Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Rosa Jane McKay, 1881-1934

By Heidi Osselaer, PhD, historian (Arizona State University)

Labor Activist and Politician

Rosa McKay was a tireless champion of workers' rights. Born in Colorado, she married a miner when she was sixteen and moved to Arizona a few years later, where she worked as a hotel housekeeper in the copper mining town of Miami. She was left a widow in her twenties when her husband died of a pulmonary ailment related to his occupation. By the time she remarried in 1912, to Hugh McKay, she was the owner of a boardinghouse in the bustling mining community of Bisbee in Cochise County and a dedicated suffragist.

Arizona became a state that year and Arizona's male voters gave women the right to vote. When Congressional Union organizers Josephine Casey and Jane Pincus were sent by Alice Paul to Arizona in 1914 to champion a federal suffrage amendment, McKay embraced their movement, spoke at their meetings, and impressed them with her close association with leading politicians. She ran for the state legislature in 1916 as a Democrat, but was philosophically closer to the Socialists, and campaigned as an ardent advocate of workers at a time when labor reform dominated state politics. McKay was embraced by the electorate of Cochise County and took her activism to the state capitol in Phoenix. In the legislature she ushered through a bill that guaranteed a minimum wage for women. The house speaker had "declared the bill was slated for the waste basket," but McKay won over fellow members with her "thrilling bursts of oratory." The Woman Citizen called it, "The greatest victory ever won by women's votes."

Arizona voters remained supportive of labor reforms until the nation entered World War I in 1917. During the war striking copper workers were falsely denounced as anarchists whose unions had been infiltrated by German agents trying to undermine the war effort. In July of 1917, Representative McKay watched as over 1,200 deputies led by the Cochise County sheriff rounded up 2,000 striking workers in Bisbee, placed them on railroad cars, and abandoned them in the desert outside of Columbus, New Mexico, an event that has been called the largest mass kidnapping in U. S. history. When McKay heard that all women and children were ordered off the streets of Bisbee, she asserted, "There is not enough gun men in the United States to drive me off the streets today." On her way to the Western Union telegraph offices to notify President Woodrow Wilson of the Bisbee deportation, she confronted deputies, calling them "dirty curs," and insisting they "take their hands off the boys." They knocked her down, but eventually she sent a telegram asking for the "protection for the women and children of the Warren District," only to discover that a local citizens loyalty league had intercepted all messages leaving town. She traveled to New Mexico with others to take food, water, and clothing to the stranded deportees and came under attack by vigilantes upon her return to Arizona. She found life increasingly dangerous in Bisbee as her home came under surveillance, threats were made against her, and citizens launched an effort to remove her from office.

McKay and her husband fled to neighboring Gila County where she found the voters more sympathetic and won reelection to the legislature. In 1920 she and three female legislative co-sponsors introduced a resolution supporting the Susan B. Anthony amendment, which passed unanimously in both Arizona chambers.

After retiring from the legislature in 1924, she remained active in politics, serving on the state's labor advisory board and as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. When she died in 1934, former governor George Hunt and other prominent politicians served as honorary pall bearers and the Arizona flag was lowered to half-mast at the state capitol.

A photo of Rosa McKay can be found at:


1910 census for Rose Malcolm in Miami, Gila County, Arizona

Arizona Republic, March 23, 1934

Arizona Labor Journal, February 15, 1923

Bisbee Daily Review, October 19, 1912

Daily Arizona Silver Belt, March 12, 1924.

Meredith A. Snapp, "Defeat the Democrats: The Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage in Arizona, 1914, and 1916," MA thesis, Arizona State University, 1976.

Rosa McKay Legislative Biography File, Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records (ASLAPR), Phoenix

Josephine Casey to Alice Paul, October 14, 1914, National Woman's Party Records, Stanford University

Bisbee Deportation Hearings, 1917, ASLAPR

Colleen O'Neill, "A Community Divided: A Social History of Bisbee," MA thesis, New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, 1989

Arizona Women's Heritage Trail,

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