Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Gertrude Watkins, 1884-1938
By Kendra Brewer, student & Molly P. Rozum, Associate Professor, University of South Dakota
For a second sketch of Watkins focusing on her Arkansas activism, click here.
National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) organizer and Little Rock, Arkansas native, Gertrude Watkins helped prepare an "important territory" for South Dakota's successful sixth 1918 woman suffrage campaign. In the crucial weeks before the November vote, Watkins's "mischief," as South Dakota Universal Franchise League (SDUFL) president Mamie Pyle called it, however, hurt the critical "final windup of the last days of the campaign," especially fundraising for the badly indebted state organization.
Gertrude Watkins was born in Little Rock on August 31, 1884 to Claiborne and Mildred Watkins. She identified herself on the 1920 census as an "organizer" in the industry of "suffrage work," but by 1930 she lived with fellow suffragist Liba Peshakova in a Sheridan Square apartment in New York City; by then Watkins worked as a clerk for a department store.
Watkins had her start in suffrage advocacy as a member of the Arkansas Political Equality League, of which she became first vice-president and later, president. She completed her training in suffrage tactics working for the New York Woman Suffrage Party in the 1915 campaign. In New York, as a member of "the Arkansas Flying Squadron," she learned how to work with immigrant communities, conduct street meetings, and canvass territory. Watkins explained she came to New York "to be educated sufragistically and to help in little ways by addressing envelopes, passing around leaflets and getting enrollments," adding she would have "about a million ideas to take back with me." She carried a shield bearing the name of an already enfranchised state joining some 20,000 people who paraded up Fifth Avenue in support of suffrage. The next year saw her organizing her home state in a 12-town tour. In 1916, she also spoke to West Virginians ahead of its unsuccessful 1916 woman suffrage referendum and toured North Carolina on behalf of suffrage. Watkins had met Lucy Burns in Washington, D.C. the previous July and was on hand in 1916 when Alice Paul visited Little Rock in support of a new Congressional Union branch. In 1917, she spent a month under the auspices of NAWSA speaking in New Mexico and later returned to New York to work in its successful 1917 referendum campaign. A New Mexico newspaper described Watkins' public speeches as "witty as well as convincing."
Watkins entered South Dakota as an experienced NAWSA organizer. During the summer of 1918 she worked alongside several national organizers, including Stella Crossley of New York. The two women worked the southern counties of the state visiting numerous fairs, Teachers' Institutes, and Farmers' Alliance and political meetings to gather local signatures for petitions to be circularized on the county level. As influenza spread across the state during October, causing "the cutting off of all public meetings," Watkins threatened to walk away from the campaign and more, to take Ida Stadie, Liba Peshakova, and fellow Arkansas suffrage organizer Josephine Miller with her. She protested in support of Crossley, who had resigned in what Pyle described as "the peevishness of a moment" in response to NAWSA field director Maria McMahon's "curt" instructions. Watkins demanded an apology for Crossley. Pyle called for no apology and thought Watkins and Crossley "contemptible." NAWSA president Carrie Chapman Catt told the women they had been "unduly sensitive" and called Watkins' threat to encourage a walk out "a dreadful thing." Catt told Pyle Watkins simply had "a brain storm." Eventually, a "very repentant" Watkins apologized to Pyle.
After the successful South Dakota woman suffrage referendum, Watkins left for Texas, where she worked as a field secretary for the Texas Equal Suffrage Association, in the 14th Senatorial District "full of old Southern settlers . . . against suff. for the most part--and of 'Cajuns. . . . none too easy to reach." Next, she lobbied for ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in Mississippi. Later, as a field director for the League of Women Voters she toured Montana and Oregon. At some point in the 1920s she moved to New York City, where she lived with fellow suffragist Liba Peshakova. Watkins died in Manhattan in 1938.
Image of Gertrude Watson from The Prescott Daily News, Prescott, Ark., 14 April 1916.
NOTE: There is also an excellent image of Watkins in Cahill, Arkansas Women and the Right to Vote (Little Rock, Arkansas: Butler Center Books, 2015) p. 57.
"20,000 March for Suffrage." Times-Union, Brooklyn, New York, 23 Oct. 1915, p.3
"Argues Suffrage to Good Audience." News and Observer, Raleigh, North Carolina, 15 Dec. 1916, p. 9.
"Arkansas Leaders Will Work in East." Journal and Tribune, Knoxville, Tennessee, 17 July 1915, p. 22.
"Arkansas Squadron Busy in New York." Daily Arkansas Gazette, Little Rock, 28 July 1915, p. 4.
Cahill, Bernadette Cahill. Arkansas Women and the Right to Vote: The Little Rock Campaigns: 1868-1920. Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2015, pp. 4, 20, 37-38, 49, 55, 57.
Easton, Patricia O'Keefe. "Woman Suffrage in South Dakota: The Final Decade, 1911-1920." South Dakota History 13, no. 3 (1983), pp. 206-226.
"Equality League Elects Officers." Daily Arkansas Gazette, Little Rock, 28 May 1916, p. 4.
"History of Suffrage Movement in Arkansas." 21 Aug. 1919, p. 3.
McMahon, Mrs. Albert [Maria]. "How to Win a State." The Woman Citizen (Nov 16, 1918), p. 509.
Mamie Shields Pyle Papers, Richardson Collection, Archives and Special Collections, The University of South Dakota; https://archives.usd.edu/repositories/2/resources/19. See correspondence: Watkins to McMahon, 23 Oct 1918; Watkins to Pyle, 18 Oct 1918; 21 Mar, 4 Jun 1919; McMahon to Crossley, 14, 15 Oct 1918; Pyle to Watkins, 25 Oct, 29 Nov 1918; Pyle to Shuler, 24 Oct, 1, 2 Nov 1918; Catt to Pyle, 12 Nov, 2 Dec 1918; Peshakova to Pyle, 21 Mar 1919. https://explore.digitalsd.org/digital/collection/richardson/search/searchterm/Mamie%20Shields%20Pyle%20Papers/field/collec/mode/exact/conn/and
"Miss Gertrude Watkins Talks on Suffrage." Deming Headlight, New Mexico, 19 Jan. 1917, p. 8.
"Need 11 More States." Daily Arkansas Gazette, Little Rock, 18 Jan. 1920, p. 49.
Ramsey, Pat. "Josephine Miller (1888-1972)." Arkansas Women's Suffrage Centennial Project RSS. https://ualrexhibits.org/suffrage/josephine-miller-1888-1972/.
Schaffer, Ronald. "The New York City Woman Suffrage Party, 1909-1019," 43, no. 3 New York History (July 1962): 269-270, 270-280, 284.
"Socorro [news]." Albuquerque Morning Journal, New Mexico, 28 Jan. 1917, p. 3.
"Suffragists Here To Attend Fair." Fairmont West Virginian, Fairmont, 23 Aug. 1916, p. 1.
"Suffragists Sell Papers on Streets." Daily Arkansas Gazette, Little Rock, 14 Jan 1915, p. 4.
"Suffragist Tells of Tour of State." Daily Arkansas Gazette, Little Rock, 20 May 1916, p. 7.
"Suffragists Work for Liberty Bonds." Daily Arkansas Gazette, Little Rock, 28 Oct. 1917, p. 31.
"Urges Suffrage for New Mexico." El Paso Herald, Texas, 15 Jan. 1917, p. 2.
"Woman Speaker Here Tomorrow." La Grande Observer, Oregon, 4 Nov. 1920, p.1.
"Gertrude Watkins," Find A Grave Index, 1600s-Current, database on-line, Ancestry.com and www.findagrave.com.
United States Federal Census, 1900, 1920, 1930, database on-line, Ancestry.com.
Untitled. Billings Gazette, Montana, 4 Apr. 1920, p. 5.
Untitled. Liberty Vindicator, Liberty, Texas, 4 April 1919, p. 3.
Untitled. Washington Herald, Washington, D.C., 10 July 1915.