Biographical Sketch of Margaret Murphy Cunningham

Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Margaret Murphy (Mrs. George E.) Cunningham, 1867- 1924.

By Megan Byrnes, museum educator, American Association for State and Local History, Women's History Affinity Group, Bentonville, Arkansas.

Division (State) Treasurer (1912-1914) and Division Recording Secretary (1919), United Daughters of the Confederacy; Treasurer of the Political Equality League (1913-1914); Secretary of Arkansas Child Labor Association (1914); Recording Secretary, Arkansas Woman's Suffrage Association (1914-1916); Honorary Chairman of the State Division of the Women's Committee of the Council of National Defense (1918)

Margaret Murphy Cunningham (also spelled Cuningham) was born in 1867 in Arkansas to Nicholas Murphy, an Irish plasterer, and Catherine Drew Murphy, a native of Arkansas. Murphy was a schoolteacher prior to her 1903 marriage to George E. Cunningham, a local business owner, and was active in the women's suffrage movement since the 1880s. Both she and her husband were civically minded and involved in many community causes and organizations from the mid-1900s through the early 1920s. They had no children. In 1920, poor health caused Cunningham to largely withdraw from public life, and she died on July 1, 1924.

Cunningham was an early and active participant in women's suffrage efforts in Arkansas. Inspired by the efforts of Kate Cunningham (a non-relation) who edited the Woman's Chronicle, the first state paper that focused on women's interests in the South, Cunningham became a supporter of women's suffrage in the 1880s. From 1913-1914, she served treasurer of the Political Equality League in Little Rock and was selected by Arkansas Governor George W. Stead to be his official representative at the November 1913 National Governor's Conference to discuss women's suffrage with delegates. At this meeting, Cunningham and other suffragists advocated for the creation of a Southern States' Women's Suffrage Conference to organize and coordinate suffrage efforts in the South.

Cunningham was also the first speaker at the inaugural National Suffrage Day celebration held in Little Rock, Arkansas on May 2, 1914, delivering a five-minute talk on the Statehouse steps entitled “Justice to Women.” According to the Daily Arkansas Gazette, “Mrs. Cunningham embodied the type of womanly woman in her presentation” and the event was an overall success, with hundreds of men and women participating and wearing yellow suffrage pennants.

In October 1914, Cunningham was involved in the creation of the statewide Arkansas Woman's Suffrage Association and became its first recording secretary. She hosted several suffrage events at her Little Rock home, including political science study classes designed to educate women about how to effectively advocate for women's suffrage legislation at the state level. She also attended the 1914 Republican State convention as part of a delegation to successfully lobby for the inclusion of a women's suffrage plank in the party platform. In 1916, she used her connections and wealth to help sponsor suffrage events like Carrie Chapman Catt's Arkansas visit and lecture.

Cunningham asserted in her 1915 speech, “Why I am a Suffragist,” that men were not indifferent to the women's suffrage cause or other socially progressive reforms; rather, they were too busy with work to act. Therefore, women had to become enfranchised and civically engaged to make these reforms a reality. Cunningham adhered to this philosophy in her own life by participating in a variety of clubs and organizations, in addition to her suffrage work. She coordinated petition drives to protect the rights of children as the secretary of the Arkansas Child Labor Committee in 1914 (even when women themselves were not permitted to sign petitions), and was heavily involved in the United Daughters of the Confederacy, serving first as the state secretary, then treasurer, in the 1910s. Later, she contributed to the war effort as the honorary chairman of the State Division of the Women's Committee of the Council of National Defense in 1918.

Women like Margaret Murphy Cunningham were central to securing the passage of the state primary law in 1917, making Arkansas the first non-suffrage state to allow women to vote in state primaries. Cunningham largely retired from public life because of poor health shortly after Arkansas became the twelfth state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment in July 29, 1919. A November 16, 1920 Washington Post article reported that Cunningham was on the verge of becoming the second vice president-general on the national board of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, but that she had to resign her position due to illness. Scant mention is made of her in local papers after 1920, except in connection with other family members. Cunningham died on July 1, 1924 in Little Rock, Arkansas and was survived by her husband until his death in 1928.

Sources:

“Call to Protect Arkansas Children,” Daily Arkansas Gazette, April 12, 1914, 34.

“Celebrate on Suffrage Day,” Daily Arkansas Gazette, May 10, 1914, 17.

Center for Arkansas History and Culture: Arkansas Women's Suffrage Centennial, “Timeline,” accessible at https://ualrexhibits.org/suffrage/timeline/.

“Photograph of Cuningham headstone,” Ancestry.com, Public Member Scanned Photographs and Documents. https://www.ancestry.com/mediaui-viewer/tree/106742025/person/210052640433/media/9dd4a10c-81dd-4c29-8932-3cc345743b41. Shared by Janine Johnson on December 26, 2016.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan Brownell Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Ida Husted Harper, eds. History of Woman Suffrage: 1900-1920. Vol. 6, Chapter 3. 1922.

“Governor's Representative,” Daily Arkansas Gazette, November 9, 1913, 12.

“Kinney and Myers G.O.P. Nominees,” Daily Arkansas Gazette, July 15, 1914, 1, 5.

“Margaret Cunningham,” 1910 Federal Census, Ancestry.com, https://search.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?indiv=1&dbid=7884&h=185539583&tid=&pid=&usePUB=true&_phsrc=tgf339&_phstart=successSource. Accessed November 3, 2017.

“Margaret M. Cunningham's 1919 Passport Application,” Ancestry.com, U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925. https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/1174/USM1490_992-0787/917900?backurl=https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/person/tree/106742025/person/210052640481/facts/citation/720198322504/edit/record

“Margaret Murphy,” 1900 Federal Census, >Ancestry.com, https://search.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?indiv=1&dbid=7602&h=35812083&tid=&pid=&usePUB=true&_phsrc=tgf334&_phstart=successSource. Accessed November 3, 2017.

“Men Not Indifferent, Just Too Busy to Act,” Daily Arkansas Gazette, March 21, 1915, 9.

“Newly Elected Officers of Arkansas Suffragists,” Arkansas Democrat, October 15, 1914, 1.

“Officers and Delegates Arriving,” Asheville Citizen-Times, November 7, 1920, 13.

“Postpone Debate,” Daily Arkansas Gazette, August 10, 1914, 5.

“Reorganize Pulaski County Defense Unit,” Daily Arkansas Gazette, March 10, 1918, 34.

“Suffrage Day is Celebrated Here,” Daily Arkansas Gazette, May 3, 1914, 1.

“To Join Federation,” Daily Arkansas Gazette, November 22, 1913, 11.

“U.D.C. Fills All Posts,” Washington Post, November 16, 1920, 9.

“Woman Suffrage Leaders Coming,” Daily Arkansas Gazette, March 29, 1916, 9.

“Women Perfect State Organization,” Arkansas Democrat, October 14, 1914, 5.

“100 at Tea Shop of Suffragists,” Daily Arkansas Gazette, April 18, 1915, 28.

Photograph of newly elected officers of the Arkansas Women's Suffrage Association, Arkansas Democrat, October 15, 1914, 1. Margaret Murphy Cunningham is located in the top row, first person on the left.

 

Photograph of newly elected officers of the Arkansas Women's Suffrage Association, Arkansas Democrat, October 15, 1914, 1. Margaret Murphy Cunningham is located in the top row, first person on the left.

 

Photograph of Margaret Murphy Cunningham, accompanying the announcement of her selection as Second Vice President-General of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Asheville Citizen-Times, November 7, 1920, 13.

back to top