Health | local | Elections

Oregon Suffrage Movement Coalesced Around Milk Safety Issue

OPB | Nov. 4, 2012 9:28 p.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 11:38 a.m. | Portland

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Oregon marks the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the state. 1912 was the year women won the right to vote here. It took another eight years before women had that right nationwide.

The campaign paved the way for seismic changes in how Oregon handled a range of issues including milk safety. April Baer explores how women winning the vote changed public health for children in Oregon.

Esther Pohl Lovejoy and her son Freddie.

Esther Pohl Lovejoy and her son Freddie.

OHSU Historical Collections and Archives

Esther Pohl Lovejoy was the first woman to serve as Portland’s public health officer. She’d given years of her life to the fight to ensure Oregon milk was at least as safe as its drinking water. But she couldn’t save her only boy from a brief, violent illness. Freddie was seven when he died.

Professor Kim Jensen is the author of a book about Lovejoy published this month. Lovejoy was so  driven, she rose from being a shopgirl to putting herself through medical school in just a few years, in an era when women doctors were extremely rare. She couldn’t rest until she knew what had caused Freddie’s death. 

“Esther had a post-mortem done by Ralph Madsen, the bacteriologist she worked with.”  Jensen said. “And the general opinion was that the perforation of the stomach may have had something to do with tainted milk.”

Lovejoy told the Oregon Journal newspaper that as the top city public health official, she knew all too well what was to blame.

Esther Pohl Lovejoy

Esther Pohl Lovejoy

Oregon Health & Science University Historical Collections & Archives


“I say and I know that the milk supply of Portland is rotten, literally rotten. The consequence is, I’ve lost my boy,” Lovejoy said.

Problems in Oregon’s milk supply stemmed from dozens of different things: cows fed brewers’ mash, milk cans that weren’t properly washed, milk that was watered down by unscrupulous vendors, or doctored with additives like formaldehyde to keep it from souring.

The state Food and Dairy Commission was notoriously corrupt, and Lovejoy had campaigned hard for local inspections of dairies selling milk in Portland.

She packed council hearings with mothers, formed alliances with the Temperance Union, and confronted state leaders about the  Dairy Commission’s crooked practices. But the corruption continued.

Lovejoy remembered how powerless she felt in a 1916 letter to a colleague,  “(for) several years the women of this city were unable to secure any protection, for the reason that the commercial forces (dairymen), with sovereign power, were arrayed against the home forces (unenfranchised mothers), who at that time depended solely upon the beautiful, sentimental influence that we read about in the literature”.

Kim Jensen says the convergence of the suffrage campaign and public health work was a catalyst for Lovejoy’s thinking about the role of women in public life. And she wasn’t the only one.

Esther Pohl Lovejoy

Esther Pohl Lovejoy


Oregon women were working in stores, factories, canneries. They labored in the fields and rode broncos at the Pendleton Round-Up. They voted in some school elections, lobbied in Salem, and, like Lovejoy, served in some appointed  government positions. But they were dependent on the white male constituency.

Government excluded several groups other than white women from voting rights during this period. State and federal laws at different points denied African-Americans, Native Americans, Asian-Americans, Latinos and others the right to the ballot.

Sarah A. Evans, a seminary graduate and organizer also prominent in the pure milk campaign, wrote about how difficult it was for women to step into the political arena, in the Oregon Journal in 1911:.  “No woman enjoys lobbying. She is met with cold indifference, distrust, and often jeers and jokes. She feels herself out of place, and she is as long as she holds an inferior place among those she is trying to influence.”

Esther Pohl Lovejoy

Esther Pohl Lovejoy


Evans continued that while Oregon women went begging in Salem to have a corrupt commissioner removed, the newly enfranchised women of Seattle were getting a mayor voted out of office, with little fanfare.

“If women had the ballot in Oregon, thank you, how long would the babies of the state be compelled to drink dirty, diseased milk? Just as long as the preliminary steps could be taken to invoke the recall.”

Some attempts at coalition-building among the suffragists had foundered. Temperance was a touchy topic.

Not everyone who wanted to foster women’s citizenship supported Prohibition. But activists of all stripes could get behind a platform to improve public health by giving women the vote.

Esther Pohl Lovejoy

Esther Pohl Lovejoy


1912 was the middle of Oregon’s Progressive Era. Settlement houses were experimenting with kindergartens and well-baby clinics. Portland was expanding the Bull Run water system, as part of a campaign to improve the water supply.

And while the pure milk movement gained traction as a political issue, health officials were figuring out the practical steps milk producers needed to take to fight contamination.

Floyd Bodyfelt is professor Emeritus of Food Science and Technology at Oregon State University. He credits a veterinarian named David Mack, who was appointed milk inspector in 1909.

Bodyfelt says Mack gradually got producers on board for reform with a series of carrots and sticks. He trained his own inspectors to check for cleanliness, safety, and cooling.

Around the time women won the vote, public health efforts were showing some success. Bodyfelt says Mack was responsible for convincing producers to take part in regional and national milk competitions that rated flavor and quality.

“And he pushed this like nobody else did in the West, to the point that by 1912, the city of Portland was recognized world-wide as having the lowest per-capita death rate for infants, under age 2,” Bodyfelt said.

While those statistics would rise again during World War I, Bodyfelt says the long-term trend held.

Through the early 20th century, it became common for politicians to appeal to women’s interest in public health.

Eliza Canty-Jones of the Oregon Historical Society

Eliza Canty-Jones of the Oregon Historical Society

April Baer / OPB

Eliza Canty-Jones edits the Oregon Historical Quarterly, which has dedicated a special issue this month to women, suffrage, and citizenship.

“After suffrage is passed, what you see are legislators passing legislation that they think women will support. It’s this perception of needing to cater to this new voting block that happens pretty quickly.”

Among the issues brought to Salem in the months after suffrage: widows’ pensions and children’s health.

In the wake of women getting the vote, politicians also pushed for sterilization of those described at the time as “unfit persons,” meaning criminals and people with mental illness. 

But the pure milk campaign endures as one of the high-spots of Progressive-era Oregon politics.

By March of 1913, Portland City Council was closing some final loopholes in its licensing system. By that fall, just one year after women won the vote, the State Food and Dairy Commission had adopted new federal standards for milk purity.

Later that year, the state Dairy Commissioner was forced from office. By 1914, Portland was winning prizes for the quality of its milk.

Tune in Monday at 9 p.m. on OPB-TV for an Oregon Experience documentary on The Suffragists.

On the Web

Century of Action

Kim Jensen blog


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