Kate Cooper Austin: From Universalist to Anarchist Feminist Pioneer
Kate Cooper was born into a Universalist and spiritualist family of strong women. While she was not affiliated with a Universalist church after childhood, many of her ideas anticipate contemporary Unitarian Universalist thinking on gender and social justice. Much as Margaret Fuller is still recognized in the “pantheon” of notable Unitarians and Universalists as a transcendentalist (see for example the Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography), Kate Cooper Austin’s anarchism and feminism are logical developments from her Universalist roots, even if she maintained no connection to institutional Universalism.
Kate Cooper Austin wrote very little of an autobiographical nature. The recollections of one of her daughter’s and Emma Goldman’s recollection of two visits in late October 1897 and September 1899 (which she unfortunately conflates into one visit in her autobiography) provide the bulk of what is known about her personal life. She was an avid correspondent who wrote to all the leading anarchist and feminist thinkers of her time, but very few of her letters are extant for study. Howard S. Miller’s "Kate Austin: A Feminist-Anarchist on the Farmer's Last Frontier," is the sole academic paper to explore her contributions in detail. The only other paper that briefly explorers her thought is Blaine McKinley’s "Anarchist Jeremiads: American Anarchists and American History."
Her social location as poor, rural, anarchist, feminist woman must play some role in her relative obscurity in modern times, in spite of her almost 200 published articles (and potentially dozens more in publications which exist in no archives). Her social class and rural location are fairly typical demographics for Universalists of her era. Her association with free thought and free love movements however maker her a difficult subject for quasi-official Universalist histories. Such histories tend to do their best to quickly move past the admission that some Universalists of the time were lost to spiritualism and free love. Despite the high regard of many anarchist comrades, her rurality and again her work on issues of sexuality made her marginal even amongst many anarchists. Her anarchism and rural isolation also keep her marginal to typical women’s histories. Miller describes her situation in these terms: “Her devotion to libery made her an anarchist; her hostility to patriarchy made her a feminist. She was too much the former to join the organized women’s movements of her day, and too much the latter to ally with mainline political anarchists- most of them men- whose devotion to liberty often stopped short of women’s liberation.” In mainstream terms, Kate Cooper Austin might be considered a heretic’s heretic’s heretic. Even absent her politics and childhood religion (and adult nonreligion), her gender, class and geography all conspire to erase her voice from contemporary visions of the late 19th and early 20th century Midwest. Miller argues, “She lived and voiced a strain of grassroots feminist anarchism far more widespread than later generations would suppose. Her example was a reminder that the ‘little house on the prarie’ could as well be a nursery of rebellion as a cradle of traditional family values. Indeed, a whole population of agin Free-Soilers, homegrown socialists, assertive infidels, determined feminists, passionate free-lovers, and committed terrorists stalked the Middle Border in the Gilded Age. In this contentious cultural landscape, village atheism and undercalss rebellion were the mirror-image twins of bourgeois piety and conventional deportment.”