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Influential Women of SD: Marietta Bones
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Lori Walsh: During the centennial year of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which assured that women in the United States have a right to vote, SDPB has embarked on a project to tell the history of suffrage in South Dakota. Today we continue our look at that history with a profile of Marietta M. Bones of Webster. Bones gained national prominence in the movement only to switch sides, after infighting within the movement left her disillusioned with the cause and actively working against it. Here to tell us more about this story is Nancy Tystad Koupal. She is the director of the South Dakota Historical Society Press in Pierre. Nancy, welcome back to the program. Thanks for being here.

Nancy Tystad-Koupal: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Lori Walsh: Let's go back a little bit in the story of Marietta Bones, because I think people might be surprised when she was active in South Dakota, but I want to hear how she got here in the first place. What do we know about her early years?

Nancy Tystad-Koupal: Well, not as much as I wish we did, is the short answer. She grew up in an abolitionist family in the East and married out there and then divorced and came out here with her second husband, who was a political appointee in the Republican party in Dade County.

Lori Walsh: How common was it for a woman to be divorced in this timeframe?

Nancy Tystad-Koupal: Not that common, you put your finger on it, but by that time it was becoming more common because the laws were changing. People were looking, women were lobbying for leaner, or not leaner, but more lenient divorce laws, so that women could bring suit to get out of particularly abusive relationships and that sort of thing.

Lori Walsh: So, does her divorce and that process of figuring out what happened in her life next? Because I understand, she didn't get a lot of money or support, she got zero, she says. Tell us a little bit about how she got interested in this idea of giving women a voice and a vote?

Nancy Tystad-Koupal: Well, I think a lot of that goes back to the fact that her family was involved in the abolitionist movement. That's the route that a lot of the early women took to come to suffrage, was fighting for freedom for the African American slaves. So, I think that's where it started. And she obviously came from a family that believed in public service and service to your fellow man. She was always working on one cause or another, and she was very personal with it. I was just reading a little bit before this, for example, she would champion people that were ill. She would take them to Chicago, if they couldn't get the care they needed in South Dakota, for example. So, she was just very passionate about helping others and she felt that the vote for women was the way to make a lot of social change. And she was like that, I mean, that was not unusual for women of the period. They were looking for social change through votes for women. I hope I answered your question there.

Lori Walsh: How does she become close to people like Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Gage? What are some of her connections with them? And tell us a little bit about her relationship with Susan B. Anthony, at first.

Nancy Tystad-Koupal: I think that she became connected with these people, in particular, when she came out here to Dakota territory in the early 1880s. And she was a part of the National American Women's Suffrage Association and she was designated a vice president. I think the women became very connected through those movements. They got to know one another, she went to national meetings. She met Susan B. Anthony, I think for the first time, down in Nebraska at a meeting, suffrage meeting, in the early '80s down there, 1881. And because there were so few of them working out here, the national suffrages got to know these women because they corresponded. It's now a very lost art, but they wrote copious letters back and forth.

Lori Walsh: Why is it important on the path to statehood, what was the hope at that point, that becoming a state in 1889 would be paired with suffrage?

Nancy Tystad-Koupal: Well, the women had been promoting votes for women for many years. And in 1883, Marietta Bones had actually lobbied the state constitutional convention to put a woman's suffrage plank in the state constitution, and they didn't do that. They didn't do it in '83, but in '85, they rethought what they were doing and put a plank in that said, the people could vote on this issue, there was the idea that you shouldn't just do something without people being able to vote on it. So, the problem, of course, was that only males were voters. So, it was self serving in many ways.

Lori Walsh: What do we know about the changing of her mind or her evolution? Because she comes out vocally and with strong leadership on one side of an issue and ends up to be a pretty fierce opponent of it, take us through her transition.

Nancy Tystad-Koupal: Well, I think, that often we tend to think that the suffrage movement ... I think that view's changing, but I think for many, many years, we always thought that all the women were on the same page. They all wanted suffrage. They all worked together with that idea in mind. But, in fact, they were individuals just like all the rest of us, and they had differing points of view about how to achieve suffrage and, as you know, it was a long and very painful fight. And so, the women had plenty of opportunity to disagree about how to go about it. And for Bones, she was a very opinionated woman, I think, would be safe to say she, she knew and thought she knew how it should be done. She had allied, she thought with Susan B. Anthony, to get this done, she was a part of the national temperance organization, the WCTU, and she had allied with Francis Willard.

And then, in 1890, the politics of both the WCTU and the National Women's Suffrage Association, they changed. They decided it was time to try different approaches and soon, or not soon in the end, but Marietta Bones simply and profoundly disagreed with the change in approach. And it became really personal between her and Susan B. Anthony, because Anthony who was in charge of the national movement at that time, pretty much said, "Get lost. We don't need you. Your work is over." And the WCTU ... In many ways Bones went and became a part of the shadow organization of that, which was called the nonpartisan WCTU.

And that was in opposition to what the people in Webster wanted and were doing, and so they drummed her out of the local organization, and so, suddenly she was without a home. And at that point in time too, there was a lot of speculation that Anthony was embezzling money and doing different things that were not helping the cause. And so, what Marietta Bone says is, "This just isn't working. Neither one of these organizations are making suffrage happen and until we get better management, I am not going to be a part of these movements." And she held to that for the rest of her life.

Lori Walsh: She was decisive to her word, when she decided to be. So fascinating. I look forward to so many more of these conversations throughout the summer. Nancy Tystad Koupal is the director of South Dakota Historical Society Press in Pierre and we've been talking about Marietta Bones. Nancy, thank you so much for being here.

Nancy Tystad-Koupal: Well, you're welcome. Thanks for having me.