Rebecca Henry Hayes, suffragist, journalist, inventor, artist, clubwoman, and public speaker, was born Hannah Rebecca Henry in December 1843 in Illinois to Thomas Henry and Lucretia (Furr) Henry. Little is known of her early life other than she was one of five children and that her brother, Thomas F. Henry, died in May 1862 while serving as a corporal in Company G of the Tenth Illinois Volunteer Calvary during the Civil War.
In 1866 a Rebecca F. Henry along with 200 other women petitioned the Kansas legislature to provide women with the right to vote. The following year, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony worked alongside Kansas suffragists in an effort to get a state amendment passed. The 1867 efforts were unsuccessful. Decades later as a suffrage leader in Texas, Rebecca Henry Hayes repeatedly publicly claimed a connection with Anthony from the campaign in Kansas, and it is possible that she was the one involved in petitioning the 1866 legislature.
Starting in 1868 Rebecca served as an engrossing clerk in the Kansas legislature. In 1869 Rebecca Henry married Charles Waldo Hayes, who was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Sometime between 1870 and 1871, the couple’s first son, Gerald W. Hayes, was born.
On May 4, 1871, in Topeka, Kansas, Rebecca Hayes introduced famed author, speaker, abolitionist, and women’s rights activist Anna Elizabeth Dickinson at a lecture to a packed house at the Opera House, for which Charles served as the booking agent. Dickinson spoke on a number of topics including woman suffrage. The month before, Charles was also successful in getting national woman suffrage leader Mary Livermore to speak at a number of venues in Kansas. These connections with reform networks likely later served to identify Rebecca as a candidate for leading suffrage work in Texas during the 1890s. In the meantime, it appears that Rebecca and Charles focused on the growth of their family and his career.
In 1874 the couple’s second child, Charles T. Hayes, was born. The same year, Rebecca’s husband began working with a number of Galveston businessmen and visited Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri to promote trade partnerships between Galveston businesses and those in the midwestern states and to urge railroad companies to set lower rates for travel to Galveston. At the time of his 1874 trip to the Midwest, he was the business reporter for local newspapers, but by his death in 1905, he had worked his way up to leadership positions in the state's press. After moving to Galveston with his family in 1875, Charles Hayes became a full-time professional journalist, leader in the Texas Press Association, and author of Galveston: History of the Island and the City.
In September 1876 the couple’s third child, Genevieve H. Hayes, was born. In 1887 Rebecca’s mother died leaving her children equal portions of her estate and requiring that her home in Springfield, Illinois, be rented to provide an income for her husband, who died the following year.
By late 1892 and early 1893, Rebecca Hayes corresponded with national suffrage leaders, including Laura Clay of Kentucky, who worked to recruit Hayes to serve as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) vice president for Texas in the 1890s. Hayes subsequently led the first statewide suffrage organization in Texas. At the time, she was not sure that she wanted to affiliate the state suffrage association with NAWSA and inquired into money she might ask of the national organization to serve and set up in Texas. There is no record of whether national suffragists paid Hayes anything, but due to financial limitations that consistently plagued the suffrage organizations through most of the movement, it was unlikely.
In April 1893 she along with ten other Texas women issued a call for a convention to organize the first statewide woman suffrage organization in Texas, the Texas Equal Rights Association (TERA). The inaugural meeting of the TERA convened on May 10, 1893, in the Grand Windsor Hotel in Dallas for three days of events; this was the same day and the same location as the formation of the Texas Woman’s Press Association (see TEXAS PRESS WOMEN). Hayes was elected as the inaugural president of TERA along with an entire slate of officers. In multiple newspaper interviews, Hayes expressed that she supported limited suffrage, meaning that she supported restrictions on who could vote.
At the second annual convention of the TERA in June 1894, Hayes was re-elected president of the association but only after she agreed to submit to the wishes of the delegates who wanted representatives of the organization to lobby each of the state’s political parties for suffrage planks in their platforms. Following the officer elections, a fight broke out in the convention over the possibility of Susan B. Anthony coming to Texas during a forthcoming planned southern tour. Hayes was adamantly against Anthony’s visit and argued at different times that TERA did not have funds to bring her. Hayes insisted that Texas women led by her should be allowed to do their own state canvasing. She also pointed out that, because Anthony was an abolitionist, she might not receive a welcoming reception if she came to the state. A number of members and TERA officers, led by Belle Burchill and Grace Danforth, asserted that Hayes was wrong and that Anthony should be invited.
When TERA’s executive committee met the following November, Hayes continued to refuse to support the Anthony tour. In response, the majority of other officers demanded her resignation and then voted for her removal. Hayes refused to resign, but the majority of TERA’s executive committee voted Elizabeth Fry in as president, and for a time the state association had two women who claimed that office. NAWSA executives, including Anthony, discussed the issue in detail and responded with their ruling that since the TERA delegates voted Hayes in as president, only they could remove her. Thus, at the following annual convention in 1895, Hayes was not re-elected the association’s president and instead was replaced by Sam Houston’s daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Good Houston. Additionally at the meeting, Hayes read a communication from NAWSA leaders stating that Anthony was unable to come to Texas after all. The split over who should lead TERA, while on the surface focused on Anthony’s tour, revealed deeper divisions within the organization that were more along political party lines and pre-TERA cliques.
After her parting with TERA, Hayes became increasingly active with the Texas Woman’s Press Association and the Texas Woman’s Council, both of which she was a founding member. For the press association, Hayes served as the Galveston delegate at the state convention in 1896 and served on the board of directors in 1897 and 1898. During the 1890s Rebecca Hayes also successfully filed and received multiple patents for inventions, including an outdoor cooking stove in 1894 and a cushion tire in 1896. Further, in 1894 she was one of the original nine directors of Galveston’s Society for the Help of Homeless Children which created and ran the Home for the Homeless Children, and she was a founder of a mutual benefit association with a worth of $3,000 for Galveston women in 1897.
The first few years of the twentieth century were full of tragedy for the Hayes family. On January 6, 1900, while hanging an advertisement on a building in Galveston, Rebecca’s son Charles T. Hayes was electrocuted when he accidently came in contact with a high voltage wire. He died a few minutes after the accident. By July 2, 1900, when the census was taken in Brazoria County, Texas, Charles, Rebecca, and their daughter Genevieve were listed as living on a farm; Charles was still listed as a journalist, and Rebecca was listed as a farmer for her occupation. In early September 1900 a devastating hurricane hit the Texas Coast at Galveston and neighboring Brazoria County. The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 destroyed many homes and businesses, damaged most others, and took years for the communities on the coast to recover. On December 29, 1902, the Houston Post reported that Genevieve Hayes died that morning in Alvin. A few years later, on November 18, 1905, Charles W. Hayes died. Rebecca started to receive a widow’s pension the following January for her husband’s service in the Civil War and moved from the family’s farm to a house in the town of Alvin.
During these years, marred by family tragedy, both Rebecca and her husband had remained active in Galveston, and it seems they split their time between there and their home in Alvin approximately thirty miles away. Charles kept his office in the Alvey Building in Galveston. In 1904 Rebecca petitioned the Galveston mayor and county commissioners for a deed to property to rebuild and expand the Home for the Homeless Children (renamed the Lasker Home for Homeless Children in 1913) to also include a kindergarten and school that also offered industrial training. In 1907 she was the state president of the Texas Woman’s Educational and Industrial Association and attended the Texas Farmers’ Congress that year to participate in the association’s sixth annual session. Because of her presidency, she also served as a member of the Texas Farmer’s Congress Executive Committee.
In 1910 the United States census listed her with the occupation of a “portrait painter” and living in a rented house in Alvin. In 1913 Rebecca proposed that the Texas Farmer’s Institute consider passing a resolution in support of woman suffrage, but the president of the group ruled the proposal out of order. The following year, she was part of an initiative for the Texas Farmers’ Congress to start a better baby contest.
By 1920 Rebecca lived with her only surviving child, Gerald, and his wife Bertha in Alvin, Texas. On March 19, 1924, after a week’s illness, Rebecca Henry Hayes passed away in her home in Alvin. She was buried in Lakeview Cemetery in Galveston.