By Gabrielle Young, undergraduate, University of Iowa
Although her personal life remains a mystery, it is certain that Florence Harsh was a dedicated suffragist who worked diligently to spread information about women’s right to vote and to advocate for the 19th Amendment.
Florence Harsh started her suffrage career as a member of the Business Women’s Equal Suffrage League of Des Moines. By 1913, the thirty-six-year-old Harsh was president of that group, which was “composed entirely of energetic young business women of the city.” As president, she gave addresses to other groups on behalf of woman suffrage, and she participated on committees that disseminated information to the general public about the importance of the women’s vote. According to the Des Moines Daily News, she was on a committee that distributed fifty thousand suffrage flyers at the Iowa state fair that year. Another committee on which Harsh served scrubbed the old suffrage pavilion for re-use after the State Fair Board denied suffragists space in the new Woman’s Building—a building that the suffragists accordingly charged had been “built by men to suit the whims of men and [to] be run by men.” Harsh’s work as president of the Business Women’s Equal Suffrage League signified her dedication and determination to ensure that women’s suffrage became a reality.
By 1916, Harsh also held the position of chairman of the Polk County Campaign Committee of the Iowa Equal Suffrage Association. According to the Des Moines Daily News, she took a lead role in encouraging at least fifty women who had moved from equal suffrage states to Iowa to register to vote in the 1916 presidential election. The leadership roles she had held up to this point probably helped her when in 1917 she became the chairman for Iowa of the National Woman’s Party’s National Committee of State Chairmen. In that capacity, representing 156 members from Iowa, Harsh attended the NWP’s March 1917 annual convention; it appears that her sister Marion Harsh was another of Iowa’s three delegates. In April 1917, Florence Harsh participated in the picketing of the White House, which was intended to pressure President Woodrow Wilson to take action in support of woman suffrage. In November Harsh was one of nine Des Moines “militant suffragists” who sent a telegram to President Wilson asking why women were being arrested for participating in the “entirely legal” picketing of the White House. Throughout this period Harsh corresponded avidly with officials such as Iowa’s U.S. Senator Albert Cummins, a member of Iowa Republican’s progressive wing and a supporter of women’s suffrage, and with various national officers of the National Woman’s Party. Back in Iowa she continued making regular addresses on woman suffrage at least through 1919.
Little is known about Harsh’s personal life except that she remained single at least until 1930, when the census indicated she lived with her mother Mary J. Harsh, age 92, originally of Pennsylvania. But in Iowa and around the nation, dedicated suffragists like Florence Harsh spent years fighting to make women’s right to vote a reality.
Des Moines Daily News, May 14, 1913. Harsh worked as the personal secretary to F. M. Hubbell, whose ventures in real estate, transportation, and finance had made him one of the wealthiest people in Des Moines (http://www.anb.org/articles/10/10-02289.html) . In 1917, the NWP newsletter listed Harsh’s address as the Hubbell Building, Des Moines; see also Des Moines Daily News, June 10 1919.
Des Moines Daily News, August 7, 8, 1914, November 3 1916.
National Woman’s Party Papers, Part II: Suffrage Years, Section B, 1916 -1917, pp. 44-45 and Section C, 1917-1940, p. 27.
Des Moines Daily News, April 3, 1917, November 6 1917, June 1 1919.
1930 U.S. census, via ancestry.com.
Note to future researchers: It is possible that further information on Florence Harsh exists in Special Collections at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines (this author did not have access to that collection). Request a pdf copy of the REGISTER OF THE IOWA WOMEN'S SUFFRAGE COLLECTION RECORDS, 1866-1951, Collection Number MS71.