Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Dr. Agnes McKee Wallace, 1851-1934
By Heidi Osselaer, PhD, Arizona State University
Physician and reformer
Physician Agnes McKee Wallace was a fixture in the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, Republican party, and the suffrage movement in both Kansas and Arizona. She was born into a family that settled the town of Galesburg, Illinois, and was a descendant of Puritan theologian and philosopher Jonathan Edwards. Her father was elected to the Illinois state assembly a year after her birth and later was elected county supervisor and justice of the peace for multiple terms. Agnes lived in Illinois until her marriage in 1877 to George H. Wallace, a disabled Civil War veteran who worked as a carpenter.
The year following their marriage, the couple moved to Topeka, Kansas, where Agnes entered the medical program at Washburn University. George sold windmills while Agnes studied medicine and took in boarders as they raised two daughters. For the next twenty years after graduation, Dr. Agnes McKee Wallace practiced medicine in Topeka. She was active in the state WCTU, serving as the chair of the franchise committee at the tenth annual state convention in 1894. In 1897 she became the physician in charge of the new Salvation Army hospital, which was run on strict temperance principles. Doctors routinely prescribed intoxicating liquors to the sick, but Wallace and the staff at her facility chose alternative medicines to administer to the charity patients in their charge. She volunteered her time without pay several days a week at the hospital.
In 1899, her civic mindedness was recognized when she was appointed to the Topeka Board of Health, the first woman to hold the position. She became such a familiar face in the local courts as a medical witness that her pug dog Tony, who followed her everywhere, would fall asleep at her feet while she was testifying, snoring loudly to the amusement of those in the courtroom. She was often invited to speak at state medical conventions, often focusing on women's health issues, including controversial topics like abortion.
Her activism in the state WCTU led to her involvement in the Prohibition party's state central committee. As state organizer she recruited members and published columns in the party's newspaper, the Fulcrum, arguing that women needed the vote to achieve prohibition and other reforms in Kansas. Her column in May 1901 asked, "Can the woman vote be manipulated? Not now," she told her readers, "since women have awakened to the knowledge that they are American citizens and are realizing that they are a vital force in the community in which they live." Not surprisingly, given her ties to preacher Jonathan Edwards, she was an active member in the North Topeka Congregational church.
Like her father, she was interested in politics, becoming a member of the executive committee of the Kansas Woman's Republican association along with Laura M. Johns. When Johns resigned her position as vice president in 1894 to head the Equal Suffrage Association of Kansas, which was committed to nonpartisanship, Dr. Wallace was chosen to replace her. In fact, the lives of the two women were intertwined, with Wallace following Johns into the Kansas suffrage movement, becoming vice president of the Equal Suffrage Club of Topeka in 1898 and assuming the presidency in 1900.
In 1887 Kansas women were granted the right to vote in municipal elections, so Wallace's suffrage club became a leading advocate for reform measures. She served on a committee that urged her "more timid sisters" to register and to vote.
The Wallace family transplanted to Prescott, Arizona Territory, in 1906. Dr. Wallace quickly became known as "a capable and conscientious physician," a member of both the American Medical Association and the Arizona Medical Society, serving as vice president of the Yavapai county chapter of that organization.
It is unclear what precipitated the move, but Agnes's friend Laura Johns had spent time in Arizona in 1891 as an organizer for the National American Woman Suffrage Association, when the first territorial suffrage association was founded by Tucson resident Josephine Brawley Hughes. After her arrival in the territory, Dr. Wallace joined most of the leading women's organizations in Prescott, including the Monday Club, the first chapter of the General Federation of Women's Clubs in the territory. Here she became acquainted with the Arizona suffrage movement's leadership, including prominent Prescott clubwoman Frances Willard Munds who would become president of the territorial organization in 1909. In 1910, just as Congress passed enabling legislation allowing Arizona to become a state, Wallace spoke to numerous groups about prohibition and suffrage, giving a "rousing" speech to the Anti-Saloon League on the need for "expressing a friendly spirit towards the woman's suffrage movement." Wallace was asked by NAWSA organizer Laura Clay to lend her name to the Arizona Equal Suffrage Association by serving on the state central committee.
When delegates gathered in Phoenix to write the state's constitution in 1910, Wallace was asked to address them at a special hearing on woman suffrage, speaking on behalf of professional and wage-earning women. She told the delegates that she and other women she knew had been severely handicapped by their gender in their professional lives, often denied positions which they were qualified for "because they were without votes and consequently without political influence." The delegates were not swayed, however, failing to grant women the right to vote in the constitution.
In January 1912, Wallace was sworn in as president of the Arizona Federation of Women's Club and continued to help the suffrage cause from that pulpit. That same year, as the Arizona suffrage movement launched a petition campaign to amend the state constitution to grant women the vote, Dr. Wallace worked quietly with other clubwomen, especially suffrage leader Frances Willard Munds, "creating sentiment for the amendment." But in her new role as leader of the AFWC she was forced to tread carefully because the organization eschewed political entanglements. As an Arizona Republican article noted in July of 1912, "Dr. Wallace will say little about suffrage but it is well known fact, however, that she is wholly in sympathy with the movement," bringing "the cause prestige."
After suffrage was won in 1912, the AFWC continued to remain nonpartisan; under Wallace's leadership, however, the AFWC would back numerous reforms that benefitted women and children, including legislation that created child welfare boards in every county and proposed construction of a state orphans' home. Newspapers commented that "like her family ancestor," Jonathan Edwards, Wallace was "a natural leader added to which is personal magnetism."
In 1913, she was appointed as the physician at the Industrial School at Fort Grant, the state juvenile detention facility. Women's club members who endorsed her appointment to Governor George Hunt suggested that state institutions were in "need of a woman's influence among the children." In 1914 an investigation into the moral climate at the school was opened and during hearings Dr. Wallace and other officials were exposed to withering criticism that they had not done enough to protect the virtue of the girls in their care. After that, Wallace exited the public stage, although she continued to participate in women's club activities.
The 1920 census tells us Agnes McKee Wallace, her husband George, and a granddaughter were all living in Duncan, Arizona, a mining community in Greenlee County on the eastern edge of the state. She continued to practice medicine but supplemented the family income by running a drug store in town. At the end of her life, she lived with a daughter in Missouri where she died in 1934.
"Club Notes," Arizona Republican, July 28, 1912, p. 13.
"Arizona Temperance Union Meets Here," Arizona Republican, November 3, 1910. P. 12
"Tucson Gets Two Officers Womens Club," Arizona Daily Star (Tucson), January 27, 1912, p. 1.
"Tenth Annual Convention," Chase County Leader (Cottonwood, Kansas), August 23, 1894, p. 4.
"The Doctors Coming," Lawrence Daily World (Kansas), May 5, 1902, p. 3.
"Kansas Medical Society," Kansas City Times (MO), May 4, 1900, p. 3.
"State Organizer's Column," The Fulcrum (Burlingame, Kansas), May 21, 1901, p. 5.
"The Social Mirror," Weekly Journal-Miner (Prescott, Arizona), August 10, 1910, p. 5.
"City News in Brief," Weekly Journal-Miner, September 7, 1910, p. 7.
"Monday Club," Weekly Journal-Miner, November 15, 1911, p. 5.
"Fight on Hunt's Appointee in Woman's Club," Tucson Citizen, January 19, 1914, p. 5.
"Kansas News," Daily Democrat (Topeka), January 28, 1895, p. 3.
"Good Work of Charity," Topeka State Journal, March 26, 1897, p. 3.
"The Equal Suffrage Society," Topeka State Journal, October 8, 1898, p. 6.
"The Southwest," Leader-Democrat (Springfield, Kansas), November 30, 1899, p. 4
No title, Daily North Topeka Newsletter, April 18, 1899, p. 1.
"The W. C. T. U.," Topeka Daily Capital, February 24, 1894, p. 4.
"Not as Partisans," Topeka Daily Capital, January 21, 1899, p. 6
"News About Town," Topeka Daily Capital, May 4, 1900, p. 5.
1880 census for McPherson, Kansas.
Laura Clay to Agnes McKee Wallace, February 16, 1909, Laura Clay collection, Special Collections, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY.
James. H. McClintock, Arizona: Prehistoric, Aboriginal, Pioneer, Modern, vol. 3, Chicago: S. J. Clarke, 1916, pp. 923-24.
Heidi J. Osselaer, Winning Their Place: Arizona Women in Politics, 1883-1950, University of Arizona Press, 2009, pp. 41, 69.