Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Margaret Cairns Munns, 1870-1957

By Carol-Ann Sage, teacher (semi-retired): Advanced Placement United States History and Advanced Placement World History, volunteer Washington State History Museum, Tacoma, WA.

In order to delineate the influence of Margaret Cairns Munns on the women's suffrage movement in Washington State, it is necessary to understand the connection between two influential Progressive Era reform movements. While Mrs. Munns's focus for over fifty years was to ensure the success of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, her contributions to the success of the women's suffrage movement in Washington State cannot be underestimated. Inasmuch as both social reform movements sought to better the lives of women, it was natural for WCTU leaders, such as Mrs. Munns, to become advocates for both movements.

Both temperance and suffrage movements were organized on the local, state, regional, national, and international levels. This similarity was not an accident. In 1881 Susan B. Anthony sought the help of her friend Frances Willard in organizing the National Woman Suffrage Association along the same lines as the more successful WCTU. In October of 1881 Anthony decided to attend the National Prohibition Alliance meeting in New York. While there a portion of her agenda was to gain the support of the WCTU. As a result of this continued mutual support the experienced WCTU organizer, Margaret Agnes Cairns Munns became an important force in both movements. As secretary, educator, speaker and both national and world treasurer of the WCTU she used her contacts to further the interdependent goals of both social reform movements. Thus, Mrs. Munns became an activist in the cause of women's suffrage

Once again in order to understand the relationship between Mrs. Munns, the WCTU, and the women's suffrage movement it is necessary to look to history. The Franchise Department of the WCTU was created in 1881 by WCTU president Frances Willard, in the belief that women's franchise was a necessity to attain the goals of the WCTU. Over the ensuing year J. Ellen Foster, Mary Leavitt, and Mary A Livermore assessed support for the suffrage movement. As a result, the "Home Protection" division was created with a view to gaining support for women's suffrage among the move conservative members of the WCTU. Through this arm of the WCTU, interstate connections were formed to promote the cause of suffrage. After the 19th Amendment was passed, the Franchise Department continued its work. However, its focus then became the education of women. It is through her involvement with the Franchise Department of the WCTU that Margaret Cairns Munns influenced the passage of the 19th Amendment.

Margaret Agnes Cairns Munns, the youngest child in the family, was born in Fairbury, Livingston County, Illinois on August 10, 1870 to Rev. James Reva Cairns, a circuit riding minister and former machinist, who immigrated to the United States from Scotland in 1849. Rev. Cairns and Sarah Spence Ewart were married in Northumberland, England in 1848. Peter, their first child, was born in 1850 while the couple were living in New Jersey. In 1856 James Cairns converted to the Baptist Church from the Presbyterian church in which he was raised and became a Baptist Minister assigned to the Smith's Grove church in Bloomington, Illinois. Rev. Cairns would later serve as a Union Chaplain during the Civil War. After the war, the Cairns family moved to Ohio, then Fairbury, Illinois where Margaret Agnes Cairns was born. In 1882 her father was called to Arkansas, Kansas to establish the First Baptist Church. The church he founded still stands in that town. The Cairns family then moved to Columbia County, Washington where Margaret's father became instrumental in founding Colfax College. Later, in 1889, the Cairns family relocated to the Portland Oregon/Vancouver Washington area where Rev. Cairns was sent to promote a new church in Vancouver. According to the city directory for that year Margaret Cairns was a public-school teacher living with her family. and her older brother, the Rev. George Cairns, a missionary. As indicated in the Dictionary of American Temperance Biography, Miss Cairns spent a year at Colfax College before receiving her master's degree from California College in 1891.

While living in Vancouver, on December 29-31, 1890, Miss Cairns presented a paper at the 4th annual session of the Washington State Teachers Association. In that paper she advocated higher education for women. This presentation so impressed her colleagues that by the end of the conference Miss Cairns was appointed secretary of the Washington State Teacher's Association as well as to the Auditing Committee for the following year.

In 1893 her father assumed the leadership of the Baptist church in Snohomish and remained there until 1899, when the family relocated to the Fremont Baptist Church in Seattle. While living in Snohomish, Margaret took a teaching position at Snohomish High School. In 1895 she and another female teacher were dismissed from their positions based on "incompetence." Rather than submit to the will of the school board Margaret sued the board for the remainder of her wages and was awarded the amount of $250.00 and court costs.

The year 1895 proved a momentous year for Margaret Cairns. In addition to winning the lawsuit against the Snohomish board for wrongful dismissal, she married Horace G. Munns, a lawyer, on November 20, 1895 in Snohomish. Her father James officiated at the ceremony. After the wedding, the young couple moved to California to be near Horace's family. The marriage produced one son, Harold G. Munns, born June 16, 1897. Sadly, Margaret Munns's life took a tragic turn. Her husband of four years died of consumption on February 6, 1898 in San Bernardino, California. He was followed in death by their only child, Horace, on December 9, 1898 in Honolulu after a brief illness contracted on the S.S. Garonne. After the death of her child, Margaret returned to live with her parents at their home in Seattle. However, her belief in the advancement of women in society through both temperance and suffrage did not waiver. In 1898 she persuaded E.S. Collins, founder of the Ostrander Railway and Timber company in Spokane to sponsor her as a life patron of the WCTU. By 1901 she became the recording secretary of that organization.

Pursuant to the aims of the W.C.T.U., it was natural for Margaret Munns to embrace activism on behalf of women's suffrage. The logic of the WCTU was simple, if women were given the right to vote on both national and state levels, the government would then be urged to pass legislation for social reform and ultimately prohibition as well as family protection and anti-drug laws. Therefore, in addition to her duties as national speaker on behalf of the WCTU and recording secretary, in 1906 Mrs. Munns performed the duties of Superintendent of National Institutes. As such she wrote the Superintendent's Manual which sold nationally and was distributed throughout the United States as well as Scotland and Canada. In her capacity as Superintendent in 1912 she created smaller study circles to promote social change through legislation.

It is about 1912 that Margaret Munns joined with Margaret Platt to create a twin threat to the status quo. Quite possibly Mrs. Munns first met Mrs. Platt in Columbia City, Washington through their mutual association with the W.C.T.U. Both were highly active in the twin causes of prohibition and suffrage. Their proximity in Columbia during that time period would make a meeting inevitable. On January 16, 1909, the two ladies set up headquarters in Olympia as co-chairs of a conference to discuss proposals for legal revisions that would be submitted to the Washington State legislature for the following year. A secondary purpose of this conference was to discuss how to overcome opposition to proposals that included both race and women's suffrage. In 1910 the two would form a team that would continue for decades. Later, the "two Margarets" as they were called, would begin to instruct groups of women in parliamentary procedure. This training would prove invaluable in the preparation of women for the suffrage campaign of 1910. As a creation of the Franchise Department this conference also had an influence on what would follow. In the Fall of that year, as President of the WCTU of Western Washington, Mrs. Munns addressed the 27th Annual Meeting of the WCTU held in Olympia between September 30-October 4, 1910. In that speech she denounced the denial of suffrage to women. On November 8, 1910, the Washington Women's Right to Vote Amendment was passed, and Washington became the fifth state to allow women to vote. By 1912 Mrs. Munns would add another title to her list of accomplishments. As reported in the Oregon Daily Journal on February 25, 1912 she became the National Superintendent of Institute Work within the WCTU. By 1913 she was a member of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections and spoke at their annual session in July of that year. Later this Conference would be renamed The United Way.

That same year Mrs. Munns and Mrs. Platt formed a life-long friendship and together worked to further the goals of the WCTU. In 1915 as it became evident that suffrage work in Washington State was nearing its conclusion, she and Mrs. Platt moved to Evanston, Illinois where the WCTU had its headquarters in the Frances Willard home. Upon the entry of the United States into World War I in 1917, both worked to coordinate the efforts of multiple reform organizations to support the war effort.

Tragedy struck again when her older brother, Rev. George Cairns, died suddenly in Australia on June 22, 1921 while on a world-wide missionary tour. That decade, however, also brought a new chapter in Mrs. Munn's career. In 1925 she was elected Worldwide Treasurer of the WCTU, an office she would hold until 1953. In this capacity she travelled to WCTU world conventions in 1925 (Edinburgh), 1928 (Lausanne, Switzerland), 1934 (Stockholm, Sweden), where she is listed as registrar, and at the age of 80 she attended the 1950 World Convention in Hastings, England.

Margaret Munns resigned as National Treasurer of the WCTU in 1946 and as World Treasurer in 1953. While the exact date of her return to the Northwest is unknown, city directory and census records indicate her return to Seattle as sometime in the 1940's. She spent the remainder of her life in Washington where she died on September 3, 1957 after a brief illness.

Although Margaret Cairns Munns spent much of her life advancing the principles and goals of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, her advancement of social reforms, including suffrage, cannot be underestimated. The support she showed for the suffrage movement as well as her leadership in the political education of women led to ultimate change in the political scene of the United States.


"Women Want Laws," Spokane Chronicle, 16 Jan 1909, p. 2 via

"About Us." First Baptist Church, Report of baby Munns death
Death of H. G. Munns Sr.
Death certificate for Margaret Munn
"New York, Passenger and Crew Lists (Including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957," for Margaret Munns"
"UK and Ireland, Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960 for Margaret Munns."
Information about James Cairns from his great-great niece
"U.S Civil War Draft Registration Records for James Cairns 1863-1865.
"U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925."
"U.S., Departing Passenger and Crew Lists, 1914-1966 for Margaret C Munns."
Departure 1950 for World Conference in England
"U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995.", Polk's Seattle Directory 00's, 1900,
"Washington Marriage Records, 1854-2013."
"1910 United States Federal Census."
"1930 United States Federal Census, Evanston, Illinois."

Ida Husted Harper, et al., eds. History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 6 (1922) [LINK].

Baker, John Clapp. "Baptist History of the Northwest." Google Books, American Baptist Publication Society 1912, pp. 196-97

"Death of George R Cairns." The Baptist Volume 2 Number 4 Feb. 26, 1921, 2020,

"Frances Willard House Museum and Archives." Frances Willard House Museum & Archives,

"Harold G. Munns (1897-1898) - Find A Grave..." Find a Grave,

"Munns, Margaret Cairns ." Dictionary of American Temperance Biography: From Temperance Reform to Alcohol Research, the 1600's to the 1980's, pp. 353-54,

" Viewer.",

"Northwest Journal of Education, Volume 2, Issue 1 - Volume 3, Issue 10,1890." Google Books,

"Patriotism and War Prohibition." Women Torch-Bearers: The Story of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, National Woman's Christian Temperance Union, 1924, pp. 131-32.

Report of ... Annual Convention of the National Woman's Christian Temperance Union, Volume 35, Parts 1908-1909. Woman's Temperance Publishing Ass'n, 1908.

Selected Entries From the Volcano House Register 1898-1908.

"The Union Signal, A Journal of Social Welfare Vol. 45-46." Google Books, 2020,

"National WCTU Officers on Visit." Oregon Daily Journal, 8 Aug. 1918, p. 8.

"Washington Public Documents." Washington Public Documents, O.C. White, 1892, pp. 187-88.

"WCTU Worldwide Conventions." Worldwide Woman's Christian Temperance Union, WCTU, 2020,

Willard, Frances. "Building Sisterhood." Women and the National Experience, edited by Ellen Skinner, Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers, 1996, pp. 121-22.

back to top