Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Laura A. Gregg Cannon, 1869-1945
By Melissa Ziobro, Specialist Professor of Public History, Monmouth University with Arizona additions by Heidi Osselaer, PhD, Arizona State University
Organizer, Camden Equal Suffrage League & National American Woman Suffrage Association
The Kansas Historical Society online offers the most robust, easily accessible biography of Laura A. Gregg Cannon written to date, reading:
Laura A. Gregg was born about 1869 in Garnett, Kansas, to Charles and Angeline Gregg. She was educated in Anderson County and at a young age became interested in the issues of women's suffrage that were being debated in the state.
In 1895 she was hired as an organizer for the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). The association spent about $20,000 sending representatives to areas of the nation to promote its agenda. Gregg was sent to Oklahoma Territory to promote universal suffrage. As the representative for the organization she went on a six-week speaking tour of the larger towns in Oklahoma Territory, organizing suffrage clubs in 12 different communities. She returned to Oklahoma to continue her efforts from March through November 1904.
Gregg attended several of the national woman's suffrage conventions. In 1909 she was sent as a field organizer to Arizona Territory to campaign for woman's rights in the territory. There she earned a reputation as a lecturer and organizer. She married Joseph D. Cannon, also a well-known organizer, whose efforts were devoted to years to the interest of labor. She was credited with influencing public sentiment in favor of women's suffrage. She joined other advocates in addressing the state legislature and securing its support.
In the 1930s and 1940s the Cannons lived in Queens, New York.
One can flesh out this brief biography a bit by scouring archival records, period newspapers, and secondary sources. Cannon's avowed socialism, for example, is one thing left out of the above synopsis. She was committed to the ideology, and seems to have struggled at times to balance her loyalty to that cause with her allegiance to the suffrage movement. As Elizabeth S. Clemens writes in her 1999 article "Securing Political Returns to Social Capital: Women's Associations in the United States, 1880s-1920s," many suffrage organizers
consciously suppressed political loyalties for the suffrage cause. Laura Gregg (Cannon) was explicit about the strategic rationale for this decision yet felt it at odds with her strong sense of partisan (and class) loyalty.
Clemens reveals that Cannon wrote to suffrage organizer Anne Martin in 1914,
You ask if I am a Socialist, and if I would be willing to keep my personal opinion in abeyance, etc. Of course I recognize that the Suffrage movement must try to win the votes of all classes, and that Socialism is a bugbear to Democrats and Republicans, and I therefore think it better that work among what we call the middle class people should be done by women of less radical opinions, as they honestly see the suffrage movement from the middle class viewpoint, while if a Socialist is speaking to the same people, she must continually curb herself, or else speak more radically than the middle class people will stand.
But for all her discomfort with the middle-class nonpartisan- ship of the suffrage movement, Gregg was one of the most active (albeit largely forgotten) organizers in the movement, working in fifteen states over a period of twenty-nine years. Neither the official nonpartisan stance of suffrage organizations nor the aversion of some activists to parties should be taken as indicative of an absence of partisan loyalties among suffragists. Indeed, these loyalties help to explain both the fragmentation and incorporation of women activists after their enfranchisement.
Cannon worked in many states as a NAWSA organizer. Between 1909 and 1912, she spent most of her time organizing in California and Arizona. In the winter of 1909 she toured rural Arizona, where telephone lines, railroads, and good roads were rare. Although travel was slow in the snowy White Mountains in the eastern part of the territory, she found the hospitality overwhelming. She organized suffrage groups in numerous Latter-day Saint communities, where people lived in dreadful poverty, but discovered "there is a larger proportion of sentiment in favor of suffrage than in any other state in which I have worked." Her enthusiasm was so great for the Mormon people that NAWSA leader Anna Howard Shaw thought Gregg might marry into a polygamous Mormon family.
Arizona's suffrage leader Frances Willard Munds called Gregg a "brilliant orator," and a "treasure." Gregg arranged to have publicity materials printed in Spanish when she discovered members of the Mexican American community were seeking information. Her most important work in the Southwest was with labor. She toured the mining communities of Arizona with Socialist state senator Albinius A. Worsley and Western Federation of Miners' organizer Joseph D. Cannon, who had run for Congress on the Socialist ticket. Gregg often spoke to large crowds from atop a soapbox on street corners. In the summer of 1911, while in Los Angeles working on the California campaign, she married Joseph Cannon. The couple lived in Arizona for a few years until their work brought them to New York in 1916.
In September 1914 she was active in southern Nevada, working on a referendum campaign. In 1915 Cannon worked in New Jersey "from May 1915 probably through the [November] referendum" according to author Delight Dodyk. An article in the New Brunswick Times affirms that Cannon came to NJ with a number of suffragists who had enjoyed success in other parts of the country. These women would be led by the Nevandan Anne Martin. Upon arriving in Camden, Cannon first met with Lillian Feickert, but soon began working with Mrs. Ward D. Kerlin, president of the Camden Equal Suffrage League. With no local headquarters, Cannon moved into a hotel and immediately started speaking at meetings in and around the Camden area. According to Delight Dodyk, "Full-time organizers, like Cannon, gave local women outside perspective and experience in working out strategy. They were experienced speakers, especially when it came to standing up to the antis." After meeting with the whole Camden League, Cannon described them saying, "They are bright women, and they manifested a splendid spirit. Instead of the usual excuses their attitude was, We will rise to the occasion." The Trenton Evening Times reported that "well known labor organizer and suffragist" Cannon would be concentrating her efforts on the First Congressional District of Camden, Gloucester, and Salem Counties. The Perth Amboy Evening News reported Cannon speaking in New Brunswick in July 1915, but little else is known about her time in the Garden State. There was some type of kerfuffle precipitating her departure later in 1915, as revealed by Elisabeth S. Clemens in her 2001 chapter in Patterns of Social Capital: Stability and Change in Historical Perspective. Clemens reveals that a worker in the Washington Headquarters of the National Woman's Party noted,
You may be interested to know that Mrs. Kerlin recently received a letter from Mrs. [Laura Gregg] Cannon expressing regret for her conduct in NJ in 1915, and the trouble she made. Mrs. K. thinks she must want to come back into the state for some reason, and is trying to overcome the feeling against her which resulted from her doings. I believe she did Miss Martin incalculable harm, tho I never have been able to find out what she said about her...
Regrettably, neither has Clemens. Clemens does write that Cannon sometimes expressed exasperation at the niceties generally observed by suffragists, far preferring fiery rallies and speeches over teas and luncheons. Did this lead to her trouble in New Jersey? Was it her socialist proclivities, discussed in her correspondence with Miss Martin in 1914? Was it a simple rivalry between the two women? Something else entirely? We may never know.
We can, however, use newspapers to place Cannon in New York on the eve of America's entry into WWI. As reported by the New York Times on 11 February 1917, Cannon urged Americans to "refuse to go to war," saying, "This nation has never been whipped, and if we don't fight the other nations cannot say that we are afraid, but they will know, as President Wilson said, that we are too proud to fight." She also implored "munition makers" to "lay their profits on the altar of the country's welfare by not sending their ships into the danger zone." Despite the best efforts of isolationists like Cannon, Americans would fight in the Great War from April 1917 to the Armistice of November 1918. Post-war, the US Congress's Nye Committee would spend much time investigating the actions of the very munitions makers Cannon had chastised, industrialists who by the 1920s many Americans were calling "Merchants of Death."
According to Dodyk's dissertation, after her work in New Jersey Cannon went to New York and worked for the Socialists' suffrage campaign. In a letter to Martin, she wrote, "The Socialist women are putting up a magnificent campaign for suffrage and they were sorely disappointed when I came away." Interestingly, given the copious news coverage of her activities pre-war, it is difficult to find any trace of Cannon after 1917. Her husband continued to make headlines, running unsuccessfully on the Socialist ticket for several political offices in NY, including that of governor.
Laura Gregg Cannon died of heart disease in 1945.
Elisabeth S. Clemens, "Securing Political Returns to Social Capital: Women's Associations in the United States, 1880s-1920s," The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 29, No. 4, (Spring, 1999), p. 613-38.
Jo Connors, Who's Who in Arizona (Tucson, Arizona: Press of the Arizona Daily Star, 1913), 608-09.
Delight Dodyk, "Education and agitation: the woman suffrage movement in New Jersey," PhD dissertation, Rutgers University, 1997. p. 385-86, 623-24.
Kansas Historical Society, "Laura A. Gregg Cannon," Kansapedia, July 2017, https://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/laura-a-gregg-cannon/17867, accessed 11 January 2019.
The New Brunswick Times, "Women Voters to Help in NJ: Miss Martin of Nevada the Leader" 6 May 1915, p. 4.
The New York Times, "Socialist's Name Full State Ticket; Joseph D. Cannon, Organizer of Metal Workers' Union, Nominated for Governor," 5 July 1920, no page.
The New York Times, "Pacifists Condemn and Praise Wilson," 11 February 1917, p. 6.
Heidi J. Osselaer, Winning Their Place: Arizona Women in Politics, 1883-1950 (Tucson, Arizona: University of Arizona Press, 2009), 33.
The Perth Amboy Evening News, "Women to Gather at Suffrage Meet," 29 July 1915, p. 2.
Robert I. Rotberg and Gene A. Brucker, editors, Patterns of Social Capital: Stability and Change in Historical Perspective (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 267-68.
The Trenton Evening Times, "Suffrage Notes from Many Places," 1 May 1915, no page.
Ida Husted Harper et al., eds., History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 6 (1922). There are references to Gregg or Cannon in state reports for Arizona, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Pennsylvania. [LINK]
Phoenix Gazette, February 2, 1912
Woman's Journal, November 9, 1912
Women's Suffrage Collection, Arizona State Library and Public Records, Phoenix
David R. Berman, Radicalism in the Mountain West, 1890-1920: Socialists, Populists, Miners, and Wobblies (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2007)
Heidi J. Osselaer, Winning Their Place: Arizona Women in Politics, 1883-1950 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2009).