Mary Kate Hunter: Texas suffragette and community organizer

When I started to research Mary Kate Hunter, or Kate Hunter as she was known, I found myself discounting her efforts a bit, as she was part of the “leisure class” of society, her father was an attorney and she belonged to patriotic societies such as Daughters of the Republic of Texas and Daughters of the American Revolution. But more research, especially reading Kevin C. Motl’s dissertation “A Time for Reform: The Woman Suffrage Campaign in Rural Texas, 1914-1919,” (quoted material is from this work) put her efforts in perspective. I realized that she was very much an early community organizer, operating in the constructs of the times in which she lived. I find the ability of this woman to affect change in Texas in the early 20th century truly astonishing. This is her story-

Mary Kate Hunter (1866-1945) lived outside of Palestine, Texas, a small rural town in the Piney Woods of east Texas. In 1890, its population was about 6,000. She spent her youth attending the Palestine Female Academy and other Texas private schools before enrolling in the Sam Houston Normal Institute. She taught in area public schools for several years beginning in 1888 years, then began training as a piano teacher, studying in Chicago, Berlin and Boston. She taught piano in Palestine until her retirement in 1941.

During her time as a music teacher, she was very involved in the organizational life of the women of the area, revolving around an organization known as the Palestine Self Culture Club. In 1894 she went to the meeting of the Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs (TFWA) as the Palestine delegate. At this meeting, TFWA adopted the founding of free public libraries in Texas, which resulted in the founding of the Palestine Carnegie (Public) Library. Hunter took up the cause of women’s voting rights, first as the president of the Palestine Equal Suffrage Association and then as vice president of the Texas Equal Suffrage Association from 1915 to 1916. She toured Texas as an organizer and lecturer for women’s suffrage, often sparring with anti-suffragists along the way.

Suffragists were routinely arrested and ridiculed, with anti-suffragist arguments running the gamut from threats to the integrity of marriage through the “de-sexing” of women, women’s voting being “out of harmony with the laws of God and point[ing] to a world disaster,” as well as countless attacks on the femininity of suffragists. Anti-suffragists were often women and saw themselves as conservative women united to “fight…for freedom—for the great mass of women from hampering political entanglements.” Despite this opposition, Hunter, along with many other Texas suffragists, campaigned tirelessly and in March of 1918, Texas women gained the right to vote in the primary election. In June 1918, Hunter was offered the chairmanship of her county for the primary registration drive. Hunter declared that she already had the entire county organized and had appointed chairmen to every county post office. She thought her best suffrage work now was to get women to register and vote. Texas women won the right to vote in June 1919 and the Texas Equal Suffrage Association became the League of Women Voters of Texas. Hunter started classes to teach women voting procedures and how to evaluate candidates.

In addition to the suffrage movement, she took a great interest in history. From 1919 to 1927 she served on the Texas State Library and Historical Commission (now the Texas State Library and Archives Commission). In 1921 Hunter organized a local unit of the Woman’s National Foundation with an emphasis in local history, researching the history of Palestine and conducting dozens of oral history interviews with early area residents. At her death in 1945, she left her large collection of research materials to the Palestine Public Library, where it remains in use as an important record of Anderson County history.

Hunter epitomized the rural social elite: educated, intellectually curious, ambitious, and refined. But she was also independent, unmarried, and economically independent, almost unheard of in Texas at that time. Kate Hunter was also was a published poet with works in several well-known newspapers and magazines and was elected poet laureate of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. A volume of her poetry, Vision, was published in 1936. From her book:

What if mere want and other ills I dare,
What if my body be not clothed so fair?
I must have books, as lungs need air.

For more information about the Texas Women’s Suffragist movement go to Texas State Library and Archives and Handbook of Texas Online.

Written by Angela Swift (she/her) from Austin, TX. This project, Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land, is a series of stories written by Frank Turner fans, inspired by his new album No Man’s Land.

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