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Kate Barnard’s compassion and charisma left a mark on Oklahoma politics before her own gender had won the right to vote. In the process, she left a legacy of service to the most vulnerable Oklahomans.
By Jim Logan
Published November/December 2012
Near an old cedar in the northwest section of Oklahoma City’s Fairlawn Cemetery lies the grave—for half a century unmarked—of a near-forgotten individual whom historian Joseph Thoburn called “the most remarkable woman in Oklahoma.” From low beginnings and with little formal education, Catherine Ann “Kate” Barnard became a savior to the state’s children, orphans, poor, mentally challenged, hungry, infirm, and imprisoned.
Despite being five feet tall and just over ninety pounds, she struck fear into opposing politicians and was a driving force in the creation of Oklahoma’s groundbreaking constitution. With appeal that transcended party lines, she was the first woman in America elected to state public office—more than a decade before women had the right to vote in Oklahoma—and outpolled every candidate, including two governors with whom she shared a ballot.
In seven years in office, her impact was staggering. With a keen sense of public opinion, she magnetized journalists from coast to coast. A young Angie Debo saw her speak and later recalled that she “had power over an audience that seldom is equaled.” Barnard’s efforts led to passage of thirty laws, resulting in child labor reform, compulsory school attendance, a juvenile court and reformatory system for young offenders, orphanages, institutions for the mentally and physically disabled, prison reform, and modern, humane correctional facilities. She improved labor conditions for Oklahomans and brought national attention to orphaned Indian children defrauded of mineral and property rights by court-appointed guardians. Her work paved the way for Oklahoma women’s participation in social reform.
Opponents left early to avoid her in debate. Citizens and members of the media clamored for a glimpse of the woman who would write that she had witnessed life “from the homes of Fifth Avenue millionaires to the hovels of American slums, from receptions at the White House to gutter gatherings of homeless vagabonds and penniless tramps.”
When British Ambassador James Bryce visited Oklahoma and was asked about the state’s progressive new constitution, he said, “It is the finest document of human liberty written since the Declaration of Independence, and the credit for making it such is due, principally, to the activities of a single woman—Kate Barnard.”
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In 1998, the Oklahoma Commission on the Status of Women created the Kate Barnard Award to honor women in public service in Oklahoma. ok.gov/ocsw. Sandra Van Zandt’s sculpture of Kate Barnard is located on the first-floor East Gallery of the Oklahoma State Capitol at 2300 North Lincoln Boulevard in Oklahoma City. (405) 521-3356. The Oklahoma Territorial Museum in Guthrie offers two programs for student groups, “Kate Barnard in Person,” a living history lecture, and “Kate Barnard: In Her Own Words,” an interactive lecture, and she is featured in the museum’s Statehood and Bending the Rules exhibits. 406 East Oklahoma Avenue, (405) 282-1889 or okterritorialmuseum.org.