Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Winnie Estelle Shirley Branstetter, 1879-1960
By Sunu Kodumthara
Associate Professor of History
Southwestern Oklahoma State University
"If every reader of the Socialist Woman works as hard as Comrade Branstetter, our woman's movement will be something wonderful within a few years." Winnie Estelle Shirley Branstetter moved to Oklahoma in 1906 with the hopes of influencing Oklahoma's early years of statehood with Socialism. Branstetter and her husband, Otto Branstetter, were longtime Socialist activists who sought to spread the cause of Socialism and moved to Oklahoma to do just that. Four years after her arrival in Oklahoma, she volunteered to serve the Oklahoma Suffrage Association, a chapter of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, to promote women's suffrage.
Born Winnie Shirley on March 19, 1879 in Missouri, she worked as a department clerk until she married in 1899. She joined the Socialist cause with her husband who had been a party member for years. The two served the party in various capacities until they were sent to the then-Twin Territories of Indian and Oklahoma Territories. Socialists had been working since the late 1890s to establish a party foothold before the territories were united and became a state. Once settled, the Branstetters became involved in local politics, seeking out opportunities to serve in some capacity. Winnie Branstetter even moved to New Mexico and served as the Socialist Party's first woman state secretary. In Oklahoma, Otto and Winnie Branstetter served the national party as state secretary and assistant state secretary, respectively. Winnie Branstetter would even represent the state of Oklahoma as a delegate to the Socialist National Convention in 1908.
As she continued her political activism in Oklahoma, Branstetter's focus expanded to include women's political rights. While Socialists focused on the importance of economic equality particularly for working-class families, Branstetter concluded that it was essential for women of all economic backgrounds to demand political rights. Branstetter used one of the party's publications, Socialist Woman, to recruit women to join the Socialist cause. But she also used the publication as a means to express her frustrations with the party and the leadership's unwillingness to take a more active stand on women's suffrage. For Branstetter, women's suffrage was as much of a concern to Socialists as economic equality. Sex discrimination, Branstetter argued, was caused by capitalism. Therefore, Socialists should feel obligated prioritize political equality for women.
Branstetter also worked locally for the cause of women's suffrage. After moving to Norman, Oklahoma in 1904, Branstetter joined the city's woman's suffrage organization and worked alongside middle-class women to further the cause. She would go on to serve as vice-president of the Oklahoma Suffrage Association, and she would represent the state at the National Suffrage Convention in 1912. Soon after, she moved to Chicago and worked as an officer for the Women's National Committee, an organ of the Socialist Party. Branstetter died on November 15, 1960.
John Dunning Political Collection, Oklahoma Historical Society; Oscar and Freda Ameringer Papers, Oklahoma Historical Society; Oklahoma Pioneer (1910); Socialist Woman; John Thompson, Closing the Frontier: Radical Response in Oklahoma, 1889 - 1923; Ida Husted Harper, ed., The History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 5, 1900 - 1920 (National American Woman Suffrage Association, 1922) [LINK]; Suzanne H. Schrems, Across the Political Spectrum: Oklahoma Women in Politics in the Early Twentieth Century, 1900 - 1930 (San Diego: Writers Club Press, 2001)