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Gila Countys’ Rosa McKay:  Champion of women’s rights
Rosa McKay stands with fellow legislators including Governor George Hunt (6th from right). Photo courtesy of Arizona State Archives.

Gila Countys’ Rosa McKay: Champion of women’s rights

She was knocked down by gunmen as she marched into the Bisbee Western Union office, but that did not deter Rosa McKay from sending a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson requesting “protection for the women and children of the Warren District.”   

It was July 12, 1918, and Cochise County Legislator Rosa McKay watched helplessly as over 1,200 deputies led by Sheriff Harry Wheeler rounded up 2,000 striking copper miners in Bisbee, placed them on railroad cars and left them in the desert outside of Columbus, New Mexico. When local officials told McKay that Sheriff Wheeler had ordered all women and children off the streets of Bisbee that day, she replied, “There is not enough gun men in the United States to drive me off the streets today.” 

Rosa McKay had spent her entire life in mining camps and sympathized with the plight of the worker. She was born Rosa Lyons in Colorado in 1881 and at sixteen had married a miner. The couple moved to Miami, Arizona in 1904, but her husband died young from pulmonary disease associated with his occupation. The young widow worked as a housekeeper in a hotel and remarried another miner, Hugh McKay, in 1912 and moved to Bisbee, where she became active in the woman suffrage movement. In 1916, four years after women won the right to vote in the state, McKay was elected Cochise County’s representative to the House on the Democratic ticket.

In the legislature, the dedicated labor advocate made her mark quickly, ushering through a bill that guaranteed a minimum wage for women. The house speaker had “declared the bill was slated for the waste basket,” but McKay swayed fellow members with her “thrilling bursts of oratory.” Arizona voters were supportive of labor reforms until World War I, when the mood changed suddenly. During the war striking mine workers were denounced as anarchists whose unions had been infiltrated by German agents trying to undermine the American war effort. In July of 1917, as strikes broke out in Globe, Morenci, Bisbee, and Jerome, Walter Douglas, manager of Phelps Dodge, told union members in Globe: “There will be no compromise because you cannot compromise with a rattlesnake….I believe the government will be able to show that there is German influence behind the movement.”

McKay quickly discovered the labor activism that had catapulted her to the legislature was now a political liability. During the Bisbee Deportation she confronted the deputies rounding up men, calling them “dirty curs,” and insisting they “take their hands off the boys.” Her telegram never reached President Wilson because a local citizens’ loyalty league intercepted all messages out of town, and when she and other Bisbee residents took food and water to the Bisbee deportees stranded in New Mexico, they came under attack by vigilantes as they returned to Arizona. Back home in Bisbee, her home came under surveillance, threats were made against her, and a recall effort was launched to remove her from office. Fearing for her safety, McKay fled to Gila County.

In Globe she found residents more sympathetic to her labor activism and she won election to the state legislature in 1918, where she continued to focus on raising the minimum wage for women. Her “energy and ability” as a legislator were often cited as reasons why women were accepted in politics. When she was reelected in 1920, she was one of twenty-two women in the state to serve in county or state office, and that summer, she was one of four women in the legislature who introduced the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, which ultimately gave all women the vote in the United States.

When she opted to run for the Gila County Board of Supervisors in 1924 she was unsuccessful, but continued to be active in Democratic politics, serving on the state’s labor advisory board, as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1924, on the Board of Visitors for Tempe Normal School (Arizona State University), and on the Gila County child welfare board. When she died in 1924 George Hunt served as an honorary pall bearer and the Arizona flag was lowered to half-mast at the state capitol. 

About Heidi Osselaer

Heidi Osselaer
Historian, professor, and public speaker. Fanatical about separating fact from fiction in Arizona history. Lives in Phoenix with her husband and fluffy dog Ajax.

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