Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

BARNARD, KATE (1875-1930)

Catherine Ann (Kate) Barnard is representative of the women in the Great Plains who made a career of social activism on behalf of the poor and vulnerable, voicing the concerns of the working class, minorities, women, and families in agricultural states experiencing rapid development. Kate was born in Geneva, Nebraska, on May 23, 1875, but grew up in Kirwin, Kansas. Her mother died there in 1877. In the mid-1890s she moved with her father, John P. Barnard, to a claim he had staked in the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889. While her father practiced law in Oklahoma City, Kate lived alone on the homestead, enduring the isolation, wind, and hard work, until the claim was secure. She then moved to Oklahoma City and attended St. Joseph's Academy. She taught in rural schools from 1896 to 1899 and then worked as a stenographer before taking charge, in 1905, of the Provident Association of Oklahoma City, a floundering charity organization. Barnard's highly successful appeals for contributions through the Daily Oklahoman newspaper turned her home into a distribution center for food, clothing, money, and job-placement information.

Barnard moved beyond charity to activism when she founded the local chapter of the Women's International Union Label League and represented the workers of the Oklahoma City Trades and Labor Assembly in 1905-7. These efforts made her an attractive advocate to socialist and populist political factions. She developed alliances with women's groups such as the Oklahoma Territory Federation of Women's Clubs, and she traveled to several major cities to interview the leaders of national reform organizations, making valuable contacts and gaining firsthand information about the latest social justice measures. As Oklahoma statehood approached in 1907, Democratic Party leaders recognized Barnard's political potential. She represented the women's lobby at the preliminary Shawnee Convention, urging child labor legislation, compulsory education, prison reform, and the creation of an office of commissioner of charities and corrections to oversee these issues. In the state document, members of the constitutional convention worded the description of the commissioner of charities and corrections to include a woman officeholder so that she might have the position. She was such an effective campaigner that she polled more votes from an all-male electorate than any other candidate, including the governor. She was reelected in 1910.

Barnard used her new office as the vehicle to propose aggressive legislation to implement her reforms and to demand adequate appropriations to establish effective social welfare institutions. Her graphic exposures in 1908 and 1909 of the treatment of Oklahoma prisoners in Kansas jails led to the construction of the first state penitentiary at McAlester and to a national reputation as an authority on prison reform. The publicity surrounding her descriptions of the shortcomings of the Oklahoma government's response to the poor and helpless, as well as her outspoken demands for money and action, soon angered party leaders such as William "Alfalfa Bill" Murray, speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. Barnard's prosecution of corrupt, court-appointed "guardians" who dispossessed Indian orphans of valuable land, money, and oil assets led to her political downfall. In retaliation for her interference, members of the state legislature launched an investigation of her office, cut her appropriations, and recommended that the office be abolished. Barnard left political office in 1914, exhausted and ill. In obscurity she continued to advocate on behalf of society's most vulnerable citizens until she died alone in an Oklahoma City hotel on February 23, 1930.

Linda Reese University of Oklahoma

Crawford, Suzanne, and Musslewhite, Lynn. "Kate Barnard, Progressivism, and the West." In "An Oklahoma I Had Never Seen Before": Alternative Views of Oklahoma History, edited by Davis D. Joyce. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994: 62–79.

Reese, Linda W. Women of Oklahoma, 1890–1920. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.

Short, Julia A. "Kate Barnard: Liberated Woman." Master's thesis, University of Oklahoma, 1972.

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