Mass Advertising and Popular Culture: Laying the Foundation for the Win of 1912

Oregon suffragists had high hopes as they began preparation for the 1912 election. After many defeats and with the issue of “local grievance” – the fact that Oregon was now surrounded by equal suffrage states – the suffragists of Oregon knew it was most important to get the bill passed once and for all in 1912. Oregon activists helped to pioneer new campaign strategies using popular culture and mass advertising in this successful campaign, strategies that other suffragists would adopt in the final push for voting rights in the twentieth century.

In the past, quietly moving behind the scenes to sway prominent citizens in favor of woman suffrage had proved swift and feasible, such as in the state of Utah in 1896. This in-the-background work was meant to keep the bill from being noticed by the public and particularly by opponents so that it would be easier to pass. Many of the initial Oregon leaders, most especially Abigail Scott Duniway, believed that this “still hunt” method would prove just as viable in their own state, but after the first few tries it was evident a new tactic was needed. With the turn of the century and rise of a new generation came the advent of modern mass advertising. Advertisements were seen in newspapers and in movie and opera houses. Activists began “selling suffrage,” as Margaret Finnegan terms it, to reach every citizen with suffrage literature and ideas.

Duniway’s ‘still hunt’ method was a strategy of the past. The successful Washington and California campaigns in 1910 and 1911 respectively showed how effective mass campaigning through popular culture could be. Duniway was ill for most of the campaign, making it easier for other leaders to use new methods. And as dozens of new suffrage leagues organized they did not leave any appealing method of “selling suffrage” behind – be it buttons, flyers, literature, signs, speakers, parades, plays, or luncheons.

Workers from the many suffrage organizations in 1912 made use of advertisements and culture in a vast assortment of ways. Suffragists dropped flyers from tops of Portland buildings like confetti, such as the festive green flyers for St. Patrick’s Day of 1912, bearing Irish quotes and holiday symbols. Workers distributed buttons and pennants to schools and throughout the countryside. A reporter commented that “the demand for equal suffrage literature, buttons, and pennants is particularly great among the schools about Portland and the state.” With the new technique of mass advertising, all ages were getting interested and involved. All over Oregon suffrage workers were getting the word out with advertisements under the precise organization of the central committee, and the tactic was working – so well, in fact, that requests for speakers began to become difficult to fill as the summer of 1912 approached. Not only were speaking events desired across the state, but anywhere a suffrage speaker popped up, a parade tended to follow, planned or not.

To meet a suddenly immense demand, the campaign committee of the Portland Woman’s Club ordered yellow and black “votes for women” buttons by the thousands. Workers plastered literature, posters, and placards across the cities and countryside. One Oregonian article proclaimed “Literature Sent Out During Campaign to Every County, Town, and Hamlet” in a subheading. Reaching every part of the state was important in the new technique of mass advertising – activists were aiming to inform all citizens.

Earlier in the year of 1912, these advertisements were to herald the coming of “Suffrage Day” to many country towns of Oregon. At the first meeting of the central campaign committee, it was recorded that “another plan outlined yesterday was for carrying the fight into the country towns of the state in an aggressive and impressive manner.” Special trains were chartered for the events, carrying prominent speakers from all over the nation and a band with singers. These momentous occasions would be topped off with a grand parade with suffrage memorabilia everywhere to be seen. The suffrage trains did not exclude smaller towns, either. In those places Suffrage Day was designed to be a large community picnic for the countrymen. Dainty snacks were to be provided to the country travelers at all of these events. After all, as one Oregonian reporter pointed out, suffragists were following the idea that “the way to reach a man is through his stomach.” This attention to the countrymen was a big change from the still hunt method of past generations. In 1912, much like the very right activists were fighting for, all people were important, not just the prominent.

Suffrage activists also used the new technology of the automobile, not a common sight in 1912, as a means of transporting literature. This new technique was known as the “flying squadron.” As Margaret Finnegan explains, in many areas, cars of suffrage activists were a form of mass public entertainment, attracting the attention of the whole town or village, and perhaps turning into a parade. Suffragists in cars did more than distribute literature through a designated region. The riders would also form new organizations and rejuvenate inactive ones in the area. Sarah Graham notes that sometimes, like in the case of the trains, word would be sent ahead, rallying groups together in the region to get the communities fired up over the vote before activists arrived.

In October of 1912, seven Oregon suffrage activists formed a “flying squadron.” Esther Pohl Lovejoy, George A. Lovejoy, Florence and Frances Dayton, Mrs. Amanda Oatfield and Miss Oatfield and Helen Gillespie made a seventy mile circle outside of Portland for the cause. They went through Milwaukie and Estacada, where it was noted that “signboards, crossroads stores and private mail boxes along the rural routes blossom with a burden of suffrage literature.” The tour group planned to make another trip through Oregon City and continue until all territory directly bordering Portland had been enclosed.

As Portland was the main headquarters of suffrage organization in Oregon, it is no surprise that activists used the Portland Rose Festival to further the fight. The Oregon State Equal Suffrage Association entered a float in the grand parade, while the suffrage campaign committee of the Portland Woman’s Club developed another way to attract attention during the festival week. They used a truck to dispense lunch and snacks as a fundraiser for the expenses of the campaign. After much preparation work in the mornings at the Women of Woodcraft kitchen, workers stationed the feed truck in downtown Portland in the business district each day of the Rose Festival.

Mass advertising played a major part in the final achievement of Oregon woman suffrage in 1912. New popular culture such as automobiles, movies and plays made spreading the word to all Oregonians feasible and enjoyable at the same time. Workers sent suffrage literature and advertisements across the state, and parades or picnics followed, making it virtually impossible for an individual not to hear of the movement. It is due to this out-in-the-open, obvious method that women can now call Oregon a state of their own.


Primary Sources:

“Green Paper Storm Work of Suffragists: Passersby, Deluged, Look Aloft and See Big ‘Votes for Women’ Sign,” Portland Evening Telegram, March 16, 1912, 11.

“State Placarded by Suffragists: Literature Sent Out During Campaign to Every County, Town and Hamlet,” Oregonian, April 3, 1912, 9.

“Suffragists Join to Canvass State: Five Portland Organizations Form Central Committee to Manage Campaign,” Oregonian, March 3, 1912, 2:7.

“Suffragists to Send Out ‘Lunch Truck,’” Oregon Journal, June 10, 1912, 9.

“Women Workers on Tour: ‘Flying Squadron’ of Suffragists Cover Country With Literature,” Oregonian, October 20, 1912, 13.

Secondary Sources

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

Graham, Sarah Hunter. Woman Suffrage and the New Democracy. New York: Yale University Press, 1996.

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

About The Author

Ariel Setniker participated in Professor Kimberly Jensen’s Winter 2011 Oregon Woman Suffrage course as a student in the Honors Program at Western Oregon University. Ariel is a Mathematics major with interests in volunteer work in her spare time and coaching high school cheerleading.