Abigail Scott Duniway’s Birthday Party, October 1912

On October 22, 1912, the alternately famous and infamous Abigail Scott Duniway had her 78th birthday. Suffrage supporters organized a large party to celebrate, with many important people in attendance, speeches and decoration. But this was not simply an elaborate birthday party for a well-known Oregon woman. It was suffrage rally and a key event in the fight for the emancipation of Oregon women. Duniway was not just any person, but many considered her to be the “mother” of Oregon woman suffrage, the plucky woman who started it all. Less than one month before the successful election of 1912 when Oregon women finally won their right to vote, Duniway’s birthday party, with the many famous and influential people in attendance, served as a major stepping stone toward victory.

Duniway’s life story is integral to understanding her birthday party and its significance—why she was so largely celebrated. Her methods for gaining woman suffrage were controversial among other suffragists, and because of this she was constantly up against not only anti-suffragists who vehemently criticized her, but some of her peers, as well. Despite this controversy and the challenges from anti-suffragists, Duniway held strong to her convictions throughout her life. In fact, she was known to thrive, as E. Kimbark MacColl has noted, on “personal attacks… when provoked.” Her strength and pride can be seen throughout her life.

At the time of her birthday party, Duniway had been working for the woman suffrage cause for almost half a century. Her time and dedication rendered the large suffrage rally in her name appropriate. It was a fine closing to her long career; this party was not only a celebration of suffrage and her birthday, but also the mark of her retirement.

Duniway’s birthday party was a grand affair in Portland’s Gipsy Smith Auditorium, with over 1,500 people in attendance and many prominent speakers. Recently recovered from a battle with a long illness, Duniway cheerfully participated as the star of this suffrage rally. She had always preferred the “still hunt” method of working quietly behind the scenes to mass public action and rallies for promoting woman suffrage, making her presence and acceptance of the party more significant. Duniway told a reporter for the Oregon Journal how happy she was that “now in the sunset of [her] life [her] fondest dream [was] beginning to be realized.” Throughout the event, Duniway was the picture of grace and strength, playing her part as a prominent suffragist very well.

The event was indeed a shining tribute to Duniway and a great spectacle for advertising Oregon woman suffrage. Duniway was seated upon a stage with her family and many important people in the suffrage cause surrounding her, including Viola Coe, acting president of the Oregon Equal Suffrage Association, Governor Oswald West, Senator C. W. Fulton, and suffragist May Arkwright Hutton of Spokane, Washington. The stage itself, the Oregon Journal reported, “was hung with red, white, and blue tartan and effectively decorated in spruce, fir, Oregon grape, autumn leaves and English ivy, and directly over Mrs. Duniway’s chair were the significant figures, ‘78’, wrought in evergreen.”. The auditorium was decorated with flowers and banners on the inside, with “a typical Oregon [rain] shower without.” The ushers were a score of young women suffragists dressed brightly in white with yellow scarves, the official suffrage colors. All around it was a happy and lively affair.

The event started with a musical performance of a “suffrage hymn.” Duniway herself had written the lyrics and Mrs. A. E. Clark had composed the music; Clark played the piano accompaniment as June Irene Burns Albert sang. The lyrics set the tone for the party, one of strength and perseverance for the cause of woman suffrage:

“God of our fathers, by whose guiding hand,
We all were led to this Pacific land,
To raise on high the standard of the free,
We women bow with reverence unto Thee.
Good men and women came together here,
With strenuous effort and courageous cheer,
They toiled and builded on the Western shore
An empire that shall last forevermore.
God of our fathers, we are half the race,
By men forgotten till this year of grace,
When they in majesty arise and say,
‘All shall be free in an approaching day’”6

The evening’s festivities also included speeches by dignitaries present. Other messages were read from people who could not be in attendance. People who spoke included Viola Coe, Frederick V. Holman, May Arkwright Hutton, Mary Cartwright, B. Lee Paget, A. E. Clark, Mayor George F. Cotterill of Seattle, Governor West of Oregon, and Senator C. W. Fulton. The closing statement was given by Colonel Robert A. Miller. Those whose telegrams or letters were read included Judge Stephen A. Lowell, Senator Jonathan Bourne, Governor Hawley of Idaho, and Governor Carey of Wyoming.

As Oregon’s governor, Oswald West was one of the most distinguished speakers at Duniway’s birthday party. West stated that women would help clean up politics due to their capabilities and superior sense of honor. Most notably, he promised Duniway that she would have the honor of writing the Governor’s Proclamation of equal suffrage herself if woman suffrage carried that November. And he held to his promise after the election.

Rather than outlining the great things women would accomplish with the vote, former senator C.W. Fulton declared that regardless of what women might do with the vote, they deserved to have the right to the ballot. He praised the pioneer women of Oregon, Duniway among them, for their heroism, proving their worthiness of the vote. He then recalled his pride in having been inspired and prodded by Duniway to present the first woman suffrage bill to the Oregon legislature in 1880.

Speakers came from beyond Oregon, too. May Arkwright Hutton, a prominent suffrage leader from the recently enfranchised state of Washington, was another among many to pay tribute to Duniway and Oregon suffrage. Hutton praised the suffrage victory in Washington State in 1910 and proclaimed that Oregon was sure to be next. With warm congratulations for her birthday and best wishes for Oregon’s November vote, she presented Duniway with a bouquet of yellow chrysanthemums. These flowers, she said, like woman suffrage, had grown “from a ragged wayside weed” into a modern triumph.

The woman suffrage movement in Oregon had a challenging start in the 1870s, a time when women had few legal rights. Abigail Scott Duniway was among the first to petition for a change in this unfair legal system in Oregon, and as such her name was known almost synonymously with “woman suffrage.” Perhaps famous, perhaps infamous, she was nevertheless a very important figure for woman suffrage in her own time.

For suffrage activists to combine a suffrage rally with the seventy-eighth birthday of such a well-known woman was ingenious. Duniway’s reputation and the respect, if not admiration, of the general public drew a massive crowd to the event, a significant audience with which to share the woman suffrage sentiment. The well-known and well-respected speakers from all over the nation made convincing and passionate arguments for women’s right to vote; these arguments had the opportunity to be widely heard because of this momentous suffrage rally. Timed so close to the November 1912 election, Abigail Scott Duniway’s birthday party was an amazing publicity event, making headlines and front page news. The attention her birthday party gartered for her cause is one of the prominent reasons Duniway was finally able to move on from being among the first Oregon equal suffragists to being the first female Oregonian to cast her ballot.

Primary Sources:

“Duniway Rally Is Aim,” Oregonian, October 4, 1912, 16.

“Noted is Tribute to Mrs. Duniway,” Oregonian, October 23, 1912, 1 & 14.

“Oregon’s Pioneer Woman Suffrage Advocate is Honored,” Oregon Journal, October 23, 1912, 13.

“Pioneer Oregon Suffragist is Happy,” Oregon Journal, October 11, 1912, 14.

“Suffragists are Active,” Oregonian, October 17, 1912, 16.

“Victory in Sight, Mrs. Duniway is Glad; Quits at 78,” Oregon Journal, October 22, 1912, 16.


Secondary Sources

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

Evans, Sarah. “Oregon,” History of Woman Suffrage Vol. 6 ed. Ida Husted Harper. New York: Arno Press Reprint, 1969.

Finnegan, Margaret. Selling Suffrage: Consumer Culture & Votes for Women. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

MacColl, E. Kimbark. Merchants, Money and Power: The Portland Establishment. The Georgian Press, 1988.

Myers, Sandra.“Suffering for Suffrage,” in Westering Women and the Frontier Experience 1800-1915. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982.

Ward, Jean M. “Abigail Scott Duniway,1834-1915,” Oregon Encyclopedia, http://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/entry/view/abigail_scott_duniway/

About The Author

Carolee Buck participated in Professor Kimberly Jensen’s Spring 2011 Oregon Woman Suffrage course as a student in the Honors Program at Western Oregon University. Carolee is a Pre-Medicine Biology major with interests in German language and culture, history, sculpture and design, and the sciences.