Biographical Sketch of Anne (Anna) E. Heslet Jenks

Biographical Database of Militant Woman Suffragists, 1913-1920

Biography of Anne (Anna) E. Heslet Jenks, 1856-1946

By Karen M. Kedrowski, Director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics, Iowa State University, Ph.D.

Activist and Community Volunteer

Anne (Anna) E. Heslet was born in 1856 in Illinois. Her father was Samuel M. Heslet, who taught in public schools in Mendota, Clinton, and eventually Earlville. In the 1870s, the Clinton (IL) Public listed students' grades at regular intervals and records that Anna Heslet was a high school student there, consistently earning the highest marks and academic honors. After her marriage, Jenks would regularly travel to Earlville to visit her aging father.

In 1881, at age 24, Anne Heslet married John H. Jenks in Mendota, Illinois. The couple settled in western Iowa, making their home in Avoca, a farming community of about 1,500 inhabitants in Pottawattamie County. Their one child, a daughter Florence, was born in July 1894. John Jenks had a long career as president of the Avoca State Bank after serving short stints in the Iowa legislature and the Avoca School Board.

For her part, Anne Jenks (hereafter Jenks) became a civic leader and community activist. She was a public library booster, responsible for arranging the annual cleaning and floor refinishing; active in the local bridge club; sponsored the "Open Door Club," which held educational sessions on subjects such as "strong men of France;" organized local women to knit garments for US sailors during World War I; and was active in the Avoca Presbyterian Church.

In addition, Jenks was an active suffrage leader for at least a decade. She was a member of the Iowa Equal Suffrage League, the Iowa affiliate of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). She often hosted meetings of the Avoca chapter of the Iowa Equal Suffrage League in her home. At the same time, was the Iowa Congressional District Nine organizer for NAWSA's rival organization, the National Woman's Party from 1918 to 1920.

The earliest record of Jenks' suffrage activism is 1912, when she is listed on the program for the Iowa Equal Suffrage League convention held in Des Moines. She is listed as giving a speech, "Sources of Power in Our Work." On Sunday, April 27, 1913, the Des Moines Register and Leader noted that Mrs. "Heslep Jenks" - a torturous misrepresentation of Jenks' name - pledged $50 to support a mule team to drive across western Iowa to advertise for suffrage in rural hamlets along the route.

In 1914, Jenks wrote to the editor of the Omaha Daily Bee, weighing in on the case of Cynthia Buffum, who was sentenced to death by electric chair for poisoning her husband:

... There is, of course, no unanimity of opinion among the suffragists or antis as to the propriety of ever inflicting the death penalty. But, granted that the death penalty is proper, I would urge one single exception to this "legal" equality - that is that is that the death penalty never be inflicted on a woman. I would have the judge say in pronouncing sentence: "Madam, the jury have brought in a verdict of murder in the first degree. Owing to the fact that your sex at such fearful cost of suffering, and sometimes the cost of life, brings life into the world, the death penalty shall not be inflicted..."

At the turn of the century, Iowa suffragists worked tirelessly to amend the Iowa Constitution to allow women full suffrage, a process that calls for two consecutive legislative sessions to approve the amendment, followed by a referendum on the proposed amendment. In 1916, women's suffrage finally reached this last stage. Jenks was the chief organizer for Pottawattamie County, an area that includes several small farming communities and the larger city of Council Bluffs (once home to another notable suffragist, Amelia Bloomer). By the spring, the Des Moines Register and Leader was filled with letters from readers on both sides of the suffrage question. Jenks responded to Katherine Balch, who claimed that women's civic reforms efforts were hampered by the suffrage debate, Jenks provided a litany of progressive era reforms successfully enacted in Iowa:

Below is submitted measures passed in since 1912: Industrial commission to fix hours of labor, standard conditions of labor, a minimum wage for women and children, establishing state industrial school for girls, providing for the industrial training of dependent girls in the public school system, making it a felony to refuse to support wife and minor children, providing for the care of children if marriages declared void, providing for teachers' pensions, providing for mothers' pensions, adopting the model Iowa red light abatement and injunction act for the suppression of disorderly houses, making it a felony for a man to live upon the earnings of a prostitute, requiring a medical certificate for men in marriage, creating a livestock sanitary board, regulating the sale of dairy products, and providing against the spread of tuberculosis. Now if any reform "got away," let me know what.

A month later, Jenks published another lengthy letter, refuting the arguments of anti-suffragist Margaret C. Robinson, who alleged a number of dire consequences suffered by Denver, Minneapolis, and Chicago, all cities where women were enfranchised. Jenks concluded, "Margaret C. Robinson and other antis may rest assured that none of our leaders will commit suicide, even though combatting as unreasonable, untruthful a force as antisuffragists."

The 1916 referendum ultimately failed. In Pottawattamie County, the official tally was 3,156 in favor and 3,249 against. Suffragists asserted that the defeat was due to widespread election fraud. In Jenks' home county, Pottawattamie, there was ample evidence of ballot stuffing.

Jenks continued her suffrage work through 1920, becoming active in the National Woman's Party (NWP). Her name appears regularly in the NWP's newspaper, The Suffragist, as one of three (of a possible 11) congressional district organizers in Iowa. In May, 1918, Mrs. Lillian Ascough, a national organizer for the NWP, visited Avoca and addressed local suffrage advocates in Jenks' home. Ascough implored the assembled group that the 19th amendment would be defeated in the Senate unless "all who are anxious to see this accomplished should write to the President, to the presiding congressmen, and to all influential persons at once." The Avoca Journal-Herald concluded its coverage with:

Mrs. Ascough, sent out by the Women Party {sic} is of most pleasing personality has resided in both Paris and Berlin, has spent much time in Washington. She has spoken in Milwaukee, Springfield, Des Moines, and Sioux City and only appeared at Avoca as a token by the Women's Party of appreciation of the Suffrage work done by Mrs. Jenks.

Jenks attended NAWSA's February 1920 convention, where another Iowan, President Carrie Chapman Catt, founded the League of Women Voters. Iowa had already ratified the 19th Amendment, having done so the previous July. Jenks lived to see women elected officials in Iowa, especially on local school boards. In 1922, she again lifted her pen and wrote to the Des Moines Register to point out a double standard:

Referring to an article going the rounds concerning a woman member of the board of education knitting while attending a meeting and while the men members smoked: Crocheting is a commendable thing, but women who draw handsome salaries for time spent in attendance at board meeting should put their entire attention on the matter under consideration. Also the male members should abstain from smoking during these meetings. The state board of education would not indorse teachers smoking or knitting during school hours.

Anne Heslet Jenks passed away in 1946 at the age of 90.

Sources:

The Avoca Journal-Herald, various issues, 1916-1920.

Fuller, Steven J. and Alsatia Mellecker. 1984. "Behind the Yellow Banner: Anna B. Lawther and the Winning of Suffrage for Iowa Women." The Palimpsest 65(3): 106-117.

Harlan, Edgar Rubey. 1931. A Narrative History of the People of Iowa, Volume IV. Chicago: American Historical Society.

The Des Moines Register, various issues. 1913-1922.

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