On Wednesday morning, October 10, former Kansas State Senator Kay O’Connor died after a long illness at the age of 76. Although details of her passing are not fully known, the character of her life and career as a champion of conservative causes has been well established.
Kay served 14 years in the Kansas State legislature, the last eight as a senator. She retired in 2006 after an unsuccessful run for secretary of state.
Local media liked to target O’Connor for her bold stands on issues, most famously female suffrage. To Google Kay’s name today, one comes across headlines like this one from the Seattle Times, “Senator who questioned women’s suffrage wants election job.”
The story behind this attack is worth telling. In 2001, Kay attended a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters. As she was leaving, she was stopped and asked if she planned to attend its upcoming celebration of the woman’s right to vote. Wary of the League’s genteel liberalism, O’Connor replied, “Ah, you probably don’t want me there to talk about these issues,” referring to the whole range of feminist issues, abortion most notably.
A League member then asked Kay if she didn’t think the woman’s right to vote was the “most important” issue in society. And Kay responded, “not necessarily so.” Tired and eager to get home, Kay left it at that. There were several witnesses to the exchange.
Lurking at the edge of this conversation was Star reporter, Finn Bullers. O’Connor may have said nothing in that public conversation to give Bullers a story, but she had said enough to plant a seed. Despite the fact that Kay won every one of her general elections in a landslide, the Star saw O’Connor as being somehow “out of step.” As its editors have made repeatedly clear, even to this day, a woman’s place is in “the mainstream.”
To remind O’Connor of her place, the Star chose to gin up a hit piece. Bullers had to call O’Connor three more times to finesse his story. It appeared two weeks after September 11 and led as follows: “A prominent female state senator has said that she does not support the 19th amendment, which guarantees women the right to vote, and said that if were being considered today she would vote against it.”
The Bullers’ piece contained no quotes. According to Kay, she explicitly told Bullers that “in today’s society women need the right to vote,” but no matter the Star had its story and was sticking to it.
As often happens, the media missed the larger story. Kay grew up on a rough-hewn homestead 10 miles north of Fairbanks, Alaska, without telephone, electricity, running water or indoor plumbing.
At age 17, Kay married husband Art. Together, they raised six children in their modest Olathe home, who produced in turn scads of grandchildren and great grandchildren. Right to the end, Kay and Art still held hands when they thought no one was looking.
At age 52, with little formal education beyond high school, O’Connor plunged into politics, winning a seat in the Kansas State House and later one in the Senate. If her colleagues were expecting a shy, backward housefrau, they were in for a rude shock. From the beginning, Kay proved smart and outspoken—a fact even the media conceded.
Kay O’Connor lived a woman’s life about as fully and as boldly as an American woman could live it. She earned the right to say any dang thing she wanted to about a woman’s role in the world, even that women should not have the right to vote.
It’s just that she never said that.