Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Phoebe Routt Ess, 1850-1934
By Marie Wegman
Independent Historian, Missouri
Suffragist, social reformer
Phoebe Routt Ess was born on March 3, 1850 in Woodford County, Kentucky, the daughter of Thomas and Olivia (Downs) Routt. In the early 1850s, Phoebe moved with her family to Clay County, Missouri, where she attended the Clay County Seminary. In 1872, she moved to Kansas City and taught at the Washington School. She met Kansas City Lawyer, Henry N. Ess, and they married on June 23, 1874 in Jackson County, Missouri. The couple had three children: Fanny (1877), Marion (1879), and Henry (1891) and settled in Kansas City.
Phoebe's work as a prominent organizer and officer in many women's civic clubs, like the Kansas City Athenaeum, brought her to the forefront of the women's suffrage movement. In February 1911, she was elected president of the Kansas City Suffrage Association. In 1914, she served as chair and later elected president of the Central Suffrage League and led the initiative petition effort for a suffrage amendment on the General Election ballot that year. In the fall of 1914, she helped form and was elected president of the Susan B. Anthony Civic Club. Under her leadership, the Susan B. Anthony Civic Club became the first equal suffrage club admitted to the Missouri State Federation of Women's Clubs.
Ess's suffrage activity attracted attention to her work as a social reformer. In 1916, she organized the Prison Reform Committee to improve the conditions for detainees in the Missouri State Prison System, with members from both women's clubs and men's groups in Kansas City. In 1918, she created a scholarship loan fund used to assist with education costs for girls from needy families. That same year, Ess was nominated to run for school board in Kansas City, making her the first woman to run for office in Kansas City.
After the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, Ess continued to work with organizations that supported women's access to the ballot. She was a member of the League of Women Voters and the Jefferson Democratic club and served as president of the Susan B. Anthony Civic Club. Ess's later worked focused on the needs of impoverished widows, pensions for the blind, and compulsory education laws. After WWI, she started a petition that advocated for peace and disarmament around the world, which was presented to the League of Nations. She remained active in the many women's civic organizations and charities in Kansas City. She died on April 10, 1934 in Kansas City.
Family and education are found in Missouri newspapers like the Kansas City Star. Record of marriage is located in Jackson County Court records. Suffrage work appears in the Missouri Historical Review: "History of the Women's Suffrage Movement in Missouri: The Part of the Kansas City Equal Suffrage League in the Campaign for Equal Suffrage," by Mrs. Thomas McBride, Vol XIV, Nos 3-4, April - July 1920. Susan B. Anthony Civic League and work in prison reform appears in the Missouri Historical Review: "History of the Women's Suffrage Movement in Missouri: Susan B. Anthony Suffrage League of Kansas City," by Mrs. Henry N. Ess, Vol XIV, Nos 3-4, April - July 1920. Post suffrage work appear in Missouri newspapers like the St. Joseph Gazette. News of her death and listing of club activity and reform appear in the article "Mrs. Henry N. Ess Dies," Kansas City Star, 10 Apr 1934, and "A Foremost Woman Citizen," Kansas City Star, 10 Apr 1934.