA), where she served as president for multiple terms between 1890 and 1905, and honorary president from 1905 through 1911.
A noted writer and orator, Coggeshall was renowned for her wit and humor in addition to her ability to clearly define her cause. In 1895, she was elected to the board of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), the first ever from west of the Mississippi River and one of few Iowans to participate on a national level early in the movement. She marched in the Boone, Iowa, parade in 1908, gave speeches at NAWSA conventions in 1904 and 1907, and was the first editor of Iowa’s primary suffrage newspaper, the IWSA’s Woman Standard.
Speaking at a memorial service tribute for Susan B. Anthony in 1906, she concluded with a quote, “She came into the world crying while all about her laughed. She left the world smiling while all about her wept.” Sadly, like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she would not live to see her decades of work come to fruition, but the mark she left on the suffrage movement in Iowa and the nation is indelible and widely recognized by her peers and by history.
Her contributions have been recognized posthumously by:
The Mary J. Coggeshall Memorial Fund, a joint effort of the IWSA and the Men’s League for Woman’s Suffrage, dedicated to supporting efforts to pass a suffrage amendment to the Iowa Constitution
Induction into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame, in 1990
A roadside marker honoring notable people from Des Moines, including Coggeshall, by the State Historical Society of Iowa and the Iowa Department of Transportation, in 1977
A book on her life featuring her speeches and writings, by her great-grandnephew Jake N. Ferris, and a paper by her great- granddaughter Cynde Coggeshall Fanter
An archive of Coggeshall’s papers — mainly speeches and writings — held by the Schlesinger Library of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.
CYNDE COGGESHALL FANTER
Cynde Coggeshall Fanter holds the memory of her great-grandmother, Mary Jane Coggeshall, near and dear in her heart. She speaks with pride of Mary Jane’s 41 years of struggle for equal rights and the vote, and of her suffragist leadership in Iowa and the nation. She recalls that after Mary Jane’s family moved by covered wagon from Indiana to Iowa, Mary Jane eventually found her calling and her voice in Des Moines, where she was an inspiration to many through her writing and speaking. For personal inspiration, Cynde need look no further than her desk at home, where she keeps a framed letter from Mary Jane to a fellow suffragist. It shows Mary Jane’s enthusiasm as well as her wit and humor. Whenever Cynde feels low or overwhelmed, she can turn to her great grandmother’s letter to boost her spirits and remind her to keep moving forward.