Clarina I. H. Nichols, 1810-1885
Clarina Nichols, a recognized leader in the woman’s rights movement and a champion of many other reform causes before ever moving to Kansas Territory, was born Clarina Irene Howard in West Townshend, Vermont, on January 25, 1810. She received an above average education for her day, taught school, married at age twenty, worked for a newspaper (the Windham County Democrat in Brattleburo, Vermont), and had three children. In addition, she founded a seminary for young ladies in Herkimer, New York. In 1843, soon after divorcing her first husband, Justin Carpenter, she married George W. Nichols, the Democrat’s editor who was twenty-eight years her senior. (One son, George B., was born to this union.) Mrs. Nichols ultimately took over the newspaper’s editorial duties, making the Democrat more literary and more closely aligned with a variety of reform causes.
Nichols inaugurated her woman’s rights career with a series of articles criticizing standard property restrictions on married women, of the time. Her literary campaign, along with the efforts of other woman’s rights reformers, ultimately succeeded in changing statutes in both New York and Vermont by 1852. Nichols’ efforts made her something of a regional celebrity and a sought after public speaker. When Kansas and Nebraska were opened to non-Indian settlement in 1854, Nichols quickly decided to migrate to the new territory, partly so that her sons could establish new free-state homesteads and because of George Nichols’ failing health. In 1854 she joined the New England Emigrant Aid Society and soon moved her family to a claim in southern Douglas County, near Prairie City.
Clarina Nichols’ contribution to reform in Kansas focused mostly on woman’s rights, but like most activist women of her day, she also was opposed to slavery. Her husband died in 1855, and Nichols spent much of 1856 on the campaign trail seeking support for Kansas and John C. Fremont, Republican presidential nominee. On October 4, 1856, she wrote Thaddeus Hyatt regarding the objectives of her recent speaking tour in Pennsylvania: “In the first place I am laboring . . . to subsist my two sons in the Free State army of Kansas by the pay I get from the lectures.” Subsequently, Nichols moved the family to Wyandotte County, where in the spring of 1857 she became associate editor of the Quindaro Chindowan, an antislavery newspaper. Nichols traveled throughout the territory lecturing about equality, gathering signatures on petitions, and by 1859 building support for her participation at the Wyandotte Constitutional Convention. These petitions persuaded the delegates to give Nichols a voice and a platform. She sat in on the convention’s daily proceedings, occupying a seat of prominence next to the chaplain. While there, she lobbied the delegates to grant women equal educational opportunities and the right to vote in school district elections, as well as equal standing on child custody matters and equality in holding real and personal property. Largely due to Nichols’ lobbying efforts, the Wyandotte Constitution guaranteed these rights to Kansas women, and once the convention finished its work, Nichols campaigned for the constitution’s adoption by the electorate.
This successful campaign, which ended with the referendum of October 4, 1859, however, did not end the struggle for equality. Kansas was a vital battleground for woman’s rights, and events here remained important to the national movement. Thus, when the Kansas campaign for equal suffrage was launched in 1867, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, Olympic Brown, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton joined Clarina I. H. Nichols in a valiant but futile effort. Kansas voters rejected amendments for both female and African American suffrage. The cause of woman’s rights advanced slowly, thereafter, but it did advance, thanks to Nichols and many other selfless and dedicated women. Nichols left Kansas in 1871 to be with two of her children in California, where she died on January 11, 1885. But, of course, the cause lived on. Two years after Nichols’ death, Kansas women could vote in municipal elections, and in 1912 they succeeded in their long effort to amend the state constitution and gain equality at the polls.
Bassett, T. D. Seymour. Biographical Sketch. Notable American Women, 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.
Gambone, Joseph G., editor. “The Forgotten Feminist of Kansas: The Papers of Clarina I. H. Nichols, 1854-1885.” Kansas Historical Quarterly 39 (Spring 1973): 12-57, and seven subsequent issues.
Kellogg, Lyman B. “The Founding of the State Normal School.” Kansas Historical Collections, 1911-1912 12 (1912): n. 94-95.