Phoebe Jane Ess

Author: 
University of Kansas
  • Date of birth: March 3, 1850
  • Place of birth: Versailles, Kentucky
  • Home: 2416 Brooklyn Ave.
  • Claim to fame: “the dean of Missouri club women,” founding member of numerous women’s clubs in Kansas City and advocate for progressive social and municipal reform
  • Also known as: Mrs. Henry N. Ess, Phoebe Jane Routt
  • Political affiliation: Democrat
  • Spouse: Henry Newton Ess
  • Date of death: April 10, 1934
  • Final resting place: Elmwood Cemetery in Kansas City, MO

I came of a liberal-minded people . . . I was born with the principles of equal opportunity for all ingrained in my soul. – Phoebe Ess

Fondly remembered as the “dean of Missouri club women,” Phoebe Jane Ess was an active and energizing force in Kansas City public life during the many years she lived there (1872-1934). Passionate and outspoken, she brought to bear the courage of her convictions on a variety of contentious issues of the day. Ess was a staunch advocate of women’s suffrage, a strong supporter of Prohibition, and she demanded educational reforms for the children in her community. She also worked alongside other like-minded activists to root out corruption in local politics at a time when machine rule dominated Kansas City. Over the course of her long life, Ess worked tirelessly to improve the lives of Kansas Citians. Notably, she was a model reformer at a time when women’s sphere of influence generally did not reach beyond the walls of the home. 

Born March 3, 1850, Phoebe Jane Routt and her twin sister, Betty, spent the earliest years of their life on a farm near Versailles, Kentucky. When the girls were 4 years old, their parents, Thomas and Olivia Downs Routt, decided to seek opportunity further west. They moved the family to Liberty, Missouri, believing it held more promise for them at that time than Kansas City. Phoebe and her sister were enrolled in the Clay County Seminary in Liberty, where they received their education. It would not be until she was 22 years old that Phoebe Jane Routt would make her home in Kansas City, Missouri.

The Routt family moved from Liberty to Kansas City in 1872, where Phoebe began teaching upper grade students at the city’s first public school building—Washington School, located at Independence Avenue and Cherry Street. She taught there for three years before leaving the profession in 1875. Ms. Routt did not leave teaching behind due to a lack of passion or commitment to education, however. She left to begin a new chapter in her life as a wife and mother.

In 1875 Phoebe Routt was married to the prominent Kansas City lawyer, Henry Newton Ess. Mr. Ess was already firmly established in the community as a partner at the prosperous and well-respected law firm Karnes & Ess. The pair would go on to raise two daughters and a son. At that time, it was customary for young women, if they had been employed previously, to leave paid work behind and devote their energies fully to the care of house and home once they were married. Although Ess did stop her work as a teacher after getting married, she never lost her sense of duty and passion for helping those around her. She dedicated much of her life to the betterment of herself, her city, and her community.

After leaving the school room, Ess began to improve Kansas City and the lives of those who called it home through her prodigious work in women’s clubs. Zeal for women’s clubs in America was taking off at this time, and Kansas City club women were sure not to miss any opportunity to contribute to the development of their city. One of the first such groups Ess became associated with was known as the Tuesday Morning Study Class. Originally convened in 1882 by Sarah Chandler Coates, another prominent Kansas Citian, the club’s primary aims were “mental improvement and the pursuit of a systematized course of study,” which had long been denied to women. Ess was a charter member of this group.

Ess received unanimous nomination for president of the Missouri State Federation of Women's Clubs. Missouri Valley Special Collections.

It was in her capacity as a member of the Tuesday Morning Study Class that Ess participated in the formation of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC), an organization that would later become a considerable force in American politics. At an 1889 conference convened in New York by Jane Cunningham Croly, representatives of 61 women’s clubs from across the nation gathered to discuss forming a permanent federation. Though most women’s clubs initially began as literary societies focused on education and self-improvement, much like the Tuesday Morning Study Class, they gradually expanded their focus to include more benevolent, philanthropic endeavors geared toward community improvement. Banding together in the GFWC allowed club women all across the country to coordinate their efforts on larger social issues.

Back in Kansas City, Ess continued to add more club memberships to her growing roster. One that Ess would devote considerable time and energy to over the next several decades embodied the dual ideals of self- and community improvement. This club was called the Athenaeum, and it would become one of the city’s largest and most influential women’s clubs. As the popularity of women’s clubs continued to grow in Kansas City, and as many women held membership in several clubs at one time, it became apparent that women could accomplish more in their city if they coordinated their efforts. The Athenaeum was formed to meet just such a need. In May 1894, sitting in the Unitarian Church on West 10th Street, Ess listened to the following address:

Has not the time gone by when we should work only in isolated groups[?] Has not the time come when Kansas City needs the women’s clubs? When she needs the combined influence of the knowledge, the mental culture and the discipline that have come from these thirteen years of work in literary clubs? Has not the time come when it behooves us to stand shoulder to shoulder in the uplifting of the mental, moral, and physical status of our city? Could we not as component parts of one organization, whether clubs or individuals, broaden and deepen our intellectual work and accomplish much, when individually we have been weak?

Ess heeded this call and became, along with 57 other women at that first meeting, a charter member pledged to help create the Athenaeum club. Ess would become the Athenaeum’s first treasurer in 1894 and would even go on to serve as the club’s fourth president in 1899.

Phoebe Ess earned quite a reputation as an industrious club woman, with friends and associates claiming that she had a role in the formation of over 30 clubs. Whether or not she really had a hand in forming 30 groups, her club affiliations were many. She was connected to a variety of clubs, including the Missouri Federation of Women’s Clubs, Women of the Humane Society, Council of Clubs, Susan B. Anthony Civic Club, the “League of Women Voters, Jefferson Democratic Club, Woman’s City Club, Mother’s Day Nursery, the Mothers and Children Society (out of which grew the Parent-Teacher Association), and the Welfare league for the Prevention of Crime and Delinquency.” Through all of her club work, Ess remained an outspoken advocate for measures and reforms that would improve the lives of Kansas Citians.

One of the things Ess is most widely remembered for is her work on behalf of women’s suffrage. She was an outspoken advocate for passage of the 19th Amendment well before many women’s clubs in Kansas City formally endorsed the measure. In a 1928 Kansas City Star profile of her career, Ess reflected on the difficulties of being so far ahead of her contemporaries on the matter of suffrage:

Why, when we first began to work on suffrage in this city it was almost a dangerous thing to do. . . . Back in the ‘90s women who talked "women’s rights’"were called "cranks" and "blue-stockings" and "strong-minded." It took courage to go into a man’s office to try and interest him in the cause. He was apt to warn his wife not to have anything to do with you.

Though often challenging and exhausting work, Ess never gave up on her commitment to the cause. She was one of the founders of the Susan B. Anthony Civic Club and served as that organization’s only president for 23 years.

As a member of numerous women’s clubs in Kansas City, Ess was able to advocate for suffrage to a large audience of reform-minded women. She traveled all around the state of Missouri during these years, working tirelessly to drum up support for the 19th Amendment. In a profile of Ess, Jane Fifield Flynn writes that “despite strong opposition she traveled the state carrying the banner for a woman’s right to vote, and owing largely to her efforts, Jackson County was one of the first Missouri counties to adopt women’s suffrage.” For Ess, a woman’s right to vote was a fundamental issue of equality. In 1922, she wrote in the Kansas City Star, “I have fought the battle of woman suffrage from the first, because I believed it to be a matter of simple justice.”

Athenaeum Resolution
Athenaeum resolution endorsing continued building of playgrounds in Kansas City schools. Missouri Valley Special Collections.

Ess did not limit her efforts to women’s suffrage alone. She was also dedicated to making sure the children of Kansas City received a quality education. She lobbied the Kansas City Public School District in order to get playgrounds and arts education installed in public schools. She also had a hand in creating the Mothers and Children Society, a forerunner to what we now know as Parent-Teacher Associations (PTAs). In her efforts to improve Kansas City schools, Ess would even become the first woman in city history to run for election to a public office. In 1918, before women even had the right to vote, she consented to her name being listed on the Union Labor ticket for the Kansas City School Board. Though she did not win a seat, her nomination is a testament to the faith her fellow citizens placed in her abilities. 

Beyond women’s suffrage and education reform, Ess devoted herself to a variety of other issues. Announcing a dinner to be held in her honor at the Athenaeum club in 1932, the Star wrote that many of the city’s women had worked alongside Ess,

in movements to establish compulsory education, prison reform, prohibition, traveling libraries, public kindergartens, day nurseries, parent-teacher associations, world peace and disarmament. . . . "She didn’t wait at home for someone else to start these movements," said one of her friends. "She went forth to work tirelessly, using all her influence, her skill in organization, her gift for public speaking."

Such words are a testament to the breadth and depth of Ess’s dedication to the people of her city. Never satisfied with the status quo, she exerted herself on behalf of those with less power and influence than she.

Phoebe Jane Ess died in her twin sister’s home on April 10, 1934, at the age of 84, leaving behind a legacy of public service and progressive reform. In the 62 years she lived there, Ess worked diligently to improve the quality of life for so many in a growing Kansas City. Guided by a broad humanitarianism and an uncomplicated sense of justice, she left her mark on nearly every facet of civic life. From school reform to prison reform, agitating for women’s suffrage and world peace, Phoebe Ess certainly was, as described by the Star, “the one woman, who, if cities may be endowed with mothers, rightly would be called the mother of Kansas City.”

Acknowledgement: 

This essay was developed as part of an Applied Humanities Summer Fellowship, cosponsored by the Hall Center for the Humanities at the University of Kansas.

KANSAS CITY PUBLIC LIBRARY | DIGITAL HISTORY
Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict,1855-1865.
The Pendergast Years, Kansas City in the Jazz Age & Great Depression.
KC History, Missouri Valley Special Collections at the Kansas City Public Library.