The lines on the elderly woman’s face were a roadmap of her life—deeply etched like the wagon tracks that had brought her west to the Oregon Territory in 1852. Under the ornate black hat she wore for the momentous occasion, her face was alight with joy and accomplishment. Abigail Jane Scott Duniway was seventy-eight years old, a pioneer who had crossed the country by wagon train, and a trailblazer for woman suffrage. And she was joyfully, officially casting her vote in an election for the first time. It was 1912, and the voters of Oregon had finally granted Duniway and all the women of the state suffrage.
By the time Duniway stepped up to make her voice heard at the ballot box for the first time, she had been working tirelessly for the vote for almost half a century. At the age of 18, she had emigrated to the territory on the Oregon Trail as part of the great migration to settle the west. Traveling with her parents and siblings in 1852, she faced the loss of both her mother and a brother on that grueling route. After settling with her remaining family in the small community of Lafayette, she taught school until her marriage to Benjamin Duniway in 1853.
The question of Oregon women’s enfranchisement was first asked in 1858 when the idea of the territory becoming a state was being discussed. The census of Oregon taken in the fall of 1859 showed a population of 42,862. Abigail and her family were among those numbered. In addition to woman suffrage, the other items those in the territory were debating were the pending Civil War and slavery.
When Oregon became a state on February 14, 1859, political proponents of statehood refused to consider women who toiled alongside them on the frontier as worthy to vote. According to several articles printed in the Oregon Argus newspaper, most men believed “a woman’s place was in the home.” Abigail Scott Duniway took exception to that notion and made her thoughts known by writing letters to the editor of the publication outlining the importance of women “beyond the confines of the kitchen.” Duniway’s war against such antiquated ideas and the war waged for woman suffrage in the state were closely tied.
Even as she and her husband took up a homestead and started a family, Duniway started her professional writing career, publishing a novel based on her own experiences in 1859. Shortly after the publication of Abigail’s book, the family would lose their homestead, making Abigail a first-hand witness to how women were unfairly treated when it came to finances and legal matters. There was a piece of property adjoining the farm Ben Duniway owned and subsequently purchased from a widow. The woman was free to sell it because she was a widow, although she signed the legal papers with an X. Abigail knew she had no such rights. According to the law, a woman had no legal claim to her wedding finery, any dowry rights, any claim to property she might inherit after marriage, or any money she might earn. Women were not able to make decisions for themselves in either area.
The reality of such truth would eventually play out in Abigail’s own life. In late 1860, Ben entered a business deal she believed would have dire consequences. He signed three notes for a friend. The interest was two percent a month, compounded semi-automatically. If the friend could not pay off the notes, Ben would have to. A flood in December 1861 washed away the Duniway’s crops as well as the crops of the farmer for whom Ben had signed the notes. The farmer couldn’t pay off the notes, and the debt fell to Ben. In a desperate effort to get the money together, Ben went to work in the mines in eastern Oregon. Neither the mines nor the next fall’s poor crop brought much of a return. In the fall of 1862, Abigail was handed a summons from the sheriff to pay off the loans. She was furious. “Wives have nothing to say about the notes signed or the farms lost,” she wrote in article for the Oregon Farmer, “but when the sheriff came, I could receive the summons and be held responsible.”
Shortly after Benjamin Duniway risked and lost their property in a bad business deal—a deal entered without his wife’s consent, Benjamin would become permanently disabled, and Abigail found herself the family’s main breadwinner. After the unfortunate event, the Duniways moved to Albany. Abigail opened a millinery store there, and Ben cared for the home and the children. Abigail was outspoken about women needing to be regarded as having value in business and civic matters, and she drove home her point in various newspaper articles. Soon women in the area were not just frequenting her shop by buy hats but to complain about the unfair treatment they were experiencing.
A woman came into Abigail’s store one day and asked her to go to the courthouse with her. “Courts are for men,” Abigail said while preparing to accompany the woman. On the way the woman said, “If I had died first, my husband could have squandered everything that we had accumulated in twenty years. And he would have, too. Now the court is so interested in preserving the property for our children that I can’t even buy a shoelace.”
At the courthouse, Abigail started to explain the situation as she understood it to the judge. The judge leaned back in his chair and said, “Of course, being ladies, you wouldn’t be expected to understand the intricacies of the law.”
“No,” Abigail shot back, “but we are expected to know enough to foot the bills!”
Duniway’s personal experiences influenced her activism. A longtime believer in equal educational rights for female students and a woman with a strong entrepreneurial spirit, in addition to her milliner’s shop she ran a boarding school. Abigail believed that not having equal franchise had allowed her husband to lead their family into disaster without her knowledge—and that women who could vote would no longer be that powerless.
Not long after the episode at the courthouse, Abigail and two other Albany women organized a chapter of the Equal Suffrage Association and wrote for recognition to the society already active in Salem, Oregon. As a result, she attended the California Association meeting in San Francisco. There she was made Oregon correspondent for The Pioneer, a women’s rights newspaper published in San Francisco. Abigail then began thinking about creating a similar publication in Portland.
Portland was then a town of eight thousand people with three daily newspapers. Nevertheless, the family soon moved there and rented a house. Two upstairs bedrooms of the home were turned into a printing establishment, and a foreman was hired for twenty-five dollars week. The first issue of the (weekly) New Northwest newspaper appeared on May 5, 1871
Journalism was one of the keys to swaying popular opinion about the vote, and with The New Northwest, Duniway had a vehicle for publicity. Her paper was filled with news about the suffrage movement from across the country, but it also offered fuel for her larger argument about the need for social and economic equality between men and women. Abigail Duniway’s beliefs were being echoed across the country in the years before and after the Civil War. Families torn apart by violence and by the hardships of forging new lives in the territories often faced difficulties when the surviving female heads of household struggled to provide for their children and dependents. Personal circumstances influenced the politics of women, and the surge toward universal suffrage was changing from ripples to waves. Utah and Wyoming had made the leap. And the Western states seemed poised to follow their lead.
By the 1870s, woman suffrage advocates were speaking out at rallies, holding political events, and even protesting publicly by attempting to vote in national elections under the argument that the 14th and 15th amendments gave them that right. Abigail Duniway became known as one of the leading lights of the speaking circuit. She traveled the country on tours to speak about woman suffrage and the rights of women to hold their own property and have equal legal status with men.
In September 1871, Abigail embarked on a tour of Oregon with Susan B. Anthony to help galvanize a woman suffrage crusade. First, they went to Salem, then up the Columbia by boat, and by stagecoach as far as Walla Walla. The Duniway family and Miss Anthony went to the Oregon State Fair, camping out on the fairgrounds. Ben and the children returned to Portland, and Abigail and Susan travelled around the Willamette Valley by stage, wagon, carriage, and even by horseback to remote schoolhouses.
Next, they went to Washington Territory, going as far north as Victoria B. C. where, Abigail reported, the idea of a ballot for women was even more unpopular than in the United States.
They spoke at Olympia, Seattle, Port Townsend, Port Madison, and Port Gamble. The Washington legislature was in session and debating the issue of women’s rights when Abigail and Susan arrived in town. When the territorial constitution was drawn up, the men neglected to specify “male” citizens. Some women insisted they were citizens and attempted to vote. The legislature moved to block the oversight. Miss Anthony addressed the assembly, reinforcing the idea as she had everywhere in the territory that according to the constitution of the territory women should be allowed to vote.
After Miss Anthony left, a committee of women attended every session of the constitutional congress. A rumor had spread that the debatable suffrage law would be altered or repealed. On the last day, the men suggested the women go home. They would not, they said, tamper with the law.
As the debate about the new Washington state constitution continued, Abigail continued to tour the state of Oregon and speak out for woman suffrage. The speeches she gave were printed in her newspaper. “Gentlemen and Ladies: This large and intelligent audience can bear me witness that our recent defeat in your Legislature has not demoralized us; neither has it in any way diminished our enthusiasm, nor destroyed one iota of confidence in our ultimate triumph,” Abigail is quoted as saying in the November 28, 1873, edition of the New Northwest. “Indeed, we are stronger now than before the battle as the increasing interest in our cause exhibited by this large attendance abundantly testifies.
“As we have been unable thus far to arouse any opposition in these meetings, and I fear that our opponents are becoming demoralized for the want of a champion to espouse their side of the question, and as I have the reputation of being somewhat of a philanthropist because my sympathies are always with the party that gets the worst of the argument, allow me, for the moment, to assist our enemies in making out a case.
“In rummaging among some old newspapers, at the house of a lady friend, we to-day found a poem entitled “What are Woman’s Rights?” This poem originally appeared in the Pacific Tribune, and was suggested, as the introduction states, by the Woman Suffrage Convention held in Olympia two years ago. The author is unknown to me, but the poem reads, in part, as follows:
What are woman’s rights? you ask me;
I would ask, what are her wrongs?
Does she seek for a position
Which to man alone belongs?
Does she (mourning and complaining)
Tread this beautiful green earth,
Thinking she is right in claiming
Things which ne’er for her had birth?
No true woman seeks to bluster
All her rights or wrongs about–
Something meeker, nobler, higher,
Marks her quiet life throughout.
She will ne’er neglect the blessing
Which will give her greatest joy–
That for which she has her being,
Watching o’er her infant boy.
“Ladies, I would not abate one jot or tittle of the sentiment contained in this very sentimental effusion. There is a great deal more truth than poetry in it.”
Anthony and Duniway’s barnstorming tours of the west took some of their momentum from the energetic political reforms and constitutional amendments of the reconstruction movement and she was feeding the rising unrest among women who suffered personally from disenfranchisement, and Abigail Duniway rode the media wave, using the publicity to stir up support for the vote in Oregon and Washington.
In Oregon, however, even though she recognized the benefit of the press’s coverage of the need for reforms, Abigail Duniway began to adopt a new strategy—particularly after the defeat of Oregon’s first suffrage amendment in 1884. Duniway had conclude that subtlety would eventually win the day—not grandstanding. She began a quiet campaign that she called the “still hunt,” meeting one-on-one with powerful and influential men in state government. Her instinct told her that personal appeals, which wouldn’t attract public opposition, would sway more votes.
In 1887, Duniway closed her newspaper to focus on her new strategy. Unfortunately, she lost credibility with many in the national movement who believed that it would be larger organizations and coalitions like the WCTU who would win over voters. Rising to prominence in the last decades of the nineteenth century, the work of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, founded in 1874, was focused on enacting prohibition as well as raising awareness of the need for prison reform, labor laws, and eventually suffrage. When the campaign for prohibition earned the outrage of male tavern owners who fought against both the effort to ban strong drink and the further empowerment of the women advocating for it, the reform work of women was the news of the day—all over the nation.
Duniway would not be swayed from her new approach, however, and she laid the blame for the 1884 defeat of the vote squarely at the WCTU’s ability to attract such fervent opposition. Oregon would raise the issue of suffrage on the ballot six times before finally succeeding in 1912.
Duniway didn’t contain her efforts to her home state, however. When Idaho, neighbor to Oregon, would become the fourth state in the nation to give women the right to vote it was with the staunch support and fervent efforts of Abigail Scott Duniway. The right was approved by state legislators in 1896, but not everyone believed the privilege would last. Many miners, businessmen, trappers, and public servants called woman suffrage a “political experiment.” According to an article in the December 24, 1896, edition of the Lewiston Daily Teller, “the sphere of women should be limited to the home, in the office of wife, mother, and sister, rather than the political arena, wielding the scepter of government.”
Almost from the beginning, the notion of women being able to vote in Idaho was tied to prohibition, as it was in other regions. There was a belief that women would destroy saloons if they had voting power. Suffragists tried to assure lawmakers in Idaho that votes for women would no more prohibit drinking than they would prohibit food. That’s not to say that many influential suffragists in the state were uninterested in the issue. Several of the state’s most influential suffragists were members of the Christian Women’s Temperance Union. They were against drinking, gambling, and general immorality, but it wasn’t a given that giving women access to the ballot would automatically end such behavior.
“I’ve no quarrel with my friends of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union,” Abigail Scott Duniway noted in the speech she gave at the constitution convention. “The most of them, except the professional agitators who make their living out of the business, have agreed with my position since their eyes have been opened by defeat. Quite a number of them no longer wear the little knot of white ribbon, [the] insignia of prohibition, which has the same effect on the average voter when women ask for the ballot as a red rag shaken in the face of an infuriated bull. I love them dearly and respect their sincerity but the equally sincere demands of the majority of women for liberty compel me to speak the truth.”
Abigail’s analysis of the prohibition problem and voting rights resulted in the solid backing of many leading state officials and businessmen to place suffrage on the ballot.