Gertrude Watkins (1884–1938)

Gertrude Watkins was a prominent suffragist in Arkansas in the early twentieth century. She was a state leader in the national movement that culminated in the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 granting women the right to vote. While she was best known as a central figure in the Arkansas effort, Watkins also traveled widely, speaking across the country in support of ratification of the amendment.

Gertrude Watkins was born on August 31, 1884, in Little Rock (Pulaski County) to Claibourne Watkins, who was a prominent Little Rock physician, and Mildred Farley Watkins; her grandfather George Watkins was chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court. Watkins, who had three sisters, grew up in Little Rock and spent most of her life there before moving to New York City in the 1920s, where she lived the rest of her life with fellow activist Liba Peshakova.

Watkins was long active in the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), with much of her work focused on helping create better conditions for working women. When those efforts were hindered by political barriers, Watkins became involved in the political process, a step that would ultimately lead to working for the vote. But first she became active in the Political Equality League, an organization for which she would serve as vice president and later president. Indeed, it was through the Political Equality League that Watkins first publicly called for women’s suffrage when, in 1914, she and other members of the group organized a National Suffrage Day in Little Rock. While the event helped raise public awareness in Arkansas, Watkins soon left the local area and headed to New York City, where she undertook an informal course of study in suffrage tactics while working for the New York Woman Suffrage Party in the 1915 campaign. With fellow Arkansans Alice Ellington and Florence Brown Cotnam, Watkins was part of a group that came to be known as “The Arkansas Flying Squadron.” The women attended suffrage schools where they learned from the city’s more experienced suffragists. They also handed out leaflets at rallies before they were ultimately given a chance to speak. The effort taught Watkins how to work with immigrant communities, conduct street meetings, and canvass territory. She put those skills to use as she traveled the country organizing and speaking on behalf of women’s votes in Virginia, North Carolina, and Oklahoma. When she returned to Arkansas, she was bursting with ideas and ready to join the state’s effort.

Her first formal connection to the Arkansas effort appears to have when she attended the July 1916 meeting of the Arkansas Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), where she was chosen as one of the state’s four delegates to attend the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in Atlantic City, New Jersey, later that year. Watkins quickly showed herself to be a skilled organizer, with one report noting that she had organized sixty local suffrage auxiliaries across the state in the space of a month in early 1917.

Although the Arkansas General Assembly offered women an olive branch in 1917 by passing legislation that allowed women to vote in primaries, its refusal to grant them the full right to vote only energized Watkins and her fellow activists. In fact, they not only increased their efforts in the state, but Watkins and others also became active participants in some of the efforts taking place in other parts of the country.

In 1917, in association with the NAWSA, Watkins undertook a speaking tour in New Mexico; one state newspaper described her speeches as “witty as well as convincing.” From there, she headed back to New York, where she played an active role in that state’s successful 1917 referendum campaign. The following year, Watkins went to South Dakota, where she joined with other NAWSA organizers in the ultimately successful effort to achieve women’s suffrage there.

Following the South Dakota victory, Watkins went to Texas, where in 1919 she worked as a field secretary for the Texas Equal Suffrage Association in the Fourteenth Senatorial District, a particularly tough district in a state where the suffrage referendum would fall short. An undeterred Watkins followed her time in Texas with stints in Mississippi, where she lobbied for ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. Once it was ratified and women’s right to vote was a reality, she took a position as a field director for the newly created League of Women Voters. In that role, she traveled widely, including visits to Montana and Oregon.

Watkins, who never married, died in New York City on July 16, 1938. She is buried in the family plot in Mount Holly Cemetery in Little Rock.

For additional information:
Brewer, Kendra, and Molly P. Rozum. “Biographical Sketch of Gertrude Watkins.” Alexander Street. (accessed April 13, 2023).

Cahill, Bernadette. Arkansas Women and the Right to Vote: The Little Rock Campaigns, 1868–1920. Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2015.

Holman, Megan. “Biographical Sketch of Gertrude Watkins.” Alexander Street. (accessed April 13, 2023).

Motl, Kevin C. “Lone Star Lieutenant: Gertrude Watkins and the 1919 Referendum Campaign of the Texas Equal Suffrage Association.” East Texas Historical Journal 54, no. 2 (Fall 2016). Online at (accessed April 13, 2023).

Taylor, Antoinette Elizabeth. “The Woman Suffrage Movement in Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 15 (Spring 1956): 17–52.

William H. Pruden
Ravenscroft School


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