This year marks the 100th anniversary of women voting in Arkansas, and is also the centennial of the first attempt by women to run for public office in the state.
In October 1920, during the midst of the general election campaign, the Arkansas attorney general ruled that the newly ratified 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution allowing women to vote was not sufficient to permit them to actually hold office.
Thus, Dr. Ida Joe Brooks, a well-known educator and physician from Little Rock and the daughter of Joseph Brooks of Brooks-Baxter War fame, was forced to give up her campaign as a Republican for state superintendent of public instruction.
Dr. Brooks has a major place in Arkansas history independent of her political activities. She was, above all else, a woman of her own mind who would not easily capitulate to the traditional expectations of a thoroughly sexist society.
Born in 1853 in Muscatine, Iowa, Ida Joe Brooks was given a masculine middle name in honor of her father. A Methodist minister, Joseph Brooks brought his family to Arkansas at the end of the Civil War. He quickly became involved in the boiling cauldron of Reconstruction politics. Following his unsuccessful attempt to unseat Gov. Elisha Baxter in 1874, Joseph Brooks decided to stay in Little Rock, where he served as postmaster.
A precocious child, Ida Joe Brooks attended local schools before enrolling in Little Rock University, a private college not connected with another college by the same name in the 20th century. She became a teacher in the Little Rock public schools in 1873, quickly gaining recognition as a gifted educator, then received a master's degree from Drury College, which enabled her to teach mathematics at Little Rock University.
After four years of teaching, Ida Joe Brooks was elected the first female president of the Arkansas State Teachers Association.
In 1887 she applied for admission to the all-male medical department at the Arkansas Industrial University (later renamed the University of Arkansas). Brooks protested loudly when she was denied entry because of her sex, but the school refused to bend. She then enrolled in the medical school at Boston University, one of the early schools to admit female applicants.
Receiving her medical degree in 1891, Dr. Brooks returned to Arkansas and established a practice in pediatrics. While one might expect her to have mixed feelings on Arkansas, Dr. Brooks was quite the opposite, commenting, "I'm proud of Arkansas, proud of the advanced ground she has taken on many issues, eager that she shall maintain her position and grow to better things."
Over time Dr. Brooks developed an abiding interest in psychiatry. In 1903 she entered the psychiatry program at Massachusetts Mental Hospital in Middleborough; she also studied in New Jersey and elsewhere. She returned to Arkansas and her practice in 1906.
As noted by the late Dr. Fred O. Henker, who has written about the history of psychiatry in Arkansas, Dr. Brooks "was not accepted warmly by the medical establishment." She was rejected for membership in the Arkansas Medical Society, so in her characteristically defiant manner she formed her own society, the Women's Medical Club of Arkansas.
Ida Joe Brooks could be a stubborn, headstrong person--but she was also a gifted physician, a leader in the growing women's club movement, aware of the growing field of public health, and she was concerned about children.
Gradually the medical community warmed to Dr. Brooks, and in 1914 she joined the staff of the University of Arkansas medical school--the first female faculty member at that institution. Two years later she was hired as the medical director for the Little Rock public schools.
Dr. Brooks became an institution there. She conducted vision and hearing tests for students, and the school district eventually adopted her recommendation to provide eyeglasses to indigent students.
Not surprisingly, Dr. Brooks was concerned about the mental health of her students. After some years of lobbying, she was instrumental in establishing the Exceptional School for "mentally deficient" students, the first of its kind in Arkansas. She also served as the psychiatrist for the Little Rock juvenile court.
As part of her work, Dr. Brooks administered vast numbers of vaccines and other medicines to the public school students. That did not make her popular with the younger students. Many years ago, I heard the late Booker Worthen tell about how, as a boy boarding a streetcar early one Saturday morning and choosing a seat in the back, Dr. Brooks--a big-boned woman--boarded the car and took a seat next to the exit. Young Booker was too intimidated to walk past Dr. Brooks, so he rode the car until the doctor reached her destination.
Dr. Brooks' strong will was on display on May 30, 1917, when she showed up at the military recruiting station in Little Rock and demanded induction into the war-time U.S. Army. Recruiters must have been taken aback, especially when she gave her age as "50-plus," but she promised to "go anywhere the Little Rock boys go."
Despite her age, Dr. Brooks was allowed in the U.S. Public Health Service during the war, serving as a consultant in psychiatry at Camp Pike at the rank of assistant surgeon.
I wish I could have been around to see the face of Arkansas Attorney General John D. Arbuckle when he issued an opinion denying Ida Joe Brooks the right to run for public office in 1920.
Despite heroic efforts by the Republican Party at both the national and state levels, the Democratic attorney general held firm to his belief that before women could vote in Arkansas, "that privilege must be conferred on them either by a state constitutional amendment or by an act of the legislature."
Dr. Brooks never married. She died March 13, 1939, in Little Rock of a broken hip complicated by a heart condition. She was buried at the family plot at Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected]