As U.S. celebrates 100 years of women voting, Willamette professor chronicles how Oregon suffragists won the ballot

Cindy Richards, professor of civic communication and media at Willamette University, holds a copy of the 1909 Washington Women’s Cook Book, a publication from the state’s suffrage association (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on Feb. 20, 2020. We’re republishing it today, the 100th anniversary of the national ratification of the 19th amendment. You can learn more about the history of the suffrage movement in Oregon through online exhibits from the Oregon Historical Society and Secretary of State’s office.

In 1872, at least four Oregon women attempted to vote in the U.S. presidential election as part of a national women’s suffrage campaign.

At the time, suffragists argued that the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution had already given women the right to vote and called on them to exercise that right.

Many men in power didn’t see it that way. In New York, suffrage activist Susan B. Anthony and other women were arrested and fined for voting illegally or barred from submitting their ballots.

But in Oregon, a judge took a more passive approach.

“Here in Oregon, the election judge accepted the women’s ballots, but it’s said he slid them under the box so that they weren’t counted. It was kind of this move to sidestep the whole thing,” said Cindy Richards, professor of civic communication and media at Willamette University.

The four women, Abigail Scott Duniway, Maria Hendee, Mrs. M.A. Lambert, and Mrs. Beatty, didn’t get in legal trouble. But their fight for the ballot would continue for decades.

As the U.S. commemorates the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920, Richards is writing a book about the history of suffrage activism in the Pacific Northwest.

She’s spent years researching the movements in Oregon and Washington, which were successful earlier than in many states.

That’s not because men at the time were especially more progressive than in other parts of the U.S., she said. It’s because the women’s movement in the Pacific Northwest used different tactics than suffragists nationally, prioritizing grassroots outreach and talking to women where they already were, at home and in civic clubs and church groups.

Washington women won the ballot in 1911, and Oregon in 1912, eight years earlier than many American women.

“To get there, they had to be really persistent,” she said.

In Oregon, the 1912 measure allowed women citizens to vote. That excluded indigenous and Asian women, who were not citizens under the Oregon constitution.

Black women’s status was more ambiguous, Richards said. Though legally Black people were still barred from settling in Oregon, Black women were active in the suffrage movement and created a Colored Women’s Equal Suffrage League in 1912.

Black women did register and vote immediately following the change in the law, she said.

Early suffrage in Oregon

The 1872 voting effort in Portland came after several years of organizing, which began with suffrage organizations in Salem and Albany. Abigail Scott Duniway, who lived in Albany and later moved to Portland, was a leader during this period and got Anthony to come speak at the Reed Opera House on Aug. 31, 1871.

An 1875 Supreme Court ruling set the movement back, saying that women did not, in fact, have an existing right to vote.

An 1878 Oregon law allowed any taxpaying citizen, regardless of gender, to vote in school elections, an area that was seen as part of women’s domain. The law effectively allowed property-owning white women to vote in some local elections, but broader suffrage eluded women.

White men in Oregon voted on suffrage a total of six times before finally granting women the ballot. The first vote was in 1884, when just 28% of voters sided with the suffragists.

Richards said it’s easy to think of civil rights movements like suffrage as a story about forward progress. But the ballot box shows otherwise – a 1900 vote on suffrage came closest to passing, and three later efforts got a lower share of the vote.

“It’s not sort of a steady march of progress. It’s an ebb and flow,” she said.

By the early 1900s, Oregon suffragists decided to switch tactics, prioritizing outreach to individual women over public demonstrations and press campaigns.

Richards said the switch came in part because male legislators repeatedly told suffragists they were among a small minority of women who actually wanted to vote. Most women, they said, didn’t care.

Oregon’s suffragists set out to prove them wrong. Their new tactic was “empowering women to talk to the people they knew,” Richards said. Literature from the time suggested engaging your butcher, baker and mailman in conversation, gradually steering them toward the topic of suffrage.

Duniway called this effort the “still hunt,” an effort outside public view that wouldn’t rouse opposition.

Oregon suffragist Abigail Scott Duniway signs first Equal Suffrage Proclamation ever made by a woman in Portland in 1912. Governor Oswald West, who had signed the Proclamation is shown looking on, and acting President of the National Women’s Party, Dr. Viola M. Coe is standing near. (Courtesy/Library of Congress)

Women also began using social and civic clubs and community organizations for outreach. Usually, these groups were seen as personal, not political, spaces, she said. They included the YWCA, church groups, literary clubs and mountaineering clubs (a surprisingly common activity for women in the early 1900s).

“As women came together and they started to talk about what they wanted the community to look like, they start developing these skills,” she said. Those included fundraising and speechmaking, skills that would aid them in later political campaigns.

Suffragists used those spaces to talk about civic engagement in general, with women sharing ideas about bringing public libraries to their cities or getting involved in community beautification.

Those efforts expanded the group of women concerned about suffrage. Many got involved in civic life, only to find they were limited in what they could accomplish without the ability to vote or run for office.

“You see this pattern of women getting engaged in this issue that’s going to impact their lives,” Richards said. Through that engagement, many realized “I need to have a stronger voice.”

From conversation to campaign

This approach was unique to Oregon and Washington, Richards said. National suffragist leaders were still focused on more public demonstration and often clashed with local leaders over their tactics.

Richards wrote her dissertation on the same topic and in the course of her research has looked at more than 2,000 artifacts and historical documents from the suffrage movements in the Northwest.

In that time, she said she’d never found any records of the first woman to vote in Salem.

Her favorite artifact from the period is the “Washington Women’s Cook Book,” a 1909 publication by the Washington Equal Suffrage Association.

It’s a collection of recipes gathered in the course of suffragists work around the state, sent in as women went door-to-door gathering supporters for their cause.

The cover shows two flags advertising “votes for women” and “good things to eat.” The book includes hundreds of recipes for salads, soups and other classic fare. But later chapters include mountaineering advice and directions for gutting trout in the field and starting a campfire. The final pages are essays about the fight for suffrage.

The book let suffragists practice doorbelling and campaigning as they gathered recipes and sold copies of the book, tactics that served them well during their more public campaign when Washington voters considered suffrage in 1911.

It also gave them a way to spread their message that appeared nonthreatening, mingling often radical political material with information about cooking and domestic life.

In Oregon, suffragists ramped up public campaigning in 1906, building on momentum from the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s 1905 convention, held in Portland.

They lost at the ballot box in 1906, 1908 and 1910 before prevailing.

Richards expects to release her book on the movement later this year. She’s teaching a fall course at Willamette on the suffrage movement.

In the wake of the 2016 election, with American politics more polarized and many people feeling exhausted or disheartened with national news, she said Oregon’s suffrage movement can be an example for a more local approach to making change.

“You don’t often think of a country club or a book club or a mountaineering club as being political,” she said. “That’s where this happens.”

She said when she discusses the local history with her students, they often focus on the way activists made suffrage relevant in people’s day-to-day lives.

“Politics starts with and it happens with where you are and who you know and what you care about,” she said.

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Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.