Myrtle Bales Bulkley, suffragist and women's-rights activist, was born in Colo, Iowa, on August 5, 1899, the daughter of William Franklin and Cora (Morgan) Bales. She attended public schools in this farming and railroad town and then enrolled in Iowa State Teachers College in Cedar Falls. From her youth she was concerned with differences in how men and women were treated; she was especially affected when the sheriff in Colo threatened to arrest women who wore pants instead of skirts to do farm and machinery work during the World War I. In 1916, as a college student, she supported women's voting rights through letters, speeches, posters, and door-to-door campaigning. After college she taught in a one-room schoolhouse in rural Iowa, worked as a booking agent for the Chautauqua lecture circuit, and sold encyclopedias in Chicago and New York. She wrote one of the first handbooks on encyclopedia sales, which was translated into several foreign languages and used into the 1990s.
Myrtle Bales became a charter member of the League of Women Voters when it was initially proposed in 1919, before women had been granted nationwide suffrage. Though she never participated in highly publicized suffrage activities, she worked at the grass-roots level for women's voting rights both in Iowa and across the country. After passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (1920), which granted suffrage to women, she participated in marches in New York City for improving other aspects of women's legal rights. In 1926 she married Harold F. Bulkley, whom she met while working on the Chautauqua circuit. As a wife and mother of two children, Myrtle Bulkley remained active in the League of Women Voters, the local women's club, and other volunteer organizations in Pelham Manor, New York.
In 1972, shortly after the death of her husband, she moved from New York to Dallas, Texas, where her daughter had lived since 1960. She joined numerous local women's organizations in Texas and was a charter member of the Women's Southwest Federal Credit Union in Dallas. She testified before the Texas House of Representatives in favor of a statewide equal-rights amendment (see TEXAS EQUAL RIGHTS AMENDMENT), and later, when an attempt was made to rescind the state legislature's ratification of a national equal-rights amendment, she again appeared before the Texas legislature on behalf of the law. She also presented programs on the history of woman suffrage and the equal rights amendment that included narratives of her participation in these causes. These efforts by Bulkley, who was often referred to as one of the country's "last surviving suffragists," made her a link between the early twentieth-century suffragists and participants in the post-1960s women's movement. She was recognized in 1983 by the Women's Center of Dallas with an award for her contributions to women's rights. In 1989 the Dallas League of Women Voters named an annual award in her honor; the first award was presented by Bulkley's daughter, a longtime member of the League.
Bulkley, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease later in her life, died in a Dallas nursing home on June 26, 1990. She was survived by her daughter and son, two sisters, and several grandchildren. A memorial service was held at the First Unitarian Church of Dallas, and her body was donated for medical research.
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