Beginning in the early 1880s, Dr. Eva Harding and a small group of women applied their sense of duty to society and in the name of social justice transformed local women’s clubs from their earlier devotion to charity and religion to focus on economic and political equality and social reform. Born in Ohio in 1857, Harding’s family claimed the distinction of being the only in America to boast all three female siblings becoming physicians. In 1882, Harding joined the medical practice of one of her sisters in Atchison, Kansas. Ten years later, she established herself in Topeka, centering her practice on women and children.

Dr. Eva Harding

If there was an underpinning to Harding’s activism, it was the belief that women should use their influence to better society. An organizer of the Topeka Women’s Progressive Political League, Harding railed against the notion that women were the weaker sex.  A co-founder of the local branch of the National Peace Society, Harding believed the only way to avert the inevitable “struggle between labor and capital in which blood will flow over the whole country” was to educate working class women. Once mobilized, they would reject violence and force arbitration, making demands that “those in power, whether in the government or the labor organizations, will not dare to disregard.”

Harding took to the streets in the crusades for women’s suffrage and temperance.  She rose in a Topeka courtroom to battle the “Book Trust” with school boards forcing parents to purchase often outdated supplementary text books for their children causing a hardship for the poor. A fierce advocate for Topeka’s children, Harding rallied support for child labor laws and donated land to the city for use as its first municipal playground. What she saw while tending to children at the Girl’s Industrial School led her to level a charge of abuse against the Superintendent. In 1916, seeking the nomination for the U.S. Senate, first as a Democrat and then as an Independent, Harding ran on a platform calling for women’s suffrage, prohibition, aid for small farmers, old-age pensions, and pensions for needy mothers with children

With the nation at war, Harding’s concerns turned from domestic issues to international concerns. “We are advised to be brave, to smile as our children are sent to war” she reflected. As children “we are taught safety first, to stop, look and listen.” Now “that is just what we are doing,” when “some fellows get up and tell us to smile when we say good-bye to our children.”

Thomas Rosenblum has worked with Historic Hudson Valley, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Oklahoma Historical Society. For the past twenty-five years he has been with the National Park Service as a Curator and Historian and is currently on the staff of Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site.