Speer, Elizabeth M. Manning (1875–1963)

By: Heather Rodriguez and Taylor Cone

Type: Biography

Published: March 5, 2021

Updated: April 1, 2021

Elizabeth M. Manning Speer, anti-vice crusader, suffragist, and prison reform activist, was born on January 30, 1875, in Arkansas to Margaret (Ferguson) Manning and Thomas A. Manning. By the time she was five years old, the family had moved to Texas. In 1896 Elizabeth “Lizzie” Manning married Robert Speer in Tarrant County. Apparently, the couple had no children.

Elizabeth Speer became politically active in multiple causes, including the promotion of public health and implementation of anti-vice laws, woman suffrage, and prison reform. In 1917 she lived in Austin and served as field secretary for the Texas Social Hygiene Association. World War I brought more training camps for soldiers across the state, and with them came an influx of venereal disease. Her position as field secretary empowered Speer to act on her crusade against immorality and push for the creation of red-light districts to force lawmakers to pay attention to issues of prostitution, as well as eventually pass laws for which women’s organizations had lobbied, such as the legal age of consent.

Speer’s work gained acknowledgment across a number of women’s organizations, and she worked as an investigator with Minnie Fisher Cunningham to gather information in brothels. In March 1918, as a member of the Texas Equal Suffrage Association (TESA) and personal representative of Cunningham, she gave a presentation on “Woman Suffrage in the State of Texas” to the convention of the Texas State Federation of Labor in San Antonio. Speer’s association with the TESA, as well as the Legislative Committee, allowed her to be present when Governor William P. Hobby signed the Primary Suffrage Bill on March 26, 1918. The bill allowed women in Texas to vote in primary elections. Between 1922 and 1923, Speer, then living in El Paso, attended meetings at the League of Women Voters annual convention and the Rio Grande Valley Federation of Women’s Clubs in Mission, Texas. She took part at a regional conference of the League of Women Voters of Texas in San Antonio and also attended the state Democratic convention.

By the 1920s Speer led efforts for state prison reform. She chaired the prison committee of the League of Women Voters of Texas in 1922 and advocated a “scientific survey of Texas prisons by experts of National reputation.” She became the executive secretary for the Texas Committee on Prisons and Prison Labor (TCPPL). In this role, she gave comprehensive addresses on the subject of the state prison system. Alongside other notable members of the TCPPL, including R.H. Baker, Elizabeth L. Fitzsimmons Ring, Florence Floore, Walter Bremond, and Jessie Harriet Daniel Ames, Speer called for more humane treatment, industrial training and literacy programs, recreational activities, medical care improvements, and the sale of prison properties and relocation to a central penal institution near Austin.

 By 1924 Speer had moved back to Austin and in 1925 took part in the Joint Legislative Council (JLC) alongside Florence Floore, Ida Durand Redmond, Minnie Fisher Cunnigham, and others for the Thirty-ninth Texas Legislature. Dubbed the Petticoat Lobby and led by Jane Y. McCallum (as executive secretary), the JLC helped push the legislature to approve a constitutional amendment consolidating prison supervision. However, the bill to relocate the prison system did not pass. In April 1925 Speer gave a talk in which she claimed she would keep working to relocate the prison system despite Governor Miriam A. Ferguson’s initial veto of the bill (see WOMEN AND POLITICS).

During her time in Austin, Speer worked alongside Minnie Fisher Cunningham, and the two became close friends. The 1930 federal census recorded Speer as a lodger in Cunningham’s rental property. Her marital status originally appeared to have been marked as divorced, but the designation was marked out and listed as widowed. Her occupation was listed as a reporter for a newspaper. By the time of the 1940 census, Speer lived with her sister, Roxie J. Knipp, in Tuleta, Bee County, Texas, and both were listed as hostesses for a tea room. According to her obituary, Speer also had connections to an oil business. A member of the Tuleta Presbyterian Church, Elizabeth M. Manning Speer died at the age of eighty-eight of pneumonia at Laurelwood Hospital in San Antonio on January 30, 1963. She was buried in the Runge Cemetery in Runge, Texas.

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Austin American Statesman, November 9, 1916; April 3, 1925. Brownsville Herald, December 6, 1923. Galveston Daily News, January 9, 1925. Houston Post, October 27, 1922. Judith N. McArthur, Creating the New Woman: The Rise of Southern Women’s Progressive Culture in Texas, 1893–1918 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998). Judith N. McArthur and Harold L. Smith, Minnie Fisher Cunningham: A Suffragist's Life in Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). Robert Perkinson, Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire (New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, LLC., 2010). San Antonio Express, September 10, 1922; October 12, 1922; November 10, 1922; June 1,1924; January 14, 1925; June 25, 1926; January 31, 1963. San Antonio Light, November 30, 1917; March 20, 1918; August 27, 1924.

  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Activists
  • Advocates
  • Women
  • Suffragists and Antisuffragists
Time Periods:
  • Progressive Era
  • Great Depression
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • Central Texas
  • Austin

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Heather Rodriguez and Taylor Cone, “Speer, Elizabeth M. Manning,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 29, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/speer-elizabeth-m-manning.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

March 5, 2021
April 1, 2021

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: