Together We Stand, Divided We Fall: Committee Disagreement in the Oregon 1912 Campaign
American history has many examples of associations attempting to work together towards a common goal. Associations are what holds the United States together because although the United States is a nation of free men and women it takes unity to accomplish great deeds. Alexis de Tocqueville, upon visiting America in 1831, stated in Democracy in America that unless the United States citizens learned to help one another through the formation of associations then those citizens would become powerless. The men and women fighting for woman suffrage in Oregon knew this fact all too well by the end of the numerous campaigns. They created many associations, committees, and organizations designed for the sole purpose of increasing their chances of success. However, when many passionate individuals join together for a common purpose there will be disagreements and power struggles and, woman suffrage organizations were no exception.
The 1912 woman suffrage campaign was not the first attempt at passing a bill to allow women the right to vote in Oregon. Abigail Scott Duniway, along with her supporters, had championed the cause of woman suffrage in the Northwest for many years before the 1912 campaign gathered the attention of other organizations. Duniway’s leadership was based around the idea of a campaign based outside of the public’s attention, what she called the “still hunt”. Duniway believed a slow and steady campaign would undoubtedly have more success than a campaign designed around mass advertising and coalition building. Duniway’s tactics were based on past success in other campaigns; however, there was growing resentment for her leadership style among other organization leaders in the woman suffrage campaign. Duniway was ill during the 1912 campaign and this created a power vacuum in the suffrage community.
Duniway’s illness allowed other organizations to take on a larger role when it came to the suffrage campaign in 1912. In “Neither Head nor Tail to the Campaign” Kimberly Jensen described the idea suffrage supporters created coalitions and associations between organizations were created and used mass advertising to ensure suffrage would have a vibrant voice. Rebecca Mead, in her work How the Vote Was Won: Woman Suffrage in the Western United State 1868 – 1914 states that in the failed campaigns before 1912 “Duniway and her allies dominated the state association, no conventions were held, and frustrations mounted.” Duniway resisted change and believed that her campaign techniques and experience provided a better weapon in the fight for suffrage than the new ideas of next-generation suffrage leaders. After the close loss in 1906 Duniway tightened her grip on her organization and refused aid from outside sources. All of this resistance stymied the suffrage effort until she became ill and new techniques were allowed to come to the forefront of the battle. These power struggles led to some heated disagreements between suffrage organizations.
The start of one particular disagreement came when many different Portland-based suffrage groups came together to form the Equal Suffrage Advisory Committee that March. The Oregon Journal article titled “Suffragists Will Work in Harmony” reported on March 3, 1912 that the committee was to be chaired by W. M. Davis and three members from each organization would sit on the committee as representatives. Jensen notes that W. M. “Pike” Davis was president of the Men’s Equal Suffrage Club and he advised many of the various suffrage organizations on legal matters. The groups that made up the Equal Suffrage Advisory Committee continued on with their normal, and separate, activities but also began to work together for the common goal of suffrage through the committee itself. An Oregonian article, “Suffrage Women Clash” reported that the disagreement about the committee formation began when Dr. Marie D. Equi objected because she believed that the call to form the committee should have come from Abigail Scott Duniway, the leader of the Oregon State Equal Suffrage Association.
This was the beginning of the disagreements that stemmed from the formation of the Equal Suffrage Advisory Committee. An article entitled “Suffrage Leaders’ Session Stormy” in the Oregonian alluded to the fact that there were those among the committees that believed this was an attempt to remove Duniway from the decision process, Dr. Marie D. Equi and Viola Coe chief amongst them. This idea was strengthened by the fact that Duniway was ill and absent during the decisions that led to the committees formation. Duniway stated from her home on multiple occasions that she was actively directing the campaign and the state central committee. Duniway formed a “central committee” following the formation of the advisory committee. As described in an Oregonian article, “Suffrage Leaders’ Session Stormy,” Duniway selected members for positions on the central committee. Many believed that this central committee was illegal as its appointment was after the main session of the meeting had been adjourned. The creation of two separate committees around the same time with basically the same goal resulted in a great deal of tension between suffrage leaders and organizations.
One of the major problems associated with disagreements among group members is that it spawns more and more dissension. Conflicts also draw attention to the animosity within the organizations and the goals of the organizations can slip by unnoticed. This type of attention is exactly the type that the woman’s suffrage organizations wished to avoid. They could not appear weak or fractured because the media would take that story and run with it. Also, the voting citizens were unlikely to support or vote for a cause that could not even find agreement within itself.
Duniway believed that only she could guide the woman suffrage cause to success. G. Thomas Edwards, in Sowing Good Seeds states that “she predicted to an old suffrage ally that [in the 1906 campaign] there was little chance for victory because the campaign’s leadership…” However, in 1912 a collaboration of woman’s suffrage organizations held the possibility of finally achieving the vote for women in Oregon, but the infighting of the organizations threatened to smother their cause.
The media became a major concern for the suffrage organizations because they wished to hide any conflict from outside audiences. This concern shows up in a newspaper article titled “Suffrage Row is Denied” that appeared March 10, 1912 in the Oregonian: “Equal suffrage leaders hastened to explain that there was no dissension within the suffrage ranks.” Leaders of suffrage organizations banded together to create the Suffrage Advisory Committee, which included these five groups as the core: the Portland Woman’s Club Campaign Committee (PWCCC), Portland Equal Suffrage League (PESL), College Equal Suffrage League Portland Branch (CESL), Men’s Equal Suffrage Club, and the Oregon State Equal Suffrage Association (OSESA). These leaders, and others, realized that if the infighting leaked to the press then they would have a more difficult time rallying supporters to their cause. Some of the meetings were even held behind closed doors for fear the news and media would spin a tale of conflict between the organizations.
All the closed-door meetings and testimonials stating that everything was jovial between the suffrage organizations conflicted heavily with the story the newspapers of the period were telling. In truth it seems that two separate committees were created in opposition to one another. The first committee, the Advisory Committee, was created by the organization’s collaborative planning, while the second committee, the Central Committee, was created by Duniway and her supporters who hoped to control the suffrage campaign. Workers told newspaper reporters that they were not wanted at the meeting where the different committees and organizations were being discussed. Therefore the papers were forced to rely on rumor and hearsay in order to complete an unfinished puzzle of what went on behind closed doors.
Even though the organizations that created the Advisory Committee claimed that no animosity existed between the five principle groups involved, newspaper accounts weave a different tapestry. After two weeks of existence the Advisory Committee was all but dissolved after the withdrawal of the Portland Woman’s Club from the committee; since Duniway’s Equal Suffrage Association and the College Equal Suffrage Association refused to actively participate and advance the newly formed Advisory Committee that left the committee members representing only two of the many prominent suffrage organizations. There was a power struggle between Duniway and the new-generation suffragists that hoped to direct suffrage activism. In the end the Central Committee became the voice for state suffrage and the Advisory Committee seemed nothing but a short lived idea.
The Advisory Committee and the Central Committee seemed to come into existence as a means to control the suffrage campaign in Oregon. These committees, basically serving the same purpose, caused animosity and distrust between suffrage leaders and groups that could have lead the suffrage cause down the road of failure yet again. However, as the newspapers point out, the Advisory Committee was disbanded and Duniway’s Central Committee retained its position. Other groups eventually joined the Central Committee, directed by Viola Coe during Duniway’s illness.
Suffrage organizations had their disagreements and, at times, the disagreements proved embarrassing for the cause. But coalitions and new ideas proved the tipping point for the campaign in 1912. Although many of the suffrage organizations had tension and sometimes even heated rivalries they were all still fighting for the same basic right for women to be empowered by the vote.
Edwards, G. Thomas. Sowing Good Seeds: The Northwest Suffrage Campaigns of Susan B. Anthony. Portland: Oregon Historical Society Press, 1990.
Jensen, Kimberly. “Neither Head no Tail to the Campaign.” 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 and London: New York University Press, 2004.
Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. 2nd ed. New York: Signet Classic New American Library, 2001.
About The Author
Brandon Gould participated in Professor Kimberly Jensen’s Winter 2011 Oregon Woman Suffrage course as a student in the Honors Program at Western Oregon University. Brandon is a major in Criminal Justice with a minor in Psychology. Brandon is interested in scuba diving, mountain biking, and hiking along with many outdoor activities. Brandon will graduate from Western Oregon University in March 2011 and he will be pursuing a career in law enforcement.