Viola (Mrs. Waldo) Coe and Abigail Scott Duniway in the 1912 Oregon Woman Suffrage Campaign

Viola Coe, M.D., was a woman of many talents. She was a medical doctor, feminist, suffragist, wife, divorcee, friend, woman of faith, and leader. She was acting chair of the Oregon State Equal Suffrage Association (OSESA) in 1912. According to first generation suffrage leader Abigail Scott Duniway, she was a woman who was “able and tactful.” Coe was also Duniway’s close associate for the Oregon woman suffrage campaign, and would carry out Duniway’s work until the suffrage ballot was finally passed in 1912.

Viola Coe was born in Indiana in 1862. When she was a child, she moved to North Dakota with her parents. While in North Dakota, she attended medical school at Northwestern University. Before graduating, she married Dr. Henry Waldo Coe, and in her early years of marriage graduated with a medical degree. In 1891 the couple moved to Portland, Oregon

Working for the Vote

According to her 1943 obituary in the Oregon Journal, Viola Coe “was an ardent worker for woman suffrage.” Because of Abigail Scott Duniway’s illness during the 1912 campaign Coe was acting president of the Equal Suffrage Association when Oregon women achieved the right to vote that year.  Duniway depended greatly on Coe, especially during her time of illness. According to Duniway, Viola Coe was an “an able and tactful woman, to whose management, and that of our reorganized State Executive Committee, the women of Oregon are indebted for leading us to victory through the votes of men at the State Election of 1912.” Through the OSESA, Coe was able to organize many speaking engagements concerning woman suffrage. One was “Suffrage Day” on July 16, 1912 where she brought Charles W. Fulton, ex-United States Senator and Reverend Luther Dyott to speak on behalf of suffrage to the people of Gladstone, Oregon.

Working to achieve the vote in 1912, the State Equal Suffrage Association readied everything for what Coe called a “New Deal.”  Every equal suffrage association “awoke at once” according to Abigail Scott Duniway in her autobiography Path Breaking. By this time almost every county had suffrage associations. In October, Viola Coe organized a “unique” party for Duniway’s 78th birthday. Many politicians of importance gave speeches and a “suffrage hymn” that had been written by Duniway was sung to honor her dedication to the suffrage movement. Governor Oswald West also asked the “venerable beneficiary to write the forth coming Women’s Emancipation Proclamation.” To have the governor at a celebration such as this was of the utmost importance. His presence showed that he approved of the Oregon suffrage campaign as well as the important figures behind it such as Abigail Scott Duniway and Viola Coe.

Coe was also very involved with the Portland chapter of the National College Equal Suffrage Association. She became president of this chapter in February 1912 and Abigail Scott Duniway was nominated “Honorary Head.” While being “active president,” Coe worked closely with Duniway and created many committees to help with the fight to pass the ballot measure in 1912. The publicity committee was particularly effective. Committee members used tactics such as mass advertising to canvass every area of Oregon handing out information to “reach every section of the state with fresh, live news—not any of the canned variety.” With the help of other suffrage groups such as the Multnomah County branch of the OSESA, and the Portland Equal Suffrage Association, Coe and the college association used trains to bring speakers on suffrage to “all parts of Oregon,” and organized special rallies and galas to promote suffrage cities and towns around the state. They would also send out suffrage information to every county in Oregon to help spread the word.

It is important to note that when Viola Coe replaced Abigail Scott Duniway, she did so with grace. While Duniway was the foundation of this campaign, she was often known as someone who was very stubborn and did not always carry out her plans in the most sufficient manner.  When Duniway gave the position to Viola Coe, Coe knew how to lead a successful campaign through the idea of mass advertising and organizing special events to promote Oregon woman suffrage. She also made sure that she also conferred with Duniway throughout the whole process to make sure that Duniway would feel that she was still contributing to the cause. She was able to perform her duties in a way that everyone involved was content. She was a woman who knew what she wanted and how to get it in a manner that was successful.

Other Contributions

In addition to her suffrage work Coe founded several hospitals that were dedicated to the care of women and girls. She hoped to help many women and “working girls” that were recuperating from ill-health but could not afford the stay in a hospital or receive proper care at home.  According to her 1943 obituary in the Oregon Journal, she also devoted her time to the “church, club and philanthropic work.” She also spent her retirement caring for wildlife and directed her energy to conservation and the safety of birds. According to an article in the Oregonian on July 18, 1937, she founded a garden sanctuary for birds in Portland Heights. This sanctuary included birdhouses, birdbaths, and feeding stations. When she was not retreating at her bird sanctuary outside of town, she maintained her dedication to social work.

Henry and Viola Coe had three sons: George, Wayne and Earl. Prior to Henry’s death in 1927 he and Viola went through a very public divorce. Viola Coe “instituted suit for the dissolution of their marriage contract and for the custody of [two of their sons], aged 18 and 20 years.” At the same time she also brought suit against the Sanitarium Company. Henry Waldo Coe was a leading stockholder in this company, which held a “contract with the government for the care of the Alaska insane and the sanitariums that were built and operated so those contracts might be carried out.” In this suit Viola Coe was claiming her portion of this contract. The courts consolidated both of these suits because they were related. The lower court granted Viola Coe the custody of her sons, but the court would not give her the property “held by her trust.” She appealed this decision to the Oregon Supreme Court and she received one-third of the property involved. It is important to note this information because it shows that Viola Coe was a strong woman. In a time where divorce and law suits were not very common, she chose her own life happiness over pleasing society norms. This contributes to one’s understanding of why she fought so hard to achieve woman suffrage in Oregon. She was someone who fought for what she knew was right, not what society wanted to be right.

After a meaningful and philanthropic life, Viola M. Coe, who was a physician for “a half century” passed away at the age of eighty. A funeral service was held at the Holman & Lutz chapel. Here long time pastor, Dr. Raymond B. Walker presided over the service. She would be remembered for her dedication to women and the general welfare of the public.

Viola Coe contributed a great deal to the Oregon woman suffrage campaign of 1912. She was one who could lead in the time of need. While leading Oregon women to success, she knew it was important to keep Abigail Scott Duniway involved for she was the foundation of the Oregon cause, and Coe made sure she conferred with her often. She also lived in an era that thrived on mass media and knew it was important to reach Oregonians through advertising leaflets, speeches and galas that promoted this cause. Her personal life showed that she was a strong woman that would not let societal norms stop her from fighting for what was right.  This showed in her persistence of organizing events for the cause and seeing this campaign through until woman suffrage was achieved in 1912.

Primary Sources:

“‘Bird House’ Retreat Charms; Rustic Spot in, Outside of City,” Oregonian, July 18, 1937, FHG: 4.

“Dr. Viola M. Coe” Oregonian, May 28, 1943, 11.

“Hospital Lease Taken: Convalescent Home Project Moves Forward.” Oregonian, December 3, 1924, 6.

“League Plans Contest,” Oregonian, March 20, 1912, 2.

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

“Mrs. Coe Temporary Head,” Oregonian, May 15, 1912, 11.

“Mrs. Coe Will Appeal,” Oregonian, February 21, 1914, 3

“Mrs. Now Wins: Supreme Court Modifies Decree of Divorce—Property Goes to Wife,” Oregonian, January 27, 1915, 15.

“Suffragists Busy: Campaign Plans,” Oregon Journal, July 7, 1912, 7.

“Suffragists Meet in Open,” Oregonian, June 24, 1912, 16.

“Suffrage Offices Moved,” Oregonian, June 30, 1912, 12.

“Suffragists Join to Canvass State,”  Oregonian, March 03, 1912, 2:7.

“Widely-Known Medical Woman Aged 80, Dies,” Oregon Journal, May 28, 1943, 4.

Secondary Sources

Duniway, Abigail Scott. Path Breaking: An Autobiographical History of the Equal Suffrage Movement in Pacific Coast States (reprint ed.). New York: Schocken Books, 1971.

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

Jensen, Kimberly, “‘Neither Head nor Tail to the Campaign’: Esther Pohl Lovejoy and the Oregon Woman Suffrage Victory of 1912,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 108:3 (2007): 350-383.

About The Author

Jennifer Newby participated in Professor Kimberly Jensen’s Winter 2011 Oregon Woman Suffrage course as a student in the History Department at Western Oregon University. Jennifer is a senior History Major with an interest in the Woman Suffrage Movement. She will graduate in spring 2011 and plans to attend graduate school to pursue a master’s degree in Public History or Archival Science.