Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Matilda McFarland, 1852-1943

By Jay A. Williams, graduate student, and Dr. Liette Gidlow, associate professor of history, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI

Mother, Kansan, Suffragist

Matilda Steele was born on February 15, 1852 in Grandview, Illinois, just north of Springfield and approximately 200 miles southwest of Chicago. Matilda was the seventh of eight children born to Reverend John Armstrong Steele and Catherine Mary Steele, née Hampton. Reverend and Catherine Steele were born in Virginia and left the South due to their anti-slavery beliefs, landing first in Illinois around 1835. In 1860 the family settled in Topeka, Kansas where Revered Steele organized the first Presbyterian church in the city. Arriving in Topeka after the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Reverend Steele may have contributed to the growing call for Kansas to be settled as a free state. Kansas witnessed unprecedented violence as "Free Soilers" and pro-slavery factions clashed to determine the fate of slavery in the territory during a time known as "Bleeding Kansas." After years of bloodshed and fraudulent elections Kansas was finally admitted to the Union in 1861 as a free state, three months before the start of the Civil War.

Tragedy struck the Steele family soon after their arrival in Kansas when McFarland lost a brother to a drowning accident in June of 1860, when she was just eight years old. Her family was also affected by the Civil War because an uncle and brother fought in the conflict. Although her brother was wounded and survived, her uncle Captain Robert Hampton was killed in battle. Before the decade ended McFarland's father passed away in 1864 when she was eleven or twelve years old. McFarland's mother survived nearly twenty-five years after her father and passed away in March of 1890 in Biloxi, Mississippi.

Matilda was educated at the Presbyterian College of Oxford in Ohio as well as Glendale College where she received her diploma. In 1873 in Topeka she married James Davis McFarland, an attorney originally from Pennsylvania. During her marriage to J.D., as James Davis was commonly known, she gave birth to ten children, though one did not survive infancy. By 1900 their family settled into a home on Harrison Street in Topeka.

In late 1901 McFarland became a founding member of the Good Government Club. The club had been secretly meeting in various homes of members for a couple of months, only allowing prominent women married to influential men in the community to join. Originally called the Susan B. Anthony Club, they later changed their name because a member's husband had a disagreement with the prominent suffragist. In the beginning they excluded staunch Republicans and Populists to keep harmony. The club was reported to be "distinctly aristocratic." This was the first suffrage club in the community in six years after a prior suffrage measure failed to pass. When it was discovered, women who were not invited were angry and called the organization the "Kansas Equal Suffrage Corporation, Limited." This only created a wider rift between two competing suffrage movements in the community. Those not included in the club feared that the new organization "sought to concentrate the power of the suffragists in the hands of few Republican women of great social prominence." The hope of the rival organization was to utilize the political clout of the members and their husbands on the Kansas legislature to pass an equal suffrage measure. Prior to the organization being exposed, it was the plan of the women to, "descend upon the members of the legislature at its next session, and demand in the name of Republicanism that the long desired equal suffrage measure be passed."

Later, in November 1901, McFarland attended the convention of the Equal Suffrage Association in McPherson, Kansas and spoke at the event. Five years later, she was endorsed and confirmed as the chair of the nominating committee of the city federation. The club passed a unanimous resolution regarding child labor that was adopted and sent to the secretary of the Child Labor Association in New York.

Every January 29, prominent men in Kansas marked "Kansas Day" with banquets and "brilliant oratory." In 1904, McFarland suggested women should have their own Kansas Day event. At that time women were only admitted to galleries to observe the proceedings but were excluded from the political functions. The following year, in 1905, facilitated by the Good Governance Club, the first Women's Kansas Day Club was held in the upper corridor of the north wing of the State House, a place from which women were ordinarily excluded. Despite criticism, the Women's Kansas Day Club held a subsequent meeting in 1906, this time in the Senate Chamber. Those present agreed to a constitution for the club and declared that the purpose of the body was to establish "a broad acquaintance and comradeship among Kansas women, the development of patriotism, and the preservation of Kansas history." At this meeting, McFarland was elected president.

McFarland continued to expand her network of civic involvements. In November 1907, she was elected first vice-president of the Kansas Equal Suffrage Association. In June 1909, she became vice president of the Kansas Federation of Women's Clubs. In 1910 she worked as a precinct captain for the campaign to elect William Green mayor of Topeka. She also joined the Municipal League, which was considered "an especially strong and progressive woman's organization." She remained active throughout this time period in the Good Government Club, hosting many meetings in her own home.

As Kansas faced another referendum vote in 1912, McFarland intensified her suffrage activities. On November 4, just two days before the vote, McFarland and Lilla Day Monroe addressed members of the Lincoln Post No. 1 on the topic of "Equal Suffrage." Reportedly, the soldiers there gave the women "rousing cheers" and endorsed the amendment. The day before the vote McFarland participated in a suffragist's tea at the local YWCA. The women pulled their "polling forces together" and organized cars to shuttle people to the polls and created literature that was passed out at the polling stations. One of those pieces of literature was an article published by the women of the Good Governance Club outlining their reasons for wanting the ballot. "Those who obey laws should have something to say as to their making. Those who pay taxes to support government should be represented in the government. Those who have charge of the home and the children must be able to protect them. Kansas should have the opinions of all of its best registered without regard to sex." The following day Kansas voted and passed full suffrage for women.

After 1912, McFarland remained politically and socially active in Topeka. She continued her membership in the Good Government Club and several other political groups. In 1913, as a member of the Women's Kansas Day Club, she participated in the celebration of Kansas' fifty-second birthday anniversary by hosting out-of-town guests and wives of the attending legislature at the First Methodist church. A year later she attended the second annual meeting of the Kansas Council of Women, an association reserved for women who were present or past presidents of statewide organizations.

In April, 1916, even though Kansas had passed a suffrage amendment nearly three years earlier, the fight for a national amendment was still raging. NAWSA chief Carrie Chapman Catt came to Topeka to speak as a counter to O.H.P. Belmont in what was called "a revival of the old row among suffrage leaders and club women." Later that year McFarland gave a talk at the home of Mrs. F.W. Watson in Topeka for the Western Sorosis, a women's club organized in 1893 in order to "provide a source of constant inspiration for better living, for higher ideals of women, and for the active participation of women in the community."

As the United States entered the war in Europe McFarland continued her political activity through the Good Government club. After hearing Mrs. Effie Main speak out about the conscription law at a Good Government Club meeting, saying it was unjust and that the war was unpopular, McFarland scolded her and was quoted in the Topeka State Journal as saying, "This is a poor time to criticize our government. It is no time to give that kind of a speech, and I am very sorry that a member of this club would do it. I am a Republican and the president is a Democrat, but we should stand by him now that he is elected." McFarland also became the chairman of the "Trinket and Treasure" committee, which gathered up small valuables not in use to assist with the war effort.

McFarland's husband, J.D., died in 1918 due to heart trouble. A Topeka attorney, J.D. had was educated at Washington College in Pennsylvania and earned his law degree from Cincinnati Law School. The January after his death, he was memorialized in a service held by the Topeka Bar Association.

Mrs. McFarland remained active in the community following her husband's death. In 1920 she helped to host a reception for Mrs. Harding, the wife of Senator and future President Warren G. Harding. McFarland also continued to host luncheons and meetings and stayed in the societal spotlight for many years. At the age of 91, on August 31, 1943, Matilda McFarland passed away in Topeka.

A Photograph of Mrs. J.D. McFarland can be found in archives of The Topeka Daily Capital, July 26, 1908, p. 5.


"Death of Mrs. Catherine M. Steele." The Topeka Daily Capital, March 9, 1890, 3.

"Drowned." The Weekly Commonwealth, June 16, 1860, 5.

"Equal Suffragists." The Topeka State Journal, November 9, 1901, 6.

Hempstead, Bertha. "Woke Them Up!" The Topeka Daily State Journal, May 11, 1917, 9.

Hempstead, Bertha. "Society." The Topeka Daily State Journal, November 23, 1916, 7.

Hill McCarter, Margaret, "A Hundred Kansas Women." The Topeka Daily Capital, July 26, 1908, 5.

"In City Politics.", The Topeka State Journal, March 31, 1910, 1.

"In Society." The Topeka Daily Caller, November 5, 1912, 6.

"Jurist Is Dead." The Topeka State Journal, November 23, 1918, 1.

"M'Farland Memorial." The Topeka State Journal, January 18, 1919, 10.

"Mrs. James D. McFarland Dead." Topeka Daily Capital, September 1, 1943, 8.

"On New Basis." The Topeka State Journal, November 14, 1901, 4.

"Petition Congress." The Topeka State Journal, December 7, 1906, 6.

"Short Stories of Topeka Happening." The Topeka Daily Capital, November 4, 1912, 9.

"Society." The Topeka State Journal, January 18, 1913, 17.

"Society." The Topeka State Journal, January 31, 1914, 18.

"Society." The Topeka State Journal, September 22, 1917, 14.

"Suffrage Given A Good Majority." The Topeka Daily Capital, November 6, 1912, 1.

"Suffragists Thank the Daily Capital." The Topeka Daily Capital, October 28, 1912, 5,

"Topeka's Presidential Guest Today." The Topeka State Journal, March 8, 1920, 1.

United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Eighth Census of the United States, 1860, Population Schedule.

United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Twelfth Census of the United States, 1900, Population Schedule.

Harper, Ida Husted Harper, ed. The History of Women Suffrage, Volume VI (2009).

"Western Sorosis Records," Kansas Historical Society. Accessed March 18, 2019.

"Women's Clubs." The Topeka State Journal, June 5, 1909, 3.

"Women's Row Breaks Out In Topeka Again." The Topeka State Journal, April 6, 1916, 1-2.

back to top