Philena Everett Johnson was born in 1841 in Ohio [1900 US Census]. She moved with her husband Eli and one-year-old son Royal C. Johnson to Highmore, South Dakota, in 1883, where they bought the Highmore Mirror [Perkins, History of Hyde County (1908), 253; Carol Jennings, “Dakota Images: Royal C. Johnson,” South Dakota History 38(2) (2008), 188]. The Highmore WCTU was organized at her house in 1884 and she remained active at local and state levels for her whole life [Perkins, History of Hyde County, 93; for instance: Mitchell Capital (SD), November 5, 1886, November 8, 1889; Saturday News (Watertown SD), September 17, 1909]. In 1888, she and her husband were signatories on a call for a convention on the division of Dakota Territory into two states [Press and Daily Dakotaian (Yankton SD), May 29, 1888]. In 1890, she was named by Governor Mellette to the board of charities and correction (which oversaw state hospitals and schools) and served on the board through 1893 [Black Hills Union (Rapid City SD), May 2, 1890; Kingsbury, History of Dakota Territory, vol. 4 (1915), 87].
That October, she was one of the organizers of the first state suffrage meeting held in Huron, and as president of the Third District W.C.T.U. published a call for delegates from area W.C.T.U. chapters to Woman’s Day at the state fair in Huron where Emma Smith DeVoe had arranged for speakers and a follow-up organizing meeting [Page 06 : The Convention Called, and Page 67 : Entire Page, Emma Smith DeVoe: 1880-1890 (Scrapbook D), WSL Manuscripts, MS 171, Box 10]. One news clipping credited her with “discovering in Mrs. Emma S. DeVoe, of this place, the elements of an effective worker, and in persuading her to canvass the district assigned her to proclaim woman’s wrongs and the way to right them” [The Woman’s Tribune, March 29, 1890 in “Page 28 : [news clipping: Woman’s Tribune letter to the editor],” Emma Smith DeVoe: 1880-1890 (Scrapbook D), WSL Manuscripts, MS 171, Box 10].
Johnson wrote state reports on suffrage work for The Union Signal in November and December 1889 [“Page 09 : South Dakota — Equal Suffrage Work,” “Page 36 : Entire Page,” and The Union Signal, 12/19/1889, “Page 66 : South Dakota,” Emma Smith DeVoe: 1880-1890 (Scrapbook D), WSL Manuscripts, MS 171, Box 10].
When Anna Howard Shaw came to Highmore to speak on suffrage in April 1890, she and Emme DeVoe stayed with Johnson [Madison Daily Leader (SD), April 25, 1890; Highmore Herald (SD), April 26, 1890, “Page 30 : [news clipping: Emma Smith DeVoe in Highmore],” Emma Smith DeVoe: 1880-1890 (Scrapbook D), WSL Manuscripts, MS 171, Box 10].
Johnson was president of the Third District W.C.T.U. in 1889-1890, declining re-election in June 1890, but providing the W.C.T.U. with leadership on legislation and petition [Highmore Herald (SD), May 17, 1890, “Page 34 : Entire Page,” and Faulk County Times (Faulkton SD), June 12, 1890, “Page 37 : Entire Page,” Emma Smith DeVoe: 1880-1890 (Scrapbook D), WSL Manuscripts, MS 171, Box 10; Madison Daily Leader (SD), September 19, 1890].
In June 1890, a number of women signed a call for state suffrage convention in Huron [Madison Daily Leader (SD), June 24, 1890; Union County Courier (Elk Point SD), July 2, 1890; Kimball Graphic (SD), July 4, 1890]. During the Huron convention, the leadership was overhauled. Johnson served as secretary of the convention and was elected the new president of the South Dakota Equal Suffrage Association [Madison Daily Leader (SD), June 24, 1890; Wessington Springs Herald (SD), July 11, 1890; Page 44 : The Convention, Emma Smith DeVoe: 1880-1890 (Scrapbook D), WSL Manuscripts, MS 171, Box 10; Egge, Woman Suffrage and Citizenship, 95].
“Editor Johnson of the Highmore Herald came in Saturday, presumably for a Sunday’s visit with his wife. Mrs. Johnson is president of the equal suffrage association. Is this an indication of the new order of things?”
Daily Huronite (SD), August 7, 1890.
As president, she was a key planner of the 1890 Mitchell convention in late August and presided at the convention [Wessington Springs Herald (SD), August 15, 1890; Mitchell Capital (SD), August 29, 1890; “Page 31 : Entire Page” (program), “Page 49 : Entire Page,” “Page 50 : Entire Page,” Emma Smith DeVoe: 1880-1890 (Scrapbook D), WSL Manuscripts, MS 171, Box 10]. Of her presidential address to the convention, a reporter commented: “Mrs. Johnson is a very pleasant speaker, with clear voice and good articulation, with rare executive ability” [Wessington Springs Herald (SD), September 5, 1890].
“A mistaken idea prevails in the minds of some of the good Huron people. There was positively no suffrage ticket in the field. The chief thought of the friends of suffrage was to get the women to the polls, that they might see that it was a perfectly proper place to be. and that the act of expressing an opinion by placing a little piece of white paper in a box would in no wise detract from their womanly dignity and self respect. The result of the election was highly gratifying, as 240 votes were cast by women, and today they are taking care of their babies, cooking their husband’s dinners and looking as sweet and gracious as if they had never paid a visit to the polls. Yours for ballot reform, P. E. JOHNSON.”
The Daily Plainsman (Huron, SD), September 23, 1890.
After the defeat of suffrage at the polls in November 1890, the association reconstituted itself during a meeting at Huron on November 7th and Johnson stayed on as president. She presented a state report to the NAWSA convention in D.C. in early 1891 [Madison Daily Leader (SD), November 12, 1890; Wessington Springs Herald (SD), November 14, 1890; “Page 55 : Program: 1891 National American Woman Suffrage Convention (Page 4),” Emma Smith DeVoe: 1880-1890 (Scrapbook D), WSL Manuscripts, MS 171, Box 10].
In 1891, Johnson and her daughter left Highmore to teach at a school on the Sisseton-Wahpeton Reservation [Pierre Weekly Free Press (SD), March 12, 1891]. She also taught at Indian schools in Pierre and in Santa Fe [Pierre Weekly Free Press (SD), April 18, 1895; Employees in Indian Service (1897), 602].
In 1899-1900, Johnson served as a vice-president of S.D.E.S.A. and gave an address on “Woman’s work among the Indians” at the joint WCTU & Equal Suffrage Association meeting in 1899 at the Presbyterian church in Madison [Mitchell Capital (SD), September 1, 1899; Madison Daily Leader (SD), September 5, 1899; Avery, ed., Proceedings of the Thirty-second Annual Convention of NAWSA, held at … Washington, D.C., February 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, and 14, 1900 (Philadelphia: Alfred J. Ferris, 1900), 89]. In September 1900, Johnson was re-elected vice-president of the Equal Suffrage Association at the state meeting in Brookings [Husted et al., History of Woman Suffrage vol. 4, 559].
In 1902, she worked on organizing the ultimately-unsuccessful petition drive that sought to put suffrage on the ballot through the Initiative process [Madison Daily Leader (SD),December 22, 1902]. She supplied the state report to the NAWSA convention held in D.C. in February 1904, reviewing the rejection of their 1902 petition drive, their efforts in the 1903 legislature, and their distribution of suffrage literature [Upton and Hauser, eds., Proceedings of the Thirty-sixth Annual Convention of NAWSA, held at Washington, D.C., February 11th to 17th, inclusive, 1904 (Warren OH, 1904), 99].
“The political machine and the liquor interests of the State are arrayed against us. We are confident that we would be successful at the polls if we could but secure submission, and we have no intention of giving up the fight until we have won.”
Upton and Hauser, eds., Proceedings of the Thirty-sixth Annual Convention (1904), 99.
In 1905-1908, she served as the state superintendent of franchise and legislation for the Equal Suffrage Association [Mitchell Capital (SD), September 22, 1905; Perkins, History of Hyde County (1908), 95].
In 1907 and 1909, she lobbied for suffrage at the capitol, writing about the 1907 defeat later for the WCTU’s White Ribbon Journal, and was vice-president at the state suffrage meeting in Pierre [Hot Springs Weekly Star (SD), February 1, 1907, May 3, 1907; Charles Mix New Era (Wagner SD), January 25, 1907; Pierre Weekly Free Press (SD), September 19, 1907; The Citizen-Republican (Scotland SD), January 28, 1909; RD06516, Box 1, Correspondence 1895 – 1898, 1907, RD06529, Box 1, Correspondence 1909, and RD06565, Box 1, Correspondence 1909, Breeden papers USD].
In 1908, she was recorded in NAWSA’s annual convention report as one of two life members from South Dakota [Upton, Fortieth annual report of the NAWSA [Convention], held at Buffalo, October 15th to 21st, inclusive, 1908 (Warren OH, 1908), 189]
Johnson was active for suffrage during the 1910 campaign as a representative of the W.C.T.U., working from their headquarters in Mitchell [Saturday News (Watertown SD), July 15, 1910; Black Hills Union and Western Stock Review (Rapid City SD), September 16, 1910; Egge, Woman Suffrage and Citizenship, 124].
In a column by “P.E.J.” (I’m assuming this is Johnson but I don’t know for sure…) titled the “Suffrage Question,” the author gave a response to the claim that ‘women will neglect their homes’ if they can vote. The author wrote that many women don’t have children or share their homes, there are many women who support their husbands (for reasons including alcoholism or chronic illness), there are women who don’t marry “especially in New England” (I don’t know what that means…), and “besides a still greater army of women, who not only keep the home, bear and rear children, but also help make the living in store, office or on the farm.
There are many thousands of women today in South Dakota, who besides the care of the house and children, raise all the poultry, milk the cows, make butter and sell enough butter, eggs, poultry and vegetables to buy their groceries and their own and their children’s clothes, yet many people think they are supported by their husbands. Many of these farmer’s wives work more hours a day, do much harder work and have less time give to home and children than a woman would have who filled any county office.
Why is it that no objection is made to women neglecting home and children to make money at the washtub, in the store or office or on the farm, but only if the occupation carries some honor and a good salary? She may and often does do all or most of the work for her husband who holds a county office, but if he dies, she can not take his place as county treasurer, register of deeds or any other office except superintendent of schools… Each woman should be as free as a man to choose her sphere.”
By P.E.J., as printed in the Sioux Falls Daily Press.
Bad River News (Philip SD), July 21, 1910.
Philena Everett Johnson returned to the state legislature in January 1911. With Anna Simmons and Minnie Sheldon, they looked into the suffrage question, as well as issues of sanitation [Mitchell Capital (SD), January 12, 1911]. While in Pierre, she contracted pneumonia and died at home in Highmore in January 1911 [Huron Daily Huronite (SD), January 16, 1911; Pierre Weekly Free Press (SD), January 19, 1911; The Citizen-Republican (SD), January 19, 1911].
Her obituaries described her as “a woman of marked ability in executive affairs, and one of the most aggressive and enthusiastic advocates of equal suffrage, in the northwest,” that “the whole state loses one of its grandest and best women,” and that “by her courage, womanly nature and modest manner, Mrs. Johnson won friends and followers everywhere, and her sacrificing service and devotion to the cause of temperance and equal suffrage, will forever be remembered by thousands of South Dakotans. As president of the State Equal Suffrage organization, in its state campaign, Mrs. Johnson did heroic work, and it was in furtherance of this cause that she was in Pierre a week ago, watching the movements of the legislature, that the illness which resulted in death on Monday morning was contracted” [Dakota Farmers’ Leader (Canton SD), January 27, 1911; Dewey County Advocate (Timber Lake SD), January 27, 1911