Annie L. Diggs was a Kansas author, speaker, and publisher who backed Alliance and People's Party goals both locally and nationally. Diggs's work represents a synthesis of causes evident throughout Populism: advocacy for the farmer, the worker, and the small producer; a defense of women's rights as well as unqualified support for woman suffrage and temperance; a critique of unrestrained capitalism; and, as a foundation for all of these causes, religious liberalism.
Born on February 22, 1853, in Ontario, Canada, Annie LaPorte moved to New Jersey as a young child. When she was 19, she moved to Lawrence, Kansas, where within a year she met and married local postal worker A. S. Diggs and settled into a middle-class life. She became active in the Unitarian Church, eventually serving in the pulpit there for about a year. She became known as a prominent silkworm aficionado as well as a supporter of religious liberalism.
In 1877, Diggs became politically active when she noted that University of Kansas students were being corrupted by alcohol consumption. She joined local women's clubs, where she began publically speaking for temperance. Expounding on the standard temperance argument that alcohol use led to poverty, she argued that intemperance was a symptom of a larger disease. She asserted that poverty, as well as shame and helplessness, resulted from money and power being controlled by a monopoly of the elite. It was this poverty that was the real threat to American liberty and thus drove people to drink. Recognizing the connections between temperance, other social ills, and woman suffrage Diggs joined the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the Social Science Federation, and the Kansas Equal Suffrage Association.
A committed religious liberal, Diggs established the Kansas Liberal Union in 1881. This organization included Unitarians, like herself, as well as Universalists, socialists, spiritualists, and agnostics. Over the following year, Diggs lived in Boston, where she continued making connections with other religious liberals who elected her vice president of the Free Religious Association. She also began to write newspaper columns for local as well as national papers. Finally, she and her husband began publishing the Kansas Liberal, a paper that asserted that the U.S. economic system should be reformed to allow farmers and the working class to have access to the money and power that had been monopolized to this point.
On her return to Kansas, Diggs became involved in the early Farmers’ Alliance movement there. Despite never having lived on a farm, Diggs embraced Alliance causes, and in the late 1880s she was able to convince the Lawrence Journal to publish articles she wrote in support for Kansas farmers. She argued that farmers should recognize their connections with the merchant class as both of these groups were subjected to the whims of those who had great wealth and power. Her reputation as a strong and respectful Alliance advocate having been established, she was hired as an associate editor of the Topeka Advocate. Noting the fact that real political change could only happen if voters could influence elections, Diggs led the Farmers’ Alliance legislative committee in 1890 in a campaign to secure woman suffrage. As part of that campaign, she began writing prosuffrage and women's rights columns for the Farmer's Wife newspaper.
Given her middle-class urban background, her commitment to economic reorganization, and her support for woman suffrage it was only natural that she adjusted her activism seamlessly from Alliance advocacy to Populism. In 1891, Diggs began working to establish People's Party organizations in Kansas and in other areas of the country. She traveled through Alabama and Georgia with other nationally known figures, such as Kansas Populists Jerry Simpson and Mary Elizabeth Lease, and she helped organize the Ohio People's Party. Continuing her early suffrage activism, Diggs succeeded in getting suffrage on the Populist plank at the state convention in Topeka in 1894. And, recognizing the realities of political maneuvering, she argued for fusion in 1897.
Reflecting on her work in the Alliance and as a Populist, Diggs maintained that Populism's importance came from its ability to reveal that the major political parties served those who were already rich and powerful; its decline came when Populists themselves began to seek traditional political compensation. Diggs served as Kansas State librarian from 1898 to 1902 and as president of Kansas Press Women in 1905. She published The Story of Jerry Simpson in 1908 and Bedrock Education and Employment: The Foundation of the Republic in 1912. She moved to Detroit, Michigan, in 1912 and died there on September 7, 1916.
Kirstin L. Lawson
See also: Kansas, Populism in ; Lease, Mary (1850–1933) ; Plains and Midwest, Populism in the ; The Press and Populism ; Prohibition (1919–1933) ; Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU)
Argersinger, Peter H. Populism and Politics: William Alfred Peffer and the People's Party. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1974.
Goldberg, Michael Lewis. An Army of Women: Gender and Politics in Gilded Age Kansas. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
Hicks, John D. The Populist Revolt: A History of the Farmers’ Alliance and the People's Party. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1931.