NASW Foundation National Programs
NASW Social Work Pioneers®
Kate Barnard (1875 - 1930)
Kate Barnard of Oklahoma was a champion of working women, children, labor unions, prisoners, the disabled, and those with mental health challenges. She was deeply impressed and influenced by Jane Addams after hearing her speak at the International Congress of Arts and Sciences in 1904.
In 1906, as Oklahoma’s status was changing from a territory to state, Barnard traveled to the slums, factories, and sweatshops of the East Coast in order to learn what eastern states were doing to protect working women and children. Her goal was to incorporate laws into the state constitution of Oklahoma. Although women could not serve in the constitutional assembly, Barnard was allowed to address the group and wrote articles for the Daily Oklahoman. Barnard also had a major role in writing the state’s constitution.
She became administrator of the United Provident Association (later the United Way) in 1905, and served as Oklahoma’s first Commissioner of Charities and Corrections from 1907-1914, serving for two terms. Barnard organized a chapter of the Women’s International Union Label League and became the union’s representative to the Oklahoma City Trades and Labor Association. She also lobbied to raise the minimum wage from $1.25 to $2.25 a day. In 1909, Oklahoma passed a child labor bill written by Kate Barnard.
Barnard taught briefly, and then attended a course in business school. She went to work for the Oklahoma state legislature in 1903.
In 1904 Barnard was selected to oversee the Oklahoma pavilion at the St. Louis World’s Fair. During her one-year tenure there, she attended the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy and became involved in social work. When she returned to Oklahoma City, she began her work on behalf of the poor with the United Provident Association.
Barnard organized clothing drives and volunteers to clothe and feed the poor in Oklahoma City’s neighborhoods and wrote articles about visiting the poor and dying for the Daily Oklahoman. She bought books for children and encouraged school attendance. The Epworth University College of Medicine established a clinic on her property.
Her duties as Commissioner of Charities and Corrections led to visits and inspections of Oklahoma’s jails, poorhouses, orphanages, institutions for the deaf, blind and insane. She was a vigorous proponent of reforms. Her concern about prison conditions led to an anonymous visit in Kansas (Oklahoma Territory had not yet built prisons) during which she paid an admission fee for a prison tour. Her findings of severe abuse led to the return of Oklahoma prisoners to local facilities.
Her political career ended during her second term in office, after she began to advocate on behalf of Native American wards who were being cheated out of their land as a result of graft. The land had been ceded by the federal government to Native American individuals and was held in trust for minors. However, guardianship was held by the probate courts, which led to a great deal of exploitation. Her work on behalf of Native American children and the exposure of this graft raised the ire of prominent Oklahoma businessmen and officials who convinced the state legislature to defund her office. Prior to the defunding, Barnard was responsible for the restoration of over a million dollars to the Native American community.
Barnard made one last attempt on behalf of Native American children in 1915 when she formed the People’s Lobby. However, her influence had evaporated in Oklahoma.
Kate Barnard left office and spent the remaining 15 years of her life in poor health. She was hospitalized for physical ailments, suffered tuberculosis and spent time in sanatoria for neurological and mental health conditions. Although she had begun an autobiography in the final months of her life, it was never completed.
When she died in 1930, more than 1,400 people attended her funeral in recognition of her many contributions.
Significant Achievements and Awards
In 1982, Barnard was inducted into the Oklahoma Women’s Hall of Fame and in 1999, the Oklahoma Commission on the Status of Women established the Kate Barnard Award to honor women in public service.
In 2001, a statue of Kate Barnard was dedicated in the state capitol building.
Much of this material came from a manuscript submitted with the nomination letter. It was written by Linda Edmondson and Margaret Larason and was published in the Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. LXXVIII, Number 2, Summer 2000.