By Fallon M. Moursund, independent historian
Iris Calderhead was a national organizer, Vice-Chairman of Demonstrations, State Press Chairman (Colorado), Equality Reservation Campaign Chairman, and speaker and lobbyist for the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CU) (later the National Woman’s Party or NWP). She was born in 1889, the daughter of Republican Congressman William A. Calderhead of Kansas (1895-1897; 1899-1911).
Calderhead obtained her bachelor’s degree in 1909 from the University of Kansas, and attended Bryn Mawr College and the University of Chicago before settling on a career as a high school English teacher. She joined the Congressional Union in the summer of 1915 after serendipitously wandering into the headquarters of the New York branch of the Congressional Union while on a short vacation in New York City. After speaking with organizer Doris Stevens for 20 minutes, Calderhead’s conversion “was sudden and thorough” (The Suffragist, Vol. 3(29), 1915), and she agreed on the spot to travel to San Francisco to work at the CU’s suffrage exhibit booth at the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition.
During the summer of 1915, Calderhead was one of the 50 women who took part in the first deputation to a Cabinet official, Secretary of Labor W. B. Wilson, to ask him to use his influence to advance the passage of the Susan B. Anthony Suffrage Amendment in the next Congress. Later that summer, carrying a purple, white and gold flag, Calderhead marched at the head of a solemn procession of nearly 500 enfranchised Californian women to the San Francisco offices of Senator James Phelan to ask for his support for the Anthony amendment. The press called this first suffrage procession ever held in the state “the most dramatic deputation of women voters… ever assembled in the country” (Trenton Evening Times, August 9, 1915). In response to questions about her work for the CU, Calderhead told a reporter at the time, “I came a long way to work for the Union because national suffrage seems to me the biggest political issue before the country. I think I ought to be able to persuade others to work for the Constitutional Amendment” (Topeka Daily State Journal, July 5, 1915).
Back home in Kansas in the fall of 1915, Calderhead soon resigned from her teaching post to begin what would be a three-year stint as a CU/NWP national organizer (1916-1918). In all, she organized in eight states: Kansas, Arizona, Oklahoma, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Ohio, and Colorado. A gifted speaker, Calderhead was also intrepid and indefatigable, qualities that made her an effective organizer, especially in climates of strong opposition. Among her tasks as organizer were galvanizing interest in the Susan B. Anthony Amendment and the CU/NWP, recruiting members, forming state committees, raising money, instigating press coverage, giving speeches at various meetings, conventions and clubs, chairing meetings, organizing speakers, spearheading letter- and telegraph-writing campaigns, and taking part in deputations. Following her organizing in Oklahoma in 1916, Calderhead told a Tulsa Daily World reporter:
“We women of the [enfranchised] West must try to put ourselves in the places of the women of the great industrial centers of the East. These are the women for whom we are making this fight for freedom. It is literally that – a fight for liberation. Penned by the thousands in gray mills and factories, forced to work for starvation wages, these women are powerless to enforce humane legislation for themselves and powerless to give the time for the battle for political equality. We have got to make this fight for them thru [sic] the national amendment. It is impossible to enfranchise the women of the interest-ridden East in any other way” (Tulsa Daily World, December 30, 1916).
In 1917, Calderhead became involved in White House picketing. On January 29, she had command of the Silent Sentinels at one of the White House gates where she kept her forces on duty from 10am to 6pm despite a cold, driving rain. While organizing in Pennsylvania in the spring of 1917, she was once again called back to Washington, DC and made Vice-Chairman of Demonstrations.
On June 28th of that same year, Calderhead was arrested along with colleague Elizabeth Stuyvesant at a hall in the Smithsonian Institution where President Wilson was to speak at the unveiling of the statue of Robert Emmet, the Irish rebel. The banner they intended to unfurl read: “MR. PRESIDENT: WHY BE A LIBERAL ABROAD AND A CONSERVATIVE AT HOME? WHY ADVOCATE FREEDOM FOR IRISH MEN AND DENY FREEDOM TO AMERICAN WOMEN? WHY LAUD PAST STRUGGLES FOR FREEDOM, AND SUPPRESS THE STRUGGLE FOR FREEDOM AT YOUR GATES?” The suffragists were detained on charges of attempting to unfurl a banner in a public building and were later released with no charges filed against them. As Calderhead later described it, laws were distorted and the charges were entirely fabricated, given that they were arrested just after they had taken their seats, before they had even unrolled the banner (The Suffragist, Vol. 5(76), 1917).
Barely one week later, on July 4th, 1917, Calderhead was once again arrested along with twelve other suffragist pickets after battling with police and an excited crowd at the White House gates. This was the most serious rioting that had yet attended the protesters. Charged with unlawful assembly and obstructing traffic, Calderhead refused bail and chose to serve three days in prison rather than pay the $25 fine. Upon her release from jail, she continued to picket the White House in July and August.
After passage of the 19th amendment, Calderhead worked for equal rights issues in the US and abroad. In 1932, she partnered with Elsie Hill, taking charge of the Equal Rights Reservation to the World Court campaign, based at the Alva Belmont House at 144 Constitution Avenue, NE in Washington, DC. This campaign sought to place a reservation to the United States’ entrance to the Permanent Court of International Justice (or World Court) by stipulating that should the US become a member, it do so only with the proviso that the laws to be administered by the Court contain no inequalities based on sex. Named Equality Reservation Campaign Chairman, Calderhead oversaw lobbying efforts that called on senators, representatives and candidates to secure their pledges in support of the principle of equality, nationally and internationally. She testified in Equality Reservation hearings that took place before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as well as at the Maryland General Assembly. At the same time, Calderhead worked to challenge the proposed legislation to drop married women from government service, sending an appeal to President Hoover. In 1933, alongside Alice Paul, Florence Bayard Hilles, Laura Berrien, Burnita Shelton Matthews, and Elsie Hill, Calderhead worked to prepare and pass a Nationality Bill, giving American mothers the right to pass on their nationality to their foreign-born children.
Calderhead was married to John Brisben Walker, an entrepreneur and one-time newspaper and magazine publisher, writer and editor, and later to Wallace E. Pratt, considered by many to be one of world's foremost exploration geologists and a former VP, director and member of the executive committee of Standard Oil. She passed away in 1966 at the age of 77.
The Suffragist, Vol. 3(29), 1915.
The Suffragist, Vol. 5(76), 1917.
Trenton Evening Times, August 9, 1915.
Topeka Daily State Journal, July 5, 1915.
Tulsa Daily World, December 30, 1916.