Esther Clayson Pohl Lovejoy, M.D. (1869–1967)

Advocate for Women’s Votes, Full Citizenship, and Civic Health

By Kimberly Jensen

Esther Clayson Pohl Lovejoy, M.D., shaped the Oregon woman suffrage movement in vital ways as an innovative leader of the second generation of activists during the campaigns of 1906 and 1912. She also represented Oregon in national suffrage politics and organizations through the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. As a physician and public health advocate, Lovejoy asserted that women needed the vote to build policies and legislation that would ensure healthy and safe communities. And as a wage-earning woman who worked her way through medical school in a department store, she linked the ballot with progressive legislation for women workers. Holding appointed office as Portland city health officer from 1907 to 1909, before women in Oregon had the franchise, and running for U.S. Congress in 1920, Lovejoy mapped out broader aspects of women’s complete citizenship — beyond the vote. She would build on the ideas and lessons from the Oregon suffrage movement in her transnational medical humanitarian work from 1919 to 1967.

Pohl Lovejoy’s entrance into active work for woman suffrage blended her career and identity as a physician with the reinvigoration of the votes-for-women movement in Oregon. In the summer of 1905, both the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and the American Medical Association held their national conventions in Portland at the same time as the Lewis and Clark Exposition. As President of the all-female Portland Medical Club, Esther Pohl was involved in both events and greeted suffragists on behalf of the assembled women physicians. In her subsequent suffrage work, Pohl insisted on the need for women to have the vote to support legislation and candidates advocating pure food and milk, clean water, and other public health policies. She believed community health was a political issue and a civic duty. Pohl met local and national suffrage leaders and worked with them as they made plans for the 1906 campaign. Here, she began a lasting friendship and working partnership with NAWSA president Anna Howard Shaw.

The 1906 Oregon campaign was an important part of the new votes-for-women movement that included effective use of popular culture and mass media for visible and vigorous campaigns. Esther Pohl helped develop these new strategies using lively campaign literature and organizing a float in the May 1906 Made in Oregon parade. On Election Day, June 4, Pohl organized and assisted the women who would be distributing suffrage literature at Portland polling places. Anna Shaw, at the end of several months of work in Oregon, recalled the day in her autobiography: “All day long Dr. Pohl took me in her automobile from one polling place to another. At each we found representative women patiently enduring the drenching rain while they tried to persuade men to vote for us. We distributed sandwiches, courage and inspiration among them, and tried to cheer in the same way the women [poll] watchers, whose appointment we had secured that year for the very first time.” In the aftermath of this promising but unsuccessful campaign, Pohl did not participate actively with Abigail Scott Duniway and the small group of suffragists who mounted the 1908 and 1910 ballot measures in the midst of conflicts with national leaders.

She did take an essential part in the successful 1912 campaign. Her contributions were in three major areas. The first was leadership in several vital suffrage leagues and coalition building among dozens of other suffrage groups, each speaking directly to particular groups of male voters. The second was her continuing development and use of the new campaign strategies of mass media and popular culture to get out the vote. Finally, she served as a bridge connecting national and local leaders and workers in the campaign.

Esther Pohl was a leader of the Portland Woman’s Club Suffrage Campaign Committee and linked that committee with financial contributions from Anna Howard Shaw and wider NAWSA support. She was a member of several other local groups, including the Portland Equal Suffrage League. As the number of Portland suffrage organizations reached a total of twenty-three and as dozens of leagues formed across the state, Pohl was a frequent speaker at their various events. She also created speakers’ forums attended by members of various suffrage organizations and helped coordinate major events. In the fall of 1912, she organized Everybody’s Equal Suffrage League to underscore the importance of coalitions and the democratic principles of woman suffrage. She also hoped to encourage working women, often unable to pay the monthly dues of other groups, to join in this umbrella organization for the cause. With the payment of a lifetime membership of twenty-five cents, every member of the League automatically became a vice president.

Workers in the 1912 campaign, with Pohl taking an important lead, used the full potential of popular culture and mass advertising to reach their victory. Pohl assisted with the production and distribution of campaign literature and newspaper advertising, and she worked to place eye-catching suffrage slides and curtain signs at several dozen Portland movie theaters and displays in department stores. She led workers in a Suffrage Lunch Wagon festooned with banners and flags, selling sandwiches and other snacks along with the importance of votes for women during Portland’s Rose Festival week in June. And with her second husband George Lovejoy, she formed a suffrage “flying squadron,” riding by car to outlying areas of Multnomah and Clackamas counties, posting votes for women broadsides on columns and in storefronts and filling mailboxes with persuasive pamphlets.

Pohl Lovejoy facilitated contributions and support from national suffrage leaders and convinced Anna Howard Shaw to come to Oregon for a cross-state campaign in September and October. Shaw’s visit at the Pendleton Round-Up and participation in parades, speeches, and other events in Portland and other cities, even speaking from an open automobile, proved very popular, another way to advertise the importance of women’s right to the ballot. The success of the 1912 campaign with a victory that November 5 owed much to Pohl Lovejoy’s leadership and the work of countless other supporters.

Before Oregon women achieved the vote, Pohl served in appointed office, expanding women’s citizenship rights in this arena. Progressive Democratic Mayor Harry Lane, M.D., appointed Esther Pohl to the Portland city health board in 1905 and then as city health officer for his second term from 1907 to 1909. She shared Lane’s progressive Democratic viewpoint, fighting entrenched “interests” on behalf of the people, a view that expanded during her tenure as city health officer and after. She also worked with woman suffrage supporter George E. Chamberlain, Oregon’s Democratic governor from 1902 to 1908, elected to the U.S. Senate in 1908 and again in 1914. Esther Pohl Lovejoy brought this partisan political identity as a Democrat to her new role as a voter after 1912.

In 1914, national leaders of the Congressional Union (CU) for Woman Suffrage sent organizers around the nation to fight against the election of Democratic members of Congress, holding the Democratic Party and the Wilson administration then in power in Washington, D.C., responsible for the failure to act on a federal suffrage amendment. Lovejoy saw this as a direct challenge to her role as a voting Oregon Democrat and believed the CU was absolutely wrong to oppose Chamberlain, long active in his support for women’s right to the ballot. When CU organizer Jessie Stubbs came to Oregon, Lovejoy was vigorous in her active opposition through speeches, letters, and personal visits, and she spoke out at a 1915 women voters’ conference in San Francisco.

After 1912, Esther Lovejoy continued to lead Everybody’s Equal Suffrage League, and in 1916, she founded the Oregon Equal Suffrage Alliance. She also served as the Oregon state representative to the NAWSA Congressional Committee in 1916 to help lobby for the federal suffrage amendment. The new NAWSA president, Carrie Chapman Catt, asked her to represent Oregon on a special suffrage “Emergency Corps” in 1920 to work in various states to urge legislators to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment. That same year, Lovejoy ran as the Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress from Oregon’s Third District, building on her suffrage campaign experience to mount an effective campaign. With 44 percent of the vote, she demonstrated the power of her message in a year of Republican landslides and modeled another aspect of full female citizenship by seeking elective office.

Lovejoy represented a number of women’s organizations and worked with the Red Cross during the First World War. In 1919, she accepted the chair of the American Women’s Hospitals (AWH), an all-female medical relief organization sponsored by the U.S. Medical Women’s National Association during the conflict. Under her leadership from 1919 to 1967, the AWH established a feminist vision of medical humanitarian relief across borders. She was an organizer and first president of the Medical Women’s International Association from 1919 to 1924. Lovejoy expanded the views she had developed about women’s votes, citizenship, and civic health in her years of Portland activism to embrace a concept of international health. This was based on the view that social and economic justice and an end to war were essential conditions for healthy communities across the globe. And empowered women citizens across nations, she believed, could make this possible.

Support for votes for women was at the core of Esther Clayson Pohl Lovejoy’s activism. Active in the Oregon movement from 1906 to 1920, she pioneered new strategies and connected Oregon with national leaders. She linked her call for votes for women with her public health message. Lovejoy built the experiences and ideas of her Oregon work into her transnational feminist activism for international health and social justice. Her story suggests the important place Oregon has in the broad movements for woman suffrage, full citizenship, and human rights that continues today.


Further Reading

Kimberly Jensen, “Feminist Transnational Activism and International Health: The Medical Women’s International Association and the American Women’s Hospitals, 1919–1948,” in Kimberly Jensen and Erika Kuhlman, eds., Women and Transnational Activism in Historical Perspective (Dordrecht: Republic of Letters, 2010), 143–72.

Kimberly Jensen, “‘Neither Head nor Tail to the Campaign’: Esther Pohl Lovejoy and the Oregon Woman Suffrage Victory of 1912,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 108:3 (Fall 2007): 350–383.

Esther Lovejoy, Certain Samaritans (New York: Macmillan, 1933).

Esther Lovejoy, The House of the Good Neighbor (New York: Macmillan, 1919).

Esther Lovejoy, Women Doctors of the World (New York: Macmillan, 1957).

Anna Howard Shaw, The Story of a Pioneer, (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1915).

About the Author

Kimberly Jensen teaches history and gender studies at Western Oregon University. Dr. Jensen is the author of Mobilizing Minerva: American Women in the First World War and she is writing a biography of Esther Lovejoy.

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