The Impact of the College Equal Suffrage League on the Oregon Votes for Women Victory in 1912

The College Equal Suffrage League (CESL) was a groundbreaking organization that allowed college students and graduates the opportunity to join in the public and current debate concerning woman suffrage. The CESL of Oregon played a large role in promoting woman suffrage during the time leading up to the election of 1912. However, Oregon’s league was one of many all over the country, and it was certainly not the first.

According to Sicherman and Green the first College Equal Suffrage League was formed in 1900 by Inez Haynes Gilmore and Maud Wood Park at Radcliffe College in Boston, Massachusetts.  Park had always thought about woman suffrage while attending college, but never thought that she could do something about it. In 1898, Gilmore and Park invited well-known suffragist Alice Stone Blackwell to speak at their campus. After a successful lecture from Blackwell, Gilmore and Park were convinced that they needed to begin educating college students about the important fight for woman suffrage.

Park remained the name behind the national CESL as it grew and expanded across the country. According to Sara Hunter Graham, Park stated that the purpose of the CESL was: “To help college women realize their debt to the women who worked so hard for them, and to make them understand that one way to pay that debt is to fight the battle in the quarter of the field in which it is still to be won, to make them realize the obligation of opportunity.”

Park’s influence reached from her hometown of Boston, to New York, Washington D.C., and across the country as far as San Francisco. Her initiative in college propelled her to become one of the key women in the fight for woman suffrage. Thanks to Park’s foundational work, the CESL became recognized as a reputable and important organization in the fight for woman suffrage. After the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 Park helped to transform the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) into the League of Women Voters and served as the league’s first president.

Through Park’s inspiration at the annual conference of NAWSA in 1906 delegates voted to form a national CESL. Beginning that same year the NAWSA sponsored “College Evenings” at their events. As Graham notes, these College Evenings were intended to “appeal to the young, well-educated recruits who increasingly flocked to suffrage functions.” Three key suffragists, Susan B. Anthony, M. Carey Thomas, and Mary E. Garrett were strong supporters of the NAWSA College Evenings. They put together a February 8th, 1906 College Evening at the NAWSA yearly conference in Baltimore Maryland, stating that the night would both “involve new workers in the convention program” and “illustrate distinctly the new type of womanhood-the College Woman.” For the first time college students were explicitly being recruited by an adult political organization. This began a form of student activism that had not been utilized before. The CESL not only allowed students to become involved in political activism, it also helped alumnae to connect with students and faculty from their respective alma maters in a combined effort to work for woman suffrage.

As a national as well as an Oregon campaign organization the CESL was, according to Graham, a sort of “kindergarten for training workers for the regular association.” While still in college, students were becoming activists, and after graduation, many CESL members took positions as professional activists, or as part-time supporters. Through its short lifespan of 17 years, the CESL empowered many educated women to enter the activism field. Not only was the CESL important to the fight for woman suffrage, it also encouraged the higher education of women. When the CESL was first formed in 1900, women represented only 2.8% of college students. When the nineteenth amendment was passed in 1920 that percentage had increased to nearly 7.8%. It is obvious that the CESL was not only trendsetting in its formation as a college age political organization, it also represented a critical group of educated women who would fight not just for the right to vote, but for other aspects of women’s full citizenship and equality.

Oregon did not form a CESL branch until 1912. On February 20 the new organization had its first official meeting at the Multnomah Hotel in Portland to adopt a constitution and elect officers. Abigail Scott Duniway was first elected honorary president, before Viola (Mrs. Henry Waldo) Coe took over as active president. Members held twice monthly meetings in various locations in and around Portland. One of the most noteworthy get-togethers was an April luncheon with members of Oregon’s CESL and Chinese women, Mrs. S.K. Chan and her daughter, Miss Bertie Chan, among others. The visiting women wanted to thank the CESL for fighting for equal liberties between men and women. They also made the point that “On all sides Oregon is bounded by states in which women are on equal terms with the men. China completing the square.” It is clear that Oregon had a lot of pressure on its shoulders heading into the 1912 election. This pressure was what Esther Pohl Lovejoy referred to as a “local grievance” for the women on Oregon because Idaho, Washington State and California surrounded it as equal suffrage states. A successful election would complete the Northwest as a region unified in support of woman suffrage.

On May 8, 1912, Oregon’s branch of the CESL re-elected permanent officers to replace the temporary ones who were elected in February. Among these new officers were Emma Wold as president, Mrs. E.T. Taggert, Mrs. L.W. Therkelsen, Mrs. J. Andre Fouilhoux and Mrs. R.L. Donald as vice-presidents, Louise Bryant Trullinger as recording secretary, Dr. Florence Manion as corresponding secretary and Lida M. O’Bryon as treasurer. As the campaign progressed this new committee continued to spread the word about their organization and their fight. In June they created a float for the popular annual Portland Rose Festival, and in August some 300 members of the league participated in what was said to have been “the greatest gathering ever held in Portland of men and women in favor of equal suffrage.” This meeting was groundbreaking in that it was a chance for members of various organizations from around the state to come together and raise awareness for a common cause. As Margaret Finnegan discussed in her book Selling Suffrage, suffragists were perfecting their campaign strategy through use of mass publishing, advertising techniques and commercial entertainment. The Oregon CESL was certainly utilizing the most current techniques of the time to reach the largest crowd possible.

By the time the November election was approaching Clackamas, Yamhill and Washington counties were directly involved in the league’s campaign. In addition, members participated in county fairs in Salem, Eugene, Gresham, La Grande, Clatskanie, Albany, Corvallis, Nehalem, Baker county, Pendleton, Round-up, Canby, Ashland, Medford, The Dalles, Condon, Prineville, McMinnville, Hillsboro, Dallas and Harrisburg. In each location members established headquarters and distributed literature.

The purpose of Oregon’s CESL was to equip college students to enter the campaign and to help them practice both oral and written arguments. The league in Oregon, as well as in the rest of the country, played an important role in targeting a new generation, specifically women who were in college and who were already blazing a new trail for equality in their schooling. The CESL not only helped ensure a successful 1912 election for woman suffragists, it allowed students who were interested in the cause to begin their career as activists. College students and graduates alike were able to unite this combined cause to spread the word to their peers and the community that they were in that their cause was something worth fighting for.


Primary Sources:

“College Equal Suffragists, Chinese Women Dine Together,” Oregon Journal, April 12, 1912, 6.

“College League Forms,” Oregonian, February 21, 1912, 6.

“College Suffragists Elect,” Oregonian, May 8, 1912, 11.

“College Suffragists Working Fervently,” Oregon Journal, October 16, 1912, 11.

“Last Lap Outlined,” Oregonian, October 9, 1912, 13.

“Mrs. Coe President of Suffrage League,” Portland Evening Telegram, February 21, 1912, 2.

“Suffragists Outline Campaign Plan,” Oregon Journal, March 6, 1912, 7.

“Suffragists Will Be Represented,” Oregonian, June 1, 1912, 9.

“Suffragists to Unite,” Oregonian, August 9, 1912, 12.

Secondary Sources

Allan, Elizabeth J., Susan Van Deventer Iverson and Rebecca Ropers-Huilman. Reconstructing Policy in Higher Education: Feminist Postcultural Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2010.

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

Graham, Sara Hunter. Woman Suffrage and the New Democracy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.

Jensen, Kimberly. “Neither Head nor Tail to the Campaign: Esther Pohl Lovejoy and the Oregon Woman Suffrage Victory of 1912.” Oregon Historical Quarterly 108 no. 3 (2007): 350-383.

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

Sicherman, Barbara and Carol Hurd Green. Notable American Women: The Modern Period: A Biographical Dictionary, Volume 4. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980.

About The Author

Tabitha McAfee participated in Professor Kimberly Jensen’s Winter 2011 Oregon Woman Suffrage course as a student in the Honors Program at Western Oregon University. Tabitha is a Mathematics Major, with a focus in Education.