Rosa Lyons McKay

Rosa Lyons McKay was a member of the Arizona State legislature representing Cochise County from 1917-1918 and Gila County from 1919-1920 and 1923-1924. She was born in Idaho Springs, Colorado in 1881. Married in 1897 she and her miner husband moved to Bisbee because of his health problems. He died in 1904 and in 1912 Rose married another miner, Hugh McKay. She was the first woman elected to the legislature from Cochise County and ran as a labor Democrat in the 1915 election. During her years in the legislature she worked to improve the lives of the women and men of the working class.  

Rosa gained nationwide prominence for introducing a woman’s minimum wage bill in 1917 to aid women in their struggle for a decent livelihood. The average wage for Arizona women at that time was between three and six dollars a week. Her bill asked for $12 a week, but was met with a great deal of resistance in both houses of the legislature. She pushed the bill through, however, by compromising for a wage of $10 a week. During her years in the legislature she continued to work for the passage of women’s minimum wage laws, successfully raising the weekly rate to $12 an hour in 1919 and $16 an hour in 1923.  

 An outspoken critic of the 1917 Bisbee Deportation, Rosa was knocked down when she tried to enter the Western Union station to send a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson and lawmakers in Arizona and Washington, D.C.  She organized women to collect food, water and supplies for the deportees now held in the New Mexico desert. On her way back from New Mexico vigilantes shot at the train she was riding. Believing her life was in danger she left Cochise County and moved to Gila County, another mining center. She continued her public criticism of the mining companies, particularly Phelps Dodge, the largest and most powerful in the state. Her criticism made her the target of the newspapers that Phelps Dodge controlled. In 1919 she filed a complaint for damages against slander printed by the Bisbee Daily Review.

Voters in Gila County elected Rosa to the House in 1919-1920 and 1923-1924. She was one of four women legislators to introduce the resolution to ratify the 19th Amendment to the US constitution for women’s suffrage.

She died at her home in Phoenix on March 20, 1934. The Arizona Republic said of her, “Though her legislative accomplishments were many, the outstanding one perhaps was the was the adoption of a minimum wage law for women which bore her name and which became a law because of her active effort in its behalf… The law was tested in the United State Supreme Court [in 1923] and was declared unconstitutional. The principle, however, was widely supported and the measure has formed the basis for like laws in other states.”

Copyright © 2019 by the Arizona Women's Hall of Fame.

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