Susan B. Anthony and the Struggle for Woman Suffrage in Oregon, 1871–1906

By G. Thomas Edwards

Noted national suffragist leader Susan B. Anthony made three important visits to Oregon and has been called the grandmother of Oregon suffrage. In 1871, she and her long-time friend and co-worker, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, first visited the West. Traveling from Chicago on the new transcontinental railroad, fifty-one-year-old Anthony and fifty-five-year-old Stanton wanted to meet with women voters in Wyoming and Utah and to advance the woman suffrage effort in Colorado and California. After considerable success, Anthony fell victim to the San Francisco press, having defended a prostitute charged with murder.
With this bitter experience on her mind, Anthony accepted an invitation from Abigail Scott Duniway to push for reform in Oregon and Washington. Duniway had recently established the New Northwest, a weekly newspaper championing woman suffrage and other reforms. In early September, the pair reached a business agreement whereby the Portlander would serve as tour manager and receive one-half the gross receipts of 50-cent ticket sales for the campaigner’s lectures, to be delivered in the Willamette and Walla Walla valleys Puget Sound, and Victoria, British Columbia.

Each of Anthony’s three Portland lectures packed a lecture hall and aroused the community. She began with her standard talk, “Power of the Ballot,” a closely reasoned effort emphasizing that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments actually enfranchised women, that men dominated but did not protect women, and that the condition of women would improve if they voted, because politicians would have to respond to their needs. Anthony assured listeners that women would be responsible voters and office-holders. An editor quoted her as arguing, “women are no more or less than slaves.” Only women could attend her second appearance, in which she discussed personal issues and denounced licensed prostitution.

Her third presentation lasted two and a half hours and included questions from the audience or that she herself posed. To the inevitable question, “Is the Bible against the ballot?” she reminded the crowd that the Bible had been employed to curb scientists and reformers while it also had been used to justify slavery. She rejected the “injunction of the Bible upon women to submit themselves to their husbands.” Anthony reminded listeners that there was a Biblical curse on men — who were to earn their bread by the sweat of their brow — and asserted that ministers and physicians did not sweat much, and she drew laughter by concluding that politicians only sweated before elections. In response to the belief that husbands represented their wives in political matters, Anthony insisted that widows and wives of drunkards lacked representation: “No individual can represent another, as that other would do for himself or herself.”

She declared the ballot would not degrade her sex: “Women would be as refined and pure with power as without it. Good, pure and noble women meet vile men every day; they hold the most intimae family relations with them, being their wives, sisters, and daughters.” If women voted, she was asked, who would lead the family? She bluntly asserted: “Brains will always rule, whether in the head of man or woman.”

Pleased with their Portland effort, Anthony and Duniway began a strenuous two-month campaign during which Anthony traveled over 2,000 miles and delivered 60 speeches in courthouses, fairgrounds, schoolhouses, and churches. Uncomfortable stagecoaches, tasteless meals, and dingy hotels sapped their energy as the famous New Yorker sought to teach the importance of equal suffrage to 91,000 residents of Oregon and 24,000 residents of Washington Territory. The exhaustive campaign ended in late November.

Anthony called the tour a success. She had publicized her reforms, won converts, created four suffrage organizations, and taught Duniway, who explained: “I became quite thoroughly initiated in the movement and made my first efforts at public speaking.”

Significant opinion makers, however, opposed her. Historian Lee Nash reasoned that newspaper editors could not champion change in traditional sex roles. They recognized a “macho norm” that meant men “were expected publicly and visibly to be tough, combative, elemental, insensitive, uncompromising.” Condescending editors often denounced Anthony’s declarations; for example, a Salem editor argued that she wrongfully concluded that men were unfaithful. “We resent the charge, brought by a disappointed and sarcastic woman — neither a wife or mother — against the race of men who are today carrying civilization to its highest point . . . giving woman more privileges than she has ever had.” Another editor claimed: “Voting by ballot is the silent expression of the opinion the citizens, and as no woman — save a deaf and dumb one — ever had a silent opinion upon any question she could not exercise the right of suffrage.”  Influential ministers condemned Anthony as a societal menace.

Twenty-five years later, in 1896, Duniway and other regional suffragists, striving to rejuvenate the suffrage movement, pleaded with Anthony to return. Serving as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association(NAWSA) and currently fighting in California’s noted suffrage campaign, she agreed to a short visit. Demonstrating phenomenal energy during her nine days of leadership in Seattle and Portland, growing cities critical to suffrage victories, Anthony frequently repeated basic points voiced in 187l. But she stressed that with the ballot in their hands, moral women would help resolve urban problems. A Tacoma editor also emphasized women’s morality, pointing out that in 1890, his state had “443 male and only 4 female prisoners.” 

The high point of Anthony’s tour was a well-publicized Woman’s Congress arranged by Portland suffragists. She emphasized equal suffrage, asserted that the ballot would end the pay inequity between men and women, and gratified adherents by stating that their cause was “further advanced in the West because the West contain the more liberal progressive element from the East, and any good cause or measure reform is more readily accepted here.”  Although newspapers often did not embrace equal suffrage, they provided better coverage and did not resort to ridicule.

Disagreements, however, shattered suffrage leadership. In Portland and elsewhere, Anthony heard or read national and local suffrage leaders complain about Duniway’s rigid leadership and blunt language. Thus, the New Yorker informed the Portlander she could not participate in the current Idaho suffrage fight, because NAWSA workers and Idaho women would manage what would be a successful battle. This directive upset Duniway — she had campaigned extensively in Idaho — as did her mentor’s arrangement empowering Portland clubwomen at Duniway’s expense.

The national and state leaders also disagreed over tactics to be used in Oregon’s 1900 referendum fight. Anthony and allies advocated a well-organized, well-publicized campaign. Duniway, however, rejected this traditional approach and argued for a “still hunt,” meaning that she and supporters would quietly work with prominent male leaders. NAWSA stepped aside but closely watched Duniway’s management of the suffrage referendum that narrowly failed. Anthony concluded that the Portlander’s tactics and sharp tongue had botched a great opportunity for Oregon to follow Idaho in becoming the fifth suffrage state. Duniway’s failed campaign and inability to arrange another contest in 1904 convinced Anthony and allies that they must take charge of the 1906 referendum. The NAWSA campaign began in 1905, when the organization sent two New England women to establish grass roots groups across Oregon; more important, it arranged to conduct its national convention in Portland during the Lewis and Clark Exposition. Thus, the organization’s first far west meeting would publicize Anthony, NAWSA, and the forthcoming state referendum.

In June 1905, the eighty-five-year-old Anthony journeyed to Portland, accompanied by her seventy-eight-year-old sister Mary. Although frail, Anthony was determined to help launch a proper Oregon campaign. The sisters took accommodations for fifteen days at the Portland Hotel. NAWSA officials, including president Anna Shaw, joined with state suffrage leaders to maximize Anthony’s skills and reputation. Often called “Aunt Susan,” she held interviews, lectured at the convention, talked at the First Baptist Church’s Sunday service, shook many hands at her reception, and was the featured speaker at the unveiling of the Sacajawea statue. At the reception, she stated, “I don’t expect to be here when you get the vote, but I shall be somewhere in the kingdom, in the universe, and I shall rejoice with you.”  At the crowded church, parishioners applauded her address on “The influence which educational, charitable, and religious associations would have if women possessed the ballot.”  At the convention, she delivered a sweeping political speech, hailing Oregon’s progressive initiative and referendum, advocating an open state-wide fight under female leadership, warning leaders not to align with any political party, and promising improved politics if women voted.

After the convention, Anthony helped Shaw and other notables prepare for the promising campaign. Despite disagreements, including one regarding the Women’s Christian Temperance Union’s role in suffrage votes, Anthony and Duniway respected each other.

Anthony pushed her reform in the East, including a disappointing visit with President Theodore Roosevelt. She kept a close eye on the Oregon campaign, donating eighty-six birthday dollars to the fight, and on her deathbed, listened to Shaw read news from distant allies. Both suffragists anticipated that an Oregon victory would trigger similar results in western states. Anthony exclaimed, “Of, if I were only able to go there! I long for it so.” On March 13, 1906, she died of pneumonia and did not learn that men had defeated the suffrage amendment.

Further Reading

Abigail Scott Duniway, Path Breaking, Schoken Books, New York, 1971.

Katleen Barry, Susan B. Anthony: A Biography, New York University Press, New York 1988.

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

Jean M. Ward and Elaine A. Maveety, Yours for Liberty: Selections from Abigail Scott Duniway’s Suffrage Newspaper, Oregon State University Press, 2000.

About the Author

G. Thomas Edwards is the William Kirkman Professor of History Emeritus and served at Whitman College from 1964 -1998. Edwards taught classes in American history, especially the Civil War and the American West, receiving several distinguished teaching awards. He is the author of Sowing Good Seeds: The Northwest Suffrage Campaigns of Susan B. Anthony.

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