Chisholm Owen gave voice to women’s suffrage movement

BY ANDY TAYLOR
Montgomery County Chronicle
08/29/2020 10:00 AM
Reprinted with permission
Main Cherokee Phoenix
Narcissa Chisholm Owen
CANEY – Narcissa Chisholm Owen did not live long enough to see the day when women would achieve the right to vote.

However, Narcissa, who spent her last years living at her ranch immediately south of Caney, is one of history’s forgotten suffragettes – a crusader who spent her elder years seeking not only the voting rights of women but specifically the rights of Native American women.

The 19th Amendment, which granted the right to vote to most women, was ratified 100 years ago on Aug. 18. However, the suffrage movement was decades in the making, gaining strength in 1890 with the creation of the North American Woman Suffrage Association.

The suffrage movement ran counter to the prevailing culture of the Victorian era, when women were viewed as softened, submissive and certainly far away from the election booth. Women of the late Victorian Era were rarely afforded any footing in a public or private stage that was domineered by their male spouses. Instead, the women of the late 19th century and early 20th century were culturally and socially thrust under the shadows of their male husbands.

Enter into the national debate the likes of Narcissa, a highly intellectual artisan and musician who was deeply rooted in the Cherokee Nation. Born in Indian Territory as a daughter to the last hereditary chief of the CN, she was known for being contrary to prevailing traditions.   

A music teacher by training and a portrait painter guided by her love for nature and history, she stood out among the women of the CN for her rich talents and education.

She was the mother of two sons: Robert L. Owen, who would be the first U.S. Senator from Oklahoma; and William O. Owen, who would spend his adult career as an Army officer, attaining the rank of colonel at the time of his death in 1924.

In her elder years, Narcissa had two homes: one as an apartment in the exclusive Corcoran Building that was within earshot of the White House in Washington, D.C.; and the other being her Monticello Ranch (named in honor of Thomas Jefferson’s legendary estate in Virginia) one mile south of the Kansas-Oklahoma border immediately south of Caney. There was coincidence in her two homes: she lived in Washington, D.C., and in Washington County, Oklahoma. 

When she was visiting Monticello Ranch south of Caney, Narcissa would often travel throughout the counties of the CN, where, by 1909, she was among the leaders of the Native American women’s suffrage movement.

“I belong to the woman’s suffrage society,” she said in an interview in the Washington, D.C., Evening Star on March 6, 1910, “and I am doing my small best to aid that cause. My sons believe in women having a voice in the affairs of state and they are influenced, I rejoice to say by what they saw me accomplish in days of my stress.”

Narcissa was a widow following the death of her husband, Robert Latham Owen, who died at age 47 in 1873 while as president of the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad. His death left her as the sole breadwinner in a house that included two young sons. After the death of her husband, Narcissa and her sons left their Virginia estate and moved to her native Indian Territory, where she was nearly destitute because of lack of employment. She eventually found employment as a teacher through the Cherokee Female Seminary in Tahlequah and by giving private music lessons to young Cherokees who were exposed to an element of music through her teaching of Mozart and Beethoven.

Through the allotment of Cherokee land to its tribal citizens, she was able to migrate to the northern corner of CN, where she and her son, Robert L. Owen, established the Monticello Ranch.

And, because of its proximity to Caney, she would become a member of the Caney community, primarily as a member of the First Presbyterian Church and various women societies for whom she would entertain at her lavish ranch house.

By the time the women’s suffrage movement gained its nationwide muscle in 1910, Narcissa was nearly 80 years old and a regarded spokeswoman for the cause. At the North American Woman Suffrage Association convention in Washington, D.C., in April 1910, Narcissa was asked by convention organizers to be one of the convention speakers (although she would serve as one of three Oklahoma delegates to the national convention). She politely refused the request, deferring the public speaking task to her son, U.S. Sen. Robert L. Owen of Oklahoma. The senator was one of the main speakers during the week-long convention.

Narcissa died at age 80 while visiting a relative in Guthrie in July 1911. She did not live long enough to see the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

However, because of her connections to the CN, she likely would have been an outspoken critic of the 19th Amendment, because it failed to recognize many minority women within its inclusion. That right would not be granted until 1924 with the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act, also known as the Snyder Act.

However, Narcissa would have been proud of her legacy through her son Robert L. Owen. The senator was an unsuccessful candidate for the Democrat Party nomination for U.S. president in 1920 – the same year that the 19th Amendment was officially ratified.

Among the key issues that Sen. Owen carried in his presidential bid: granting the right to vote to all women.

– REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION

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