The campaign to achieve voting rights (also called suffrage or the franchise) for Oregon women from 1870 to 1912 is part of a broad and continuing movement at the regional, national, and international levels to secure equality and full citizenship for women. Oregon has the distinction of placing the question of votes for women on the ballot six times—in 1884, 1900, 1906, 1908, 1910, and 1912—more than any other state.
Noted national suffragist leader Susan B. Anthony made three important visits to Oregon and has been called the grandmother of Oregon suffrage. In 1871, she and her long-time friend and co-worker, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, first visited the West. Traveling from Chicago on the new transcontinental railroad, fifty-one-year-old Anthony and fifty-five-year-old Stanton wanted to meet with women voters in Wyoming and Utah and to advance the woman suffrage effort in Colorado and California. After considerable success, Anthony fell victim to the San Francisco press, having defended a prostitute charged with murder.
From the early beginnings of Oregon Territory and then the State of Oregon, women residents demonstrated enthusiasm for forming literary and civic clubs to accomplish self improvement and community reform. Women settlers from eastern locales brought experience in church and secular organizations and transplanted that volunteer activity to the Pacific Northwest. Associational life took hold and flourished, providing women with skills to accomplish institution building for cultural development and social welfare in their communities. Club members also applied their talents to achieve their own political autonomy, in the form of woman suffrage, which was won in 1912 after five failed campaigns for the vote, in 1884, 1900, 1906, 1908, and 1910.
Outspoken and often controversial, Abigail Scott Duniway is remembered as Oregon’s “Mother of Equal Suffrage” and “the pioneer Woman Suffragist of the great Northwest.” As lecturer, organizer, writer, and editor, Duniway devoted over forty years to the cause of women’s rights.
Esther Clayson Pohl Lovejoy, M.D., shaped the Oregon woman suffrage movement in vital ways as an innovative leader of the second generation of activists during the campaigns of 1906 and 1912. She also represented Oregon in national suffrage politics and organizations through the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. As a physician and public health advocate, Lovejoy asserted that women needed the vote to build policies and legislation that would ensure healthy and safe communities. And as a wage-earning woman who worked her way through medical school in a department store, she linked the ballot with progressive legislation for women workers. Holding appointed office as Portland city health officer from 1907 to 1909, before women in Oregon had the franchise, and running for U.S. Congress in 1920, Lovejoy mapped out broader aspects of women’s complete citizenship — beyond the vote. She would build on the ideas and lessons from the Oregon suffrage movement in her transnational medical humanitarian work from 1919 to 1967.
Western victories were crucial to the success of the woman suffrage movement at many phases of the struggle, and the Pacific Northwest was an important locus of agitation and source of innovation. Most of the women of the western United States were enfranchised on the state level well before passage of the federal amendment in 1920. These victories were possible because the decentralized federal system allowed territories and states to decide voter qualifications, and because suffragists and other reformers worked together to win woman suffrage as a progressive electoral reform. After the Civil War, there were a few unusual western victories: Wyoming Territory (1869), Utah Territory (1870), Washington Territory (women enfranchised in 1883, disfranchised in 1888), Colorado (1893), and Idaho (1896). By 1900, the momentum had stalled, but a new generation of suffragists had novel ideas for modern campaigns.