Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Mary Allen Wright, 1868-1948
By DiSeanna Kilgore
Undergraduate student, Idaho State University
Mary Allen Wright was born in Polk, Nodaway County, Missouri, on December 3, 1868. She was born to the minister of the United Brethren Church, and farmer, Reverend J.C. Allen and his wife Mary Best, as the second of six children. Her family lived across from her grandparent's farm. She went to school at local public schools, and then she continued her education at Maryville's State Normal School, a school for teachers in training. She then began a career in teaching that she would continue on and off throughout her lifetime.
The year after her mother died in 1886, Mary Allen, at the age of 19, married George G. Wright. The couple moved to Rockford, Washington, and in 1889 their first child was born. The year after in 1890, the small family moved to Rathdrum, Kootenai County, Idaho. Their first child died in 1891, and after this, their second child was born. Only one of Mary Allen Wright's three children survived beyond the age of two. His name was Otis A. Wright.
It is believed that the frontier west was an environment that promoted liberty and innovative thought and action. The woman suffrage movement benefited from this open atmosphere. The Wyoming Territory, Utah, and Colorado all preceded Idaho in granting woman suffrage. Idaho then followed in 1896. As she travelled west, Mary Allen Wright continued to teach school, and she became active in woman suffrage and the populist movement. Populism was the program, and movement, that supported the common and average person in contrast with an elite party or individual.
Women participated in many protest movements, including the Populist Party, the Farmer's Alliance, the Grange, the Socialist Party, and the Farm Union. The Populist Party supported women in many different roles and positions. They were welcomed as full members, and they participated as organizers and theorists, and delegates and public officeholders. The Populist Party, and many of the other groups, worked together toward common goals and moral ideals.
In 1898, Mary Allen Wright was first nominated for State School Superintendent of Public Instruction by the Populist Party, a position which she declined. Later in the year, she was again nominated, and then elected, to the Idaho House of Representatives. This made her the first woman in Idaho to hold an elected office. She was a huge success for her party. She served as the Chair of the Populist Caucus in the fifth session of the Idaho House of Representatives, making her the first woman in the United States to lead a party in state legislature.
She was elected Speaker of the House, and later in 1901, Clerk of the House. Wright also attended the national convention of the Populist Party in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, as a delegate from Idaho. In the late spring of 1901, Mary Allen Wright served as Secretary of the Idaho Pan American Exposition Committee, and after, she worked for Thomas L. Glenn, a Populist member of the U.S. Congress, until she sued him for unpaid wages. Again in 1902 she declined her nomination for State School Superintendent of Public Instruction. Mary Allen Wright worked professionally in politics until the Populist Party no longer existed.
In 1904 Mary Allen Wright divorced her husband, after 17 years of marriage, for desertion. Her claim was uncontested. Following her time in Idaho legislature, Mary Allen Wright went back to teaching, and even studied law though she didn't practice. In Bonners Ferry, Idaho, she operated Wright's Loan and Investment Company. Mary Allen Wright died in Bonners Ferry, Boundary County, Idaho on March 31, 1948. She was survived by her son, Otis A. Wright, and her granddaughters, Barbara Wright and Elaine Wright, who were living in Hayden Lake, Kootenai County, Idaho. Mary Allen Wright's third surviving grandchild, Otis A. Wright Jr. and his children lived in Los Angeles, California at the time of her death.
Mary Allen Wright was a pioneer for women, not just in Idaho, but throughout the United States. She made an effort to extend her education, both as a teacher, and in law. She joined the Populist Party and was active in the woman suffrage movement, both of which supported her through elected office, and when in office, she was said to have "ruled with a firm but impartial hand." Her example and innovation, in conjunction with the many other amazing women's contributions across the country, led the nation in another step toward the equality it stands for.
"Chapter XXXVI: Idaho." History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 4: 1883-1900, edited by Susan B. Anthony and Ida Husted Harper, p. 594. Rochester, NY: Privately published, 1902.
Jameson, Elizabeth. "Women as Workers, Women as Civilizers: True Womanhood in the American West." Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 7, no. 3. (1984): 1-8.
"Mary A. Wright." Idaho State Historical Society Reference Series. Number 1053. https://history.idaho.gov/sites/default/files/uploads/reference-series/1053.pdf.
Weatherford, Doris. Women in American Politics: History and Milestones. Los Angeles: CQ Press, 2012.
"Women Wielding Power: Pioneer State Legislators in Idaho." The National Women's History Museum. https://www.nwhm.org/online-exhibits/legislators/Idaho.html