Working for Suffrage: The Oregon Labor Community and the Achievement of Woman Suffrage in 1912

State by state, woman suffrage began to blanket the Western United States at the turn of the twentieth century. From 1890 when Wyoming achieved statehood as an already enfranchised territory to 1912 when Oregon became the last victory in an enfranchised Pacific Coast, the incremental steps towards woman suffrage included many unique political battles involving collaboration between many organizations and political groups. The diverse ways in which the campaigning suffragists interacted with these organizations demonstrates the specificity and detail of each ballot or amendment passed in each state. The organized labor movement was a notable ally with the suffragist cause, particularly in Western states. The relationships between labor and suffrage were complex, as they varied from personal to fairly distant, but the labor movement rarely budged from its endorsement of votes for women. This relationship had a lasting effect on the enfranchisement of women in states across the American West.

Members of organized labor interacted with woman suffragists in varying ways in the Western states. The first successful, public campaign for suffrage took place in 1893 in Colorado as the suffragists rode the momentum for change caused by discerning economic and political conditions. As woman suffrage scholar Rebecca Mead explains, these conditions were characterized by a rapidly increasing population that “led to social stratification, growing poverty, and labor tension, especially during the hard decade of the 1890s.” On Labor Day in1893, Carrie Chapman Catt of the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA) reached Denver to help organize a campaign that strategically tied struggling economic conditions (a third of working-age Denver males were unemployed) to woman enfranchisement. This public campaign drew from the rich political reform of the Populist movement in Colorado, following the Populist ideology of representing the common person in government. Mead notes that in 1892 the state elected Populists to “twenty-seven of sixty five seats in the legislature” alongside “a labor newspaper editor, Davis Waite, as governor.” Colorado successfully adopted a constitutional amendment for woman suffrage in the 1893, with suffragists endorsing the cause of ailing laborers to make Colorado the second state to enfranchise its women.

The achievement of woman suffrage in Colorado stands as a distinctive effort driven by labor tensions, political reforms and strategic campaigning. Oregon women also found themselves in a unique political battle for the vote. Oregon activists placed a measure for woman suffrage on the ballot during more elections than any other state, totaling six separate times. The Beaver State took until 1912 to enfranchise its women and according to suffragist Sarah Evans, “during 1910 and 1911 Washington and California had enfranchised their women and Oregon remained the only ‘black’ State on the Pacific Coast. This was a matter of great humiliation to the women who had worked for suffrage at least a score of years.” Achieving votes for women involved an uphill battle, but unlike in Colorado, the suffragists would not only rally the laborers, but the laborers of Oregon would also rally behind a suffrage cause that aligned with their interests.

The movement toward woman suffrage had its momentum, but needed the right support in order to secure passage; unfortunately, suffrage leaders in Oregon made a critical error in their 1910 campaign. The same year that the men of neighboring Washington voted for woman suffrage, Abigail Scott Duniway, “the mother of suffrage in Oregon,” championed a campaign for restricted suffrage for taxpaying women, an initiative vehemently opposed by labor organizations that otherwise endorsed suffrage. The opposition labeled the legislation class-based, as it privileged property-holding women. This conflict between the suffrage movement, the labor movement, and the interests of the working class placed the campaign for Oregon women in shambles. For a new and innovative campaign, the interests of affluent groups, labor factions, and even student organizations needed to align in 1912 in order to turn the electoral tide back to their favor.

Colorado’s successful campaign for votes for women was linked with Populism; by the early twentieth century state campaigns like the one in Oregon were associated with the rise of progressive reform. By 1912 many of the women leaders in NAWSA identified with progressive labor policies. In Gladstone Park in Portland on July 20, 1912, thirty-five hundred individuals witnessed out-of-state labor chief John Mitchell speak on the endorsement of woman suffrage and the political goals of the labor movement. These included actions “to secure the eight-hour day; to legislate against child labor; to provide for workmen’s compensation acts, and to secure sanitary housing of our families.” Despite their efforts to remain nonpartisan, many suffragists regularly aligned with progressive policies such as government laws and regulations on child labor and industry. This alignment in political interest led many labor organizations, such as the National Association of Letter Carriers and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, to support votes for women without overtly campaigning or funding the cause. Nationally the American Federation of Labor openly endorsed woman suffrage and in Oregon statewide support arrived as well from A.W. Lawrence and Alfred Cridge of the Oregon Labor Press along with the State Federation of Labor.

Compared to the 1910 measure, the 1912 petition for suffrage contained no taxpayer provisions and maintained its popularity among labor groups. Workers campaigned across the state and an article in the Oregonian suggested that it was “among the ranks of laborers and of the farmers that the suffragists expect to obtain their most telling support.” On January 15, 1912, the State Federation of Labor in Oregon endorsed “the initiative petition which has been heretofore filed with the secretary of state, giving women the right of suffrage in the state of Oregon.”

Suffragists believed that they had to do more than simply convince labor leaders; they also focused campaign efforts to persuade laborers themselves to support votes for women. The College Equal Suffrage League sought to reach every Oregon county with their message. Some campaigning occurred in unconventional ways, as Sara Bard Field Ehrgott of the Oregon Equal Suffrage League “stood in an automobile while addressing an open air meeting” in Pendleton, which was “the first auto campaigning” in the state of Oregon. Another suffragist, Helen La Reine Baker, planned a campaign stop with men at the Portland Lumber Mill. Depending on weather conditions, she planned to speak atop a pile of lumber, noting jokingly that “men don’t want to listen to a speech in the rain even if it is on such an entrancing subject as suffrage.” These examples of creative and interactive campaigning in 1912 symbolically placed these women on the same plane as the working man, shifting from the class-based effort in 1910.

The labor movement did not consist of just men supporting suffrage in Oregon, but also included working women who desired both the vote and better treatment in the workplace. Labor interests coincided with the interests of many leading woman suffragists, alongside the efforts of organized female laborers. At his July 1912 speech in Gladstone, John Mitchell emphasized the necessity of woman suffrage as a mutual benefit for women and unions alike, “primarily for its benefit to the 5,000,000 women who are at work in our American factories and are subject to the same factory regulations as the men.” The College Equal Suffrage League set up a luncheon where speakers gathered to discuss suffrage and Alfred Cridge of the Oregon Labor Press emphasized the necessity of laboring women obtaining the vote to work politically alongside workingmen to improve the home and workplace. Suffrage and labor activists Millie Trumbull believed that working women needed the vote. She described how “girls and women were compelled to perform work under the same conditions as men, and yet were paid one-half or less than the wages received by men.” This sentiment resonated clearly with at least one female labor leader of the time: Elizabeth (Lizzie) Gee, the 1912 president of United Garment Workers’ Local No. 228.

The voices of men in the Oregon labor movement were recorded more frequently than the voices of women. Lizzie Gee stands out as a leader within the movement during times without fair wages or votes for women. Her organization made great strides for better working conditions for garment workers. Local 228 achieved an eight-hour day (without a law requiring it), an average weekly wage higher than the minimum wage, and steady employment for twelve years as of 1916. Few primary documents have records of the influences of working women during the campaign for suffrage in Oregon. These unheard voices could present a firsthand account of how the interests of organized labor and the working woman overlapped during the suffrage campaign in a more personal way.

Across the state of Oregon, labor had a unique relationship with woman suffrage in 1912. The labor movement, as noted by John Mitchell, sought to provide the vote to women based on political interest and fairness. Laborers joined leaders and endorsed woman suffrage by voting to pass the measure that November. Mead explains that in the 1906 election suffrage worker Clara Colby found that “votes from the top of the box were nearly two to one in favor of woman suffrage, showing that the workmen of the longer hours who had come home latest” largely supported the suffragists. In 1912 organized work among laborers enhanced this support, identifying votes for women with the community’s political interests and ideals. City by city and year by year, campaigning women battled for the vote, and in 1912 the laboring men of Oregon consolidated the efforts of these women by bringing victory with votes of their own.

Primary Sources:

“3500 Thrilled by Labor Chief’s Plea,” Oregonian, July 21, 1912, 6.

“Equal Suffrage Leaders Speak,” Oregon Journal, July 29, 1912, 8.

“Garment Workers’ Officers,” Portland Labor Press, January 11, 1912, 8.

“Labor Indorses Woman Suffrage,” Oregon Journal, January 17, 1912, 3.

“Laborers Harken to Suffrage Plea,” Oregonian, August, 16, 1912, 10.

“Shore Talks Is Plan,” Oregonian, July 20, 1912, 16.

“Suffragists Seek Vote of Workers,” Oregonian, April 8, 1912, 3.

“Testimony of Mrs. Lizzie Gee.” General Industrial Conditions and Relations in Portland, Oreg. U.S. Congress, Senate. Committee on Industrial Relations. Industrial Relations: Final Report and Testimony Submitted to Congress by the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations, 64th Cong. 1st sess., 1916.

Secondary Sources

Banaszak, Lee A. Why Movements Succeed or Fail: Opportunity, Culture, and the Struggle for Woman Suffrage. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

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

Jensen, Kimberly. “Woman Suffrage in Oregon.” Oregon Encyclopedia.

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

Myers, Sandra. Westering Women and the Frontier Experience 1800-1915. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982.

National American Woman Suffrage Association. Victory: How Women Won It. New York: H.W. Wilson Company, 1940.

About The Author

Justin Karr participated in Professor Kimberly Jensen’s Winter 2011 Oregon Woman Suffrage course as a student in the Honors Program at Western Oregon University (WOU). Justin is a Psychology and Social Science Major with interests in Clinical Neuropsychology. His research as an undergraduate focused primarily on the cognitive benefits of omega-3 fatty acids and the electrophysiology of meta-cognition. Justin was also a student-athlete on the cross country and track teams at WOU.