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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
Born in Nebraska to Irish-Catholic parents in 1875, Kate lost her mother before her second birthday. Her father, John P. Barnard, a wandering jack-of-all-trades, shuffled her among relatives, and her early life was marked by feelings of loneliness and desertion. She found solace in her Catholic faith and convictions about service. Unsuccessful in Oklahoma’s first land run, her father secured a claim in the second in 1891, near Newalla. He placed sixteen-year-old Kate on the property alone in a two-room shack for two years to “prove up” title while he worked in Oklahoma City. She joined him there at eighteen, where she studied at St. Joseph’s parochial school downtown, obtained her teacher’s certificate, and taught at St. Joseph’s and in rural schools until age twenty-seven. A year later, following a business course, she landed a secretarial position with the territorial legislature in Guthrie.
Among five hundred applicants, Barnard was chosen to become the territorial hostess, acting as an ambassador for the soon-to-be state of Oklahoma at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. As one historian noted, “the slender, dark-haired woman of flashing eyes, smooth, high brow and olive skin… found it easy to communicate with the leaders of the exposition.” At a gathering of humanitarian organizations there, she met Chicago’s Hull House founder Jane Addams and other prominent names in social reform and saw her first big-city slums and their attendant crime, poverty, orphans, and children maimed in industrial accidents. From that day, her life was forever changed.
The young crusader returned to Oklahoma Territory in fall 1904 with what she felt was a mandate from God, determined to bear a torch for the less fortunate. Believing the answer to America’s poverty began with its children, she wrote opinion pieces for the Daily Oklahoman describing the misery in her west Reno neighborhood in Oklahoma City. From her home, she advertised for and received donations of more than ten thousand garments for children and the poor. Bringing women’s and ministerial groups together, she procured books, arranged medical treatment, organized the unemployed, and found jobs for hundreds of people. Her efforts led to a significant increase in the city’s manual labor wage.
As statehood approached in 1907, the woman newspapers now dubbed “Saint Kate” was suddenly riding the tide of public opinion. She became a key figure in the drafting of twenty-five demands for the new constitution, including compulsory education, mine inspections, child labor laws, eight-hour workdays for public employees, and a corporation commission to regulate business and industry.
Her persuasive appeal took the constitutional convention by storm. When the delegates approved her proposal for a department of charities and corrections, she was the natural choice to lead it, even though women were prohibited from holding public office. In an unprecedented move, she was allowed as a candidate for the position by proclamation.
Earnest and fresh, with style and presence, she drew huge crowds to her campaign speeches, delivered from corners, courthouse steps, and hay wagons. Her election card read: “Miss Kate Barnard, friend of the poor, Democratic candidate for State Commissioner of Charities, clothed and schooled 500 poor children, homed 2,000 of Oklahoma’s poor last year.”
To the surprise of few, Barnard won the election by a large margin.
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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.