Annie Diggs: Original and Independent Thinker By Donna Casement May 16, 2020
Annie Diggs was a noteworthy and acclaimed national political advocate who rallied men and women to the social issues of the Prohibition Party, the Farmer’s Alliance Party and finally to the People’s Party throughout Kansas in the late nineteenth century.
Her public speaking style was honed at her Lawrence Unitarian church in the early 1880s, where she delivered periodic lectures to the congregation. “A large congregation, filling nearly all the seats assembled yesterday to hear Mrs. Diggs’ lecture. The dominant thought of the lecture was faith in humanity, in the good, the true and the upright, faith that these principles which tend to elevate benefit and ennoble the race, will eventually triumph, and that none will despair or cease their efforts by reason of seeming failure.” (#1, “At the Unitarian Church”, The Kansas Daily Tribune, Lawrence, March 1, 1880)
As early as 1881, Diggs was involved in social issues. One lecture was titled, “Organization among Liberals”. "Mrs. Diggs has found time, in spite of family cares, to indulge in a wide and varied course of reading upon the important topics of reigious thought, and with an acute, vigorous and discriminating mind, has arrived at conclusions satisfactory to herself, and which she deems of vital importance to the well being of society." The paper described Diggs as an “easy and graceful speaker, as well as an original and independent thinker.” (#2, “At the Unitarian Church”, The Kansas Daily Tribune, Lawrence, March 26, 1881)
Diggs gave hundreds of speeches supporting the suffrage movement and the Populist Party in the years leading up to the 1894 Kansas Populist Convention. Kansas was divided concerning the suffrage movement. Many newspapers carried editorials in support of various women suffragists, sometimes endorsing their opinion, and at other times disparaging specific suffragists.
The Wichita Daily Eagle wrote in an article entitled “Do Kansas Women Want To Vote”, “As for the ten papers by ten Kansas women on the question 'Do Kansas Women Want to Vote', the writers known in the state as pestiferous political females, all answer at greater or less lengths yes; and the womanly ones say emphatically that a majority of them do not." The paper quoted Mrs. Mary A. Humphrey, “Standing thus at the helm, with so much power for good or ill, it becomes her most imperative duty to read, to study, to think, to converse and to convince, leaving the political arena, as she leaves the rougher work of life and the battlefield, to men.” The paper went on to say, “But the Populist party, being run by male and female cranks, adventurers and demagogues, the question of 'female suffrage, will again be submitted to the people of Kansas, and for months to come the Mollie Leases, Anna Diggs, et al., will turn themselves loose to vex and to disgust.” (#3, "Do Kansas Women Want to Vote?" The Wichita Daily Eagle, February 8, 1893)
Diggs’ speaking style and popularity grew over the next decade. “Mrs. Annie L. Diggs spoke in the opera house last Saturday afternoon to about 600 people. Men of all parties speak of the speech as one of the best ever made in this city. Her theme was the growth and power of the people’s party, showing vividly the cause of the great political revolution in Kansas.” (#4, The Great Bend Beacon, November 2, 1893)
In 1894, at a Topeka suffrage rally, Diggs followed Mayor Harrison and Rev. Anna Shaw. The reporter wrote, “Mrs. Diggs made the most important speech at the meeting yesterday and it was one of those odd, interesting little speeches such as nobody except Mrs. Diggs can make. People who hadn’t heard her before whispered when she appeared, ‘Isn’t she cute?’ She is, and her speech was ‘just her’.” At the rally Diggs summed up her passion and enthusiasm for reform, “Mrs. Johns is the sweet one. She is the winning one who does the pleading. I have another plan. I am the fierce one. I scare people’.” (#5, "Annie Scares Them", The Topeka State Journal, May 11, 1894)
It was questionable whether Republicans would support the suffragist plank at their 1894 convention. Diggs was asked what the result would be if the Republican Party refused to add the suffrage plank. Diggs said, “It will be the sorriest day of their lives, for we are just going to trounce the lives out of them.” When she was asked if the Populists would add the plank she said, “We expect them to do it. I have a letter from a prominent populist who says that our party can stand anything but cowardice with our people.” (#6, "Annie Diggs Confident" The Topeka State Journal, May 11, 1894)
However, the Republican Party failed to add the suffrage plank at their convention. There was contentious debate at the Populist convention about the addition of the suffrage plank. In Diggs’ closing argument for the plank, she said, “The question was not a woman question-it was a man question." Diggs went on to ask if it was not true that the Populists intended to go to the polls and stand by their women. "We do, we do, came from all over the house. She asked, ‘Then why are you afraid to put it in the platform?’ She went on to say that the delegates should stand for the new liberty which was dawning upon humanity: that it was not for women, but for humanity she appealed." (#7, ‘Women Suffrage Wins’, The Abilene Weekly Chronicle, June 15, 1894)
Finally, after hours of debate, the suffrage plank was adopted. The convention was emotional and exhausting for Diggs. The next day she was reported as critically ill and that the family had been notified of her illness. (#8, ‘Annie Diggs Very Ill’, The Topeka State Journal, June 14, 1894)
The movement was heartbroken when the suffrage amendment failed in the November general election. The final total vote count was 299,163 and the suffrage amendment received 95,302 votes. (#9, Independent-Journal, Ottawa, Kansas, July 23, 1896) The Republicans gained 27 House seats, won seven of the eight congressional districts and regained the governorship. The Populists held onto their majority in the senate. (‘How the Populists Lost in 1894’, Kansas Historical Quarterly, XXXXI, Autumn 1965)
People continued to turn out in numbers to hear Diggs speak. One advertisement described Diggs as, “The Greatest Female Orator of the State, let every Populist in the county turn out to hear this able speaker. Mrs. Diggs attended the late session of the U.S. Congress and will be well fortified with proper information to show the hypocrisy of the two twin parties. Come early and bring your lunch baskets well filled and stay the day.” (#10, Osborne County News, Osborne, September 13, 1894) According to the Kansas Populist state central committee expense report for 1894, Annie Diggs earned $301.48 for her speaking engagements. (#11, ‘Chairman Breidenthal’s Statement’, The Lyndon Journal, December 13, 1894)
“In the years between 1894 and 1897 Annie’s activities reflected a continual quest for vital reform vehicles both in and out of politics. Her goals never wavered; but in response to the ebb and flow of a changing society, she maintained flexibility in following a variety of methods, which she hoped would promote eventual political and economic equality.” (pg. 89, The Platform and the Pen: The Reform Activities of Annie L. Diggs by Connie Andes Weddle, submitted to the Department of History, Wichita State University, April 1979)
Following the 1894 election, Diggs and the editor of the Advocate, Dr. S. McLallin, became involved in establishing a communal colony on government land in Colorado. Diggs established residency in Colorado and voted in the 1896 presidential election. Colorado ratified women’s suffrage in 1893. She said that was one reason why Colorado was selected was because women they have their political rights and that she was tired of battling for them elsewhere without result. (#12, The Leavenworth Standard, August 29, 1895)
Diggs had strong views on imprisonment and specifically capital punishment. In an 1897 newspaper interview, Diggs said, “The man who today declares in favor of capital punishment does but register the distance his own mentality has traveled enroute from savagery to civilization.” Diggs believed that the taking of a life for a life did not protect society, nor proved a deterrent of crime. She said that in many instances there was a shocking possibility of executing an innocent person (#13, ‘Annie Diggs’ View’, The Topeka State Journal, October 15, 1897) In 1897, there were 1,297 prisoners in confinement at a cost of 44.8 cents per day. (Eleventh Biennial Report of the Kansas State Penitentiary for Fiscal Years 1897-1898)
Railroad reform was a high priority for the Populist party in the 1890s. The party believed that farmers and shippers paid a continuing unfair increase in freight shipping costs set by the railroad commission. The party believed that the state government should pass legislation to support a maximum freight rate.
The 1897, the Railroad Board commissioners wrote that they should be empowered to establish and prescribe a maximum schedule of freight rates, prescribe the classification of freight and fix freight rates according to the gross amount of their annual earnings. In that year, the railroad’s gross earnings were $25,331,768 with total expenses at 19,120,255. The total operating income was $6,211,513. The railroad freight rate revenue was $89,185,119. (Fifteenth Annual Report of the Board of Railroad Commissioners, year ending November 30, 1897)
During the March 1897 legislative session, with a Populist majority in both houses, legislation was passed that did not provide a maximum freight rate. Governor Leedy vetoed this bill. (‘Kansas Conflict: Populism Versus Railroader in the 1890s’, by Donald E. Press, Autumn 1977, vol. 43 n. 3, Kansas Historical Quarterly)
Diggs was not happy about the voting record of the Populist legislators. On March 19, 1897 she was invited and spoke before the Kansas House members. Diggs proceeded to chastise the body for not fully supporting the maximum freight rate for railroads. “I do not feel in a mood to say what you would like to hear, and I am too good a politician to say what is in my heart. You came here instructed to do certain things. You are here and you are weighed in the balance, and, God help you, you are found wanting.” (#14, ‘Scores the Traitors’, The National Field, A Journal of Humanity and Democracy, Salina, March 19, 1897)
Once the Populist party gained inroads within the statehouse, there was speculation that Annie would be rewarded for her many years as a Populist supporter and given a place within the administration. In 1896, it was rumored that Diggs would be given a place of the Board of Charities. She wrote in a letter to a friend, “The newspaper talk about my candidacy for a place on the state board of charities, let me say that the near consideration of the duties and perplexities of the position render it out of the question for me to permit the use of my name as an applicant. I detest fights and quarrels. Moreover, and chiefly I am intensely absorbed and enthused in the work of an educational nature which I have mapped out for myself to do until the national victory is won. Yours, A. L. Diggs.” (#15, ‘Annie Says No Twice’, The Topeka State Journal, November 19, 1896)
The following year Diggs was appointed State Librarian by the Kansas Supreme court judges, but not without controversy. “It was understood long ago that Mrs. Diggs would be given a position as matron of the state industrial school at Beloit. In fact, the various members of the board talked about that as being practically settled. But Mrs. Diggs, it will be remembered, is a very plain-spoken woman, and when she went into the temperance meeting in Hamilton hall and denounced Governor Leedy, she threw out a challenge to moral combat and it was accepted. The governor has been ‘agin’ her ever since. This is the reason that Statehouse frequenters and others who watch the varying fortunes of politics, regard her appointment of Mrs. Diggs as a slap at Governor Leedy.” (#16, ‘Mrs. Diggs Named’, The Kansas Weekly Capital, November 16, 1897)
Diggs would become Kansas’ first woman State Librarian. She served from 1898-1902. Diggs would be recognized as a noteworthy advocate for the state library and she would continue to be involved in her passion for championing social issues throughout her tenure in this position.
In 1908, Margaret Hill McCarter wrote about the impressiveness of Diggs in her feature article, ‘Women: The Gift of State-craft’. She wrote, “Such a little tiny woman she is, just a bundle of nerves wrapped around a soul. Weight, 98 pounds, height, barely five feet; Counting by quantity her influence would be small. But as we do not value a masterpiece on canvas by the yardstick, neither do we weigh character and influence by the steelyards. (#17, ‘A Hundred Kansas Women’, Topeka Daily Capital, September 27, 1908)
View this collection with full articles cited at the State Library of Kansas' KGI Online Library:
ANNIE DIGGS, PART 3: ORIGINAL AND INDEPENDENT THINKER, 1880-1908
You can view Part 1 in this series on Annie Diggs at:
You can view Part 2 in this series on Annie Diggs at: