Mrs. Duniway's Powerful Voice

November 25, 2019
Ray Rast, History Department
Students who take my course on the History of the American West learn a couple of surprising facts about women’s suffrage. Five years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment, eleven states already had recognized women’s right to vote -- and all eleven of those states were west of the Mississippi River.

Wyoming Territory recognized women’s right to vote in 1869. Utah Territory followed suit in 1870, as did Washington Territory (1883) and Montana Territory (1887). Unfortunately, the path to suffrage was not always linear. Congress rescinded women’s right to vote in Utah Territory in 1887. A year later, Washington Territory’s Supreme Court did so as well (on dubious grounds).

Western suffragists soon overcame these setbacks. In 1890, Wyoming became the first state to enshrine women’s right to vote in its constitution. Colorado became the second state in 1893, doing so through a referendum. Utah’s state constitution restored women’s suffrage in 1896. Idaho’s legislature granted women’s suffrage the same year. After another long period of activism and some additional setbacks, Washington, Montana, and five other western states recognized women’s right to vote between 1910 and 1915. (Montana then elected the first woman to serve in Congress, Jeannette Rankin, in 1916).

What explains these victories? Why were campaigns in the West successful when those in the East were not?

Western suffragists themselves often argued that “frontier” conditions had created a proving ground for women’s equality -- that women who settled in the West did as much to “civilize” the region as men, so they deserved (and thus eventually received) equal rights.

For historians, the answers are not so simple. We know that in Wyoming Territory, for example, the legislator who introduced the women’s suffrage bill wanted to offset voting rights granted to African American men after the Civil War. In Utah Territory, an influx of “gentiles” led Mormon legislators to turn to women’s suffrage as a means of shoring up their own political power. (Suffragists hoped that politically-empowered Mormon women would outlaw polygamy. They did not, giving Congress an excuse to rescind the right.) 

Other victories can be attributed to strong female leadership, strong networks and organizations, effective strategies, and a growing number of male allies -- yet eastern suffragists had these, too. Some historians thus consider another factor. In the East, suffrage campaigns became intertwined with prohibition campaigns, which Irish Catholic immigrants, saloon keepers, and working-class men in general viewed as direct attacks on their economic, cultural, and religious freedoms. Given the greater concentrations of Irish Catholic immigrants in eastern states, western suffragists enjoyed a relative lack of opposition.

To better grasp all of these factors, we can turn to the Pacific Northwest and look at the leadership of the region’s most prominent suffragist, Abigail Scott Duniway. After settling in Oregon in the 1850s, Duniway married a man whose failures as a farmer forced her to become the family breadwinner. She worked as a teacher, novelist, and millinery shopkeeper -- and she raised six children. Moving her family to Portland in the 1870s, she began publishing a feminist periodical, the New Northwest. She also began lecturing, lobbying, and building a regional network of suffrage advocates and allies. Accompanying Susan B. Anthony on a two-month speaking tour throughout the region in 1871, Duniway supported the creation of the Washington Territory Woman Suffrage Association and, two years later, she founded the Oregon Equal Suffrage Association.

Duniway rose to national prominence during the 1880s. As an active member and then vice president of the National Woman Suffrage Association, she delivered speeches and debated strategies at national conventions. (“Mrs. Duniway has a powerful voice,” one reported noted, and she “is not afraid to use it.”) Not surprisingly, Duniway’s positions sometimes sparked criticism. Idealists thought she was too pragmatic, and pragmatists thought she was too idealistic.

Certainly, she was pragmatic. Advocating an understanding of suffragists’ potential allies, she championed the “still hunt” approach over the “hurrah campaign.” She did so because she thought the men who held the power to grant suffrage would respond better to private persuasion than public pressure. Understanding suffragists’ staunchest opponents -- including Irish Catholic immigrants, saloon keepers, and others who opposed prohibition -- she also insisted on de-coupling these two issues, drawing the ire of reformers who thought women’s suffrage should lead to prohibition. 

At the same time, Duniway’s idealism is undeniable. Her fundamental belief in gender equality informed her support for equal education, property rights, divorce rights, and shared domestic responsibilities. She also believed that civil rights should not be circumscribed by race. She openly accused lawmakers of allowing the words “white” and “males” to cloud their understanding of America’s founding principles, and she embraced opportunities to work with Portland’s African American and Chinese American suffragists. These positions sparked criticism from suffragists who believed that women were morally superior to men and from those who would have preferred to limit suffrage to white women.

Despite her mix of pragmatism and idealism -- perhaps because of it -- Duniway and other suffragists in the Pacific Northwest faced a series of defeats between the 1880s and the 1900s. But a new generation of leaders began to emerge, and momentum continued to build. When Oregon finally recognized women’s suffrage in 1912, the governor invited Duniway to co-sign his equal suffrage proclamation.

Duniway died three years later, knowing that the national suffrage movement and other battles for women’s rights would continue -- and believing that younger generations of women should lead the way. As she wrote in 1914, “the young college women of today, free to study, to speak, to write, to choose their occupation, should remember that every inch of this freedom was bought for them at a great price. It is for them to show their gratitude by helping onward the reforms of their own time, by spreading the light of freedom and of truth still wider.”

For a fuller introduction to Duniway’s life, writings, and speeches, see