Call Her a Citizen: Progressive-Era Activist and Educator Anna Pennybacker

reviewed by Richard Fossey - April 11, 2011

coverTitle: Call Her a Citizen: Progressive-Era Activist and Educator Anna Pennybacker
Author(s): Kelley M. King
Publisher: Texas A&M University Press,
ISBN: 1603441859, Pages: 288, Year: 2010
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Kelley M. King’s biography of Anna Pennybacker reveals a complicated and highly accomplished woman who began her adult life in a small town in post-Reconstruction era Texas and who rose to national prominence as a Progressive era activist and educator. In addition, King’s book is a window for examining the status of women in American society during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when a great many Americans believed women should be relegated to the domestic sphere and not be permitted to vote or participate in public life.

Anna Pennybacker was born Anna Hardwicke in Petersburg, Virginia during the first year of the Civil War. Her family migrated to Kansas when she was a young girl and moved to Bryan, Texas shortly after she graduated from high school. She received training as a teacher at Sam Houston Normal Institute in Huntsville, Texas; and she married Percy Pennybacker, the school superintendent in Tyler, Texas, when she was 23 years old. Percy died 15 years later of leukemia, leaving Anna alone with three children.

From her early adult years, Anna Pennybacker apparently realized that public education provided the best career opportunities for an intelligent and ambitious woman like herself.  She worked as a teacher and principal during her early twenties and became actively involved in the newly formed Texas State Teachers Association. She also wrote the first textbook on Texas history, which became the only state-approved text on the subject for many years.

In its first edition, Anna Pennybacker’s Texas history text was characterized by a florid, romantic style and intensely patriotic themes. The text also revealed that Pennybacker shared many of the prejudices and values held by Texans in the late nineteenth century.  In one passage, Pennybacker described Mexicans as “lazy” and “insolent,” and she referred to the Confederacy’s most famous general as “our noble Lee” (pp. 52-53). Although the book was severely criticized in some circles, Pennybacker edited it, toning down the writing style and improving the content. In time, she sold as many as 25,000 copies a year, and she established her own publishing firm to produce and market the book. Eventually, the state’s Textbook Committee endorsed a competing Texas history text authored by three prominent historians at the University of Texas. Nevertheless, for years, Pennybacker’s History, as the book was called, shaped the minds of Texas school children with a romantic portrayal of Texas history. Book sales helped Anna to become financially independent as a young widow with children, which later enabled her to take her place on the national stage as a Progressive activist.

While still a young woman, Pennybacker became active in the growing women’s club movement of the late nineteenth century.  In its formative period, women’s clubs were dedicated to women’s self-improvement; but as the movement matured, women’s clubs gave women opportunities to become actively involved in civic and political reform--including the drive to give women the right to vote.

As King explains, the women’s club movement was met by deep hostility and suspicion in its early years. Former president Grover Cleveland, writing in an article in the Ladies’ Home Journal, warned against the “club habit” and declared that “the best and safest club for a woman to patronize is her home” (p. 70). Women’s club members were accused of abandoning their sacred responsibilities to husbands and children and with undermining family and community values.

Texas women’s clubs formed the Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1897, and Pennybacker was elected the club’s third president in 1901. She was seen as a peacemaker in the organization, a conservative, and the embodiment of feminine gentility.

In her role as president of TFWC, Pennybacker led the Federation’s efforts to establish public libraries across the state, construct a dormitory for women at the University of Texas, and lobby for the creation of a Texas university for women. In her public role as TFWC president, she also supported the imposition of a poll tax to raise money for public education, although as King noted, Pennybacker was apparently aware that the poll tax was considered by many as a strategy for disenfranchising black and Hispanic voters.

As president of the Texas Federation of Women’s Club, Pennybacker was an influential voice in the General Federation of Women’s Club (GFWC), the national umbrella organization for women’s clubs in the United States. In this capacity, she was instrumental in preventing African American women’s clubs from joining the GFWC.  Pennybacker and the unanimous board of the Texas Federation publicly endorsed the position that the GFWC’s biannual meetings “shall be composed of white women only” (p. 89).

From her platform as president of the Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs, Pennybacker quickly moved into leadership positions in the national organization. In 1904, she was appointed treasurer and membership secretary of the GFWC. In 1912, she was elected president of the organization in a campaign that pitted her against an ardent supporter of women’s suffrage.  Publicly at least, Pennybacker had not advocated in favor of a woman’s right to vote.  Her silence on this topic contributed to her support among Southern women at the GFWC convention, who by and large were not ardent supporters of women’s suffrage.

Pennybacker served two terms as president of GFWC.  She was criticized at the time for her reluctance to support women’s suffrage, although the organization eventually adopted a mild resolution in favor of a woman’s right to vote.  On the other hand, as King points out, Pennybacker’s decision not to take an aggressive stance in favor of women’s voting rights may have held the GFWC together at a time when many Southern women’s groups did not support the women’s suffrage movement.

After her term as president of GFWC ended in 1916, however, Pennybacker became active in the suffrage movement, even joining the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and becoming head of the organization’s Child Welfare Committee.  Although she was seen by some as a “lukewarm latecomer” to the suffrage movement, she became a strong Southern voice in favor of a woman’s right to vote; and she favored a federal constitutional amendment to achieve that goal (p. 133). She made speeches throughout the South in favor of women’s suffrage.  In the end, although Texans rejected a state women’s suffrage law, the Texas legislature voted in favor of a constitutional amendment that gave women the right to vote, the first Southern state to do so.

In later years, Pennybacker supported a variety of progressive causes, including the National League of Women Voters and the League of Nations. In the 1920s, she was a vigorous advocate for immigrants at a time when a virulent and even violent form of nativism was sweeping the country.  Unlike many Southerners, she did not support a freeze on immigration; and she challenged racist and anti-immigrant sentiments in the women’s club movement. “Our aliens bring rich gifts,” Pennybacker told an audience in South Dakota. Yet, “[w]e turn them away with a hostile look and a cheap nickname for each nationality” (p. 177).  In contrast, to such nativist groups as the Ku Klux Klan, she urged immigrants to hang on to the cultural traditions of their home countries.

In summary, Kelley King has given us a rich and complicated portrait of a Southern woman who cultivated her image as a dainty, genteel Southern woman to promote Progressive causes throughout her life. In retrospect, Pennybacker’s prejudiced views on race and her tardy participation in the women’s suffrage movement are regrettable; but King shows us that Pennybacker eventually overcame many of the prejudices of her day to advocate for causes that would improve American society as a whole. Certainly, she was a role model for woman--and particularly Southern women--at a time when women were entering into the nation’s civic and political life for the first time. King’s volume is an impressive example of biography writing at its best. With dexterity and skill, she places Anna Pennybacker in the context of her times and her region. King’s book should be read by anyone who is interested in the women’s suffrage movement in the United States and the role of women in the Progressive era of the early twentieth century.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 11, 2011 ID Number: 16380, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 7:15:33 PM

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