Iris Calderhead Pratt

1917 photo of a woman holding a banner that says Mr President How Long Must Women Wait For Liberty
Iris Calderhead, pictured here in front of the White House, was a leader in the suffrage movement.

Library of Congress/National Woman's Party collections

Quick Facts
Early leader in the National Woman's Party and women's suffragist
Place of Birth:
Marysville, Kansas
Date of Birth:
January 3, 1889
Place of Death:
Tucson, Arizona
Date of Death:
March 6, 1966
Place of Burial:
McKittrick Canyon, Guadalupe Mountains National Park (ashes scattered)

When Iris Calderhead was just six years old, her father, William Calderhead, was elected to his first term as a United States Congressman from Kansas. As a little girl, she would travel with him around the state to meet with constituents. But it was a constituency in which Iris could not participate in. She made sure that didn’t stay the case for the next generation of women.

After graduating from the University of Kansas she served for a brief period as an English teacher in her hometown of Marysville, Kansas. While vacationing in New York City, she met organizers from the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, an event that changed her life. Within months she was marching through Washington, DC carrying the purple, white, and gold banners of the women’s suffrage movement. She resigned from her teaching position before the next school year and became an organizer for the Congressional Union and later National Woman’s Party, primarily organizing women in the western states.

Some western states had already granted women’s suffrage to varying degrees, and Iris Calderhead believed that it was the responsibility of western women to fight for national voting rights on behalf of eastern women. She told a Tulsa, Oklahoma newspaper in late 1916, “Penned by the thousands in gray mills and factories, forced to work for starvation wages, these women are powerless to enforce humane legislation for themselves and powerless to give the time for the battle for political equality. We have got to make this fight for them thru [sic] the national amendment.”

By early 1917, Calderhead was one of the Silent Sentinels, protesting in front of the White House in support of the 19th Amendment. That spring, the National Woman’s party designated her as the Vice-Chair of Demonstrations. In June, she was arrested for the first time. President Woodrow Wilson was scheduled to speak at the dedication of a statue for Robert Emmet, who had led a rebellion for Irish Independence. Calderhead and a colleague planned to unveil a banner calling Wilson “A Liberal Abroad and a Conservative at Home” and questioning why he supported Irish liberty while denying American women’s struggle. The charges were soon dropped, but Calderhead continued the fight. On July 4, 1917, she was one of a dozen suffragists arrested in front of the White House. She spent three days in jail and went right back to the picket line in front of the White House. 

In October of 1918, she married John Brisbane Walker, a prominent magazine editor who had previously been the owner of Cosmopolitan Magazine. Despite newspaper criticisms of suffragists getting married, Iris continued to fight for women’s suffrage and the rights of women around the country, serving as a national officer and organizer in the National Woman’s Party. She often viewed the fight for women’s rights through the lens of labor reform, and in 1919, newspapers reported that she and her husband were launching a socialist newspaper. Her husband passed away in 1931, but the now widowed suffragists continued the fight. 

By the 1930s she was working out of what is now Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument as the Director of the National Woman’s Party Campaign for Equality Reservation to adherence to the World Court. In the aftermath of World War I, the League of Nations was creating a World Court, and Calderhead led the charge to force the World Court to protect the rights of women around the world. She testified before Congress on the issue in 1932, saying, “You see, [the League of Nations] it is antifeminist in its point of view. It is a question of going into an international government, an international system, which is based up on the Old World standards, and which up to now has not made a single concession to the American standard of equality for men and women.” That same year, Congress proposed legislation to remove married women from the Federal civil service, and the National Woman’s Party crafted a resolution encouraging women to consider divorce to keep their jobs. Calderhead presented that resolution to President Herbert Hoover, which also asked for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. By the mid-1930s she worked for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, a New Deal program designed to support farmers through subsidies and soil conservation.

In January of 1941, Iris Calderhead, a suffragist, socialist editor, New Dealer, and champion of global women’s rights, married the most unlikely of people – oil geologist Wallace E. Pratt, Vice President of the Standard Oil Company. Within weeks of their marriage in rural West Texas, the two began designing a home together at McKittrick Canyon, in what is today Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Completed during World War II, their home, Ship on the Desert, was designed to resemble an oil tanker. The architects corresponded with both Iris and Wallace, and the two moved in before the end of World War II. For the next 20 years, the family lived in this remote section of the West Texas Chihuahuan desert. But reminders of her legacy were never too far away. Although the house had been designed to look like an oil tanker, the entrance door was painted a vibrant purple – the color of the women’s suffrage movement and banners she had once carried in front of the White House. By the early 1960s, Iris’s health was failing, and the Pratt family moved to Tucson, Arizona. Iris Calderhead Pratt died in March 1966. Although she had been out of the national spotlight for twenty years and was married to one of the most important oil men of the 20th century, her obituary in the New York Times led by defining her legacy and not her husbands' -  “Mrs. Iris Calderhead Pratt, once jailed briefly for picketing the White House as a suffragette when Woodrow Wilson was President, died yesterday.” Iris was cremated and and her ashes were scattered in McKittrick Canyon, an unlikely final resting place that just a few years later became part of Guadalupe Mountains National Park. 


Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, The White House and President's Park

Last updated: April 22, 2023