Oregon Woman Suffrage in National Context

By Rebecca J. Mead, Ph.D., Northern Michigan University

Western victories were crucial to the success of the woman suffrage movement at many phases of the struggle, and the Pacific Northwest was an important locus of agitation and source of innovation. Most of the women of the western United States were enfranchised on the state level well before passage of the federal amendment in 1920. These victories were possible because the decentralized federal system allowed territories and states to decide voter qualifications, and because suffragists and other reformers worked together to win woman suffrage as a progressive electoral reform. After the Civil War, there were a few unusual western victories: Wyoming Territory (1869), Utah Territory (1870), Washington Territory (women enfranchised in 1883, disfranchised in 1888), Colorado (1893), and Idaho (1896). By 1900, the momentum had stalled, but a new generation of suffragists had novel ideas for modern campaigns. They developed sophisticated public outreach tactics, made creative use of the media and advertising, and employed direct action techniques (such as public displays, mass meetings, and street speaking), which attracted positive publicity and support. These “New Women,” as they were popularly known, were often educated professionals with connections to labor and reform movements, and their adoption of radical methods sometimes upset older or more traditional women and led to internal controversies and organizational splits. Nevertheless, the string of western state suffrage victories beginning in 1910 demonstrated the invigorating effects of these new approaches.

Understanding the western context is vital to any analysis of the U.S. suffrage movement. The more fluid political environment of the West encouraged experimentation, and reform movements encouraged the breakthrough suffrage victories in Washington (1910) and California (1911,) which reenergized the movement regionally and nationally. Oregon, Arizona, and Alaska Territory all enfranchised women residents in 1912, followed by Montana and Nevada in 1914, resulting in a population of four million female western voters by 1915. These voting women influenced their elected representatives, a situation the National Women’s Party (NWP) tried to turn to Democratic disadvantage in two national elections and in the federal amendment campaign. A number of talented and experienced western women organizers moved east and became involved in the final phases of the struggle, while others remained active at the state level. More research is needed to clarify the western contributions to the final amendment victory and to understand the various ways Western women used their votes and political power after enfranchisement.

Oregon became a very early leader in the western movement when Abigail Scott Duniway began publishing her women’s rights newspaper, The New Northwest, in 1871. Independent suffrage journalists like Duniway were not uncommon, and they were particularly influential in the West because they provided geographically isolated populations with information, advice, and motivation. They also toured, spoke, and helped establish connections and networks. Duniway was an early pioneer, businesswoman, and major family breadwinner who still found time for suffrage activism, and she soon became a dominant figure in the Pacific Northwest. In 1871, Duniway traveled to San Francisco to see the national leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who were on a western speaking tour, and Anthony accepted Duniway’s invitation to extend her trip into the Pacific Northwest. The two women traveled all over the region and into British Columbia, making many speeches and receiving both praise and criticism for their revolutionary ideas. They worked with local suffragists to establish clubs in Seattle, Olympia, and Portland and helped organize Washington’s first suffrage convention in November, which resulted in the formation of the Washington Territory Woman Suffrage Association (WTWSA). Anthony was thrilled by the invitation to address the Washington territorial legislature, because this was the first time a woman had spoken before a legislative body on this issue. The pending suffrage bill was defeated, despite her appeals.

Like many western leaders, Duniway often disliked or resented national organizers, characterizing them as pushy and interfering outsiders ignorant of western conditions. Duniway advocated a “still hunt” approach that emphasized systematic but subtle lobbying work. She condemned the public (“hurrah”) campaigns preferred by Anthony because she was sure that these only galvanized the well-organized and well-funded forces of opposition. Duniway’s paranoia about liquor interests was not unfounded, and the two women agreed on the need to dissociate suffrage from temperance. Duniway nevertheless repeatedly offended the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), and the still hunt was not an effective method of mass public persuasion during a statewide referendum campaign. Duniway was a crucial early figure, but her long-term significance is more difficult to assess. By the early 1900s, her prickly personality and harsh statements had alienated the WCTU, clubwomen, and younger activists eager to try new ideas. Suffrage coalitions inevitably suffered from race, class, and generational tensions, strategic disagreements, and power struggles. Organizational splits sometimes were useful developments, allowing autonomous action and specialization by smaller groups, but chronic conflict drained the Oregon state association.

Although Duniway deserves much credit for her dedication to women’s rights, suffrage in Oregon could not have been achieved without the contributions of the younger, dynamic generation of “New Women” suffragists. In the early 1900s, another major suffrage journalist, Clara Bewick Colby, provided a natural rallying point for these women. Colby began her national women’s rights paper, The Women’s Tribune, in Nebraska in 1883 and moved to Portland in 1904. Duniway, who had ceased publication of The New Northwest in 1884, was initially congenial, but when Colby tried to establish a leadership position in the Oregon movement, Duniway developed a deep grudge against this “arch-pretender,” as she called Colby. She became active in the state leadership, but Colby’s paper did not thrive. Ironically, suffrage journalists who developed sophisticated press skills and learned how to use the mainstream media helped make traditional women’s rights papers obsolete.

In 1902, outreach to the general electorate became more important, as Oregon became the first state to adopt the initiative process as a progressive democratization measure. Reformers could now bypass stubborn legislatures and appeal directly to the voters to get measures on the ballot, making extensive statewide campaigning necessary to win an election, and the anti-suffrage interests were well organized. After 1902, suffrage measures appeared regularly on the Oregon ballot, but they failed to pass until 1912 due to various factors, including political corruption and organizational strife.

Nationally, suffragists had great hopes for the 1906 Oregon campaign. Duniway feared the “irrepressible ambition” of outside organizers, but she authorized the Oregon Equal Suffrage Association (OESA) to invite the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) to hold its 1905 convention in Portland in conjunction with the Lewis and Clark Exposition. Speeches and resolutions at this meeting revealed the national significance suffragists attributed to this particular campaign, the progressive reform environment, and the West generally. Believing that the progressive West offered the best chance of suffrage success, the NAWSA leadership hoped to rebuild the national movement on the foundation of an Oregon campaign victory. As Duniway feared, NAWSA organizers remained after the convention to “take charge” of the 1906 Oregon campaign, and she stepped aside. Also assisted by numerous volunteers from other western states, Oregon suffragists conducted a modest public campaign. Although they continued to rely heavily on organizational endorsements, they actively courted working-class, socialist, and labor support through public speeches and union meetings. When the measure failed by more than 10,000 votes, suffragists did not abandon their growing conviction that working-class urban voters were the key to success. Noting various electoral anomalies, Oregon suffragists were convinced they had been cheated by a well-mobilized opposition funded primarily by liquor and vice interests.

The failure of the 1906 Oregon suffrage campaign led to a full-scale leadership battle at the state convention, but Duniway was able to regain control of the state organization. In the Women’s Tribune, Colby publicly criticized the “still hunt” and Duniway’s rabid hostility to the WCTU. The movement factionalized: although Duniway technically retained control of the OESA until 1912, the NAWSA redirected funding from the OESA to a committee of the Portland Women’s Club headed by Colby and others. Another “still hunt” suffrage campaign lost badly in 1910, despite the passage of a similar measure in Washington State the same year. More research is needed to explain these very different results in neighboring states as well as their regional interconnections. By the time Oregon passed woman suffrage in 1912, Washington and California had already enfranchised women citizens. The elderly Duniway fell ill in 1912, allowing younger women to take over the Oregon campaign and implement new ideas. Released from the imperatives of the “still hunt,” they even held a parade! Unlike many other first-generation suffragists, Duniway lived to see the measure pass and became the first woman to vote in Oregon. The subsequent political efforts of the state’s new generation of “pioneer” women voters comprise an area that also needs more attention and study.

Further Reading

Abigail Scott Duniway, Path Breaking: An Autobiographical History of the Equal Suffrage Movement in Pacific Coast States. 2nd ed. New York: Source Books Press, 1970.

G. Thomas Edwards, Sowing Good Seeds: The Northwest Suffrage Campaigns of Susan B. Anthony. Portland: Oregon Historical Society Press, 1990.

Lauren Kessler, “The Fight for Woman Suffrage and the Oregon Press,” In Karen J. Blair, ed., Women in Pacific Northwest History.  Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988, pp. 43-58.

Rebecca J. Mead, How the Vote Was Won: Woman Suffrage in the Western United States, 1868-1914. New York: New York University Press, 2004.

Ruth Barnes Moynihan, Rebel for Rights: Abigail Scott Duniway. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1983.

About the Author

Rebecca J. Mead is an associate professor the History Department at Northern Michigan University, where she teaches U.S. history, women’s history, public history, labor history, and Native American history. Her book How the Vote Was Won: Woman Suffrage in the Western United States, 1868-1914, explains the complex mix of alliances between suffragists and progressive and populist reformers, race relations in the West, and the sophisticated activism of Western women.

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