Elections | Local

Women's Suffrage Had Immediate Impact On Oregon Politics

OPB | Nov. 5, 2012 9 p.m. | Updated: Nov. 6, 2012 3:03 a.m. | Portland

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This week in Pioneer Courthouse Square, people passing by are being handed flyers urging them to support a woman’s right to vote.

An umbrella marks the 100th anniversary of suffrage in Oregon.

An umbrella marks the 100th anniversary of suffrage in Oregon.

Sammy Brenner / OPB

One thing we should mention — the campaign these flyers come from is 100 years old. In 1912 Oregonians took a sixth and final statewide vote on women’s suffrage, narrowly passing it, 52 percent to 48 percent.

Almost immediately, the power of women’s voting was evident as tides turned in several political struggles.

Oregon was primed for some big changes in workplace regulation.

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The state had already passed a maximum ten-hour workday law for women in 1903. And activists had been laying groundwork for a ways to cover women and children in the workplace with a minimum wage law.

Historian Jan Dilg says women were working in places they never had before. “There was a lot of business  that supported the local clothing industry, food preservation, canning picking, that kind of work.”

Janice Dilg

Janice Dilg

Sammy Brenner / OPB

Industrialization was coming to Oregon, at the same time as it changed manufacturing in every other corner of the country.

“Women were being recruited more and more in those positions, and were generally paid less than men, and it became a point of contention, that it was perhaps corrupting them.”

“Corrupting them” because supporters of minimum wage argued there was no way for working women to survive on the wages they were paid.

Just days after women won the vote in Oregon, a discussion was held at the Business Women’s Club in Portland about plans to launch a minimum wage campaign.

The reformer priest Father Edwin O’Hara laid out a case, as reported in the Oregonian newspaper. He calculated living expenses for the average  “factory girl”: $9 a week for room and board, transportation, clothing and laundry, but she brought home only  $4 a week in wages.

“The problem is - where does she get the other $5? Either her home, her father or mother or brother pays it. Or else she gets it from a public or private charity, or it is taken from the earnings of shame,” O’Hara said.

Caroline Gleason, who later took Roman Catholic vows to become Sister Miriam Theresa, talked to the show Dateline Statehouse in 1960 about what she’d seen when she came to Portland as a young working woman.

She described going under cover in 1912, investigating conditions among women who assembled boxes for shipping.

Sister Miriam Theresa: “It is impossible to imagine today the filthy conditions under which women earned their living. I worked ten hours a day and earned 52 cents.”

Bob Richter: “53 cents for ten hours of work -“

Sister Miriam Theresa:  “$1.52 for three days of work.”

Gleason worked tirelessly with Father O’Hara and others to document the problems of poverty in the lives of working women and children. In 1913, women reformers built coalitions to get the nation’s first minimum wage law on the ballot.

Donna Maddux

Donna Maddux

Sammy Brenner / OPB

The issue might seem to be a natural fit for both women reformers and the emerging union movement, but that wasn’t really the case.

Bob Bussel is an Associate Professor at the University of Oregon’s  Labor Education and Research Center. He says this was a complicated time for organized labor, as leaders took stock of rights won through bloody strikes, and thought about whether a minimum wage law was a battle of long-term value.

Bussel notes Samuel Gompers, the architect of the modern union movement was not willing to support a government-enforced minimum wage campaign.

“What Gompers feared was if government, if you got things from government, they could take them away. If you got these things like a minimum wage from the government, there’d be less of a need for a union movement. And also the sense what workers win through their own activism, has a deeper meaning for them,” Bussel said. 

Others dispute the notion that the AFL was just soul-searching on the sidelines.

Sally Greenberg is head of the National Consumer’s League. A hundred-year-old advocacy group, the NCL was part of the legal team when Oregon’s minimum wage laws were challenged, in a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“That’s a positive spin on what was a real battle between unions and women progressive leaders.”

She says unions were skeptical that women’s wages amounted to enough to be worth fighting for, and whether women even belonged in the evolving union power structure.

Consumer groups like the NCL were much faster to come on board in support of the Oregon minimum wage campaign. When the case was challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court, Greenberg says NCL founder Florence Kelley was personally involved in the legal defense. 

“Florence Kelley and her allies in Oregon figured out when the challenge came down they needed someone strong to argue it.”

Among the talented team of attorneys Kelley and the Oregon campaigners enlisted was a future Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis. He filed a brief for the case that was one of the first at that level to rely heavily on social science data.

The Court’s acceptance of the brief paved the way for social science statistics to be used as tools within the legal system. And it was part of the strategy that convinced the justices to uphold Oregon’s right to enforce the minimum wage law.

The Oregon law went on to become a model for others throughout the nation, and federal minimum wage laws were enacted in 1938.

Bob Bussel points out the minimum wage remains a subject of debate today.

“There are so many things wrapped up in minimum wage - an age old debate, and we’re still having it today - what is the appropriate role of government, how much should it intervene, how do workers improve themselves, what responsibilities does government have?”

He notes unions are now among the staunchest supporters of minimum wage laws.

But in the eyes of some women suffragists at the time, the Supreme Court ruling that upheld the minimum wage law represented a step backward. Since the majority opinion was grounded in the concept women are different from men, and therefore deserve different work rules, the ruling bothered those at the time who felt women and men should be treated exactly the same.

As much as the law was a victory for women reformers, today we are still debating questions about equal pay, and women’s opportunity in the workplace.

Sunny Petit is Director of the Center for Women, Politics, and Policy at Portland State University. Her program works on helping women and girls take on leadership positions in a variety of fields. She sees these issues as big drivers for women getting involved in politics today.

“I think we’re going to see more of that, especially around work and family balance - things like family leave. We see these national movements focusing around Moms Rising, here in Oregon, groups like MotherPAC who are trying to elevate the discussion around work and family.”

That discussion continues as women drop ballots all over Oregon Tuesday, Election Day.


Thanks to the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary for sharing tape from their archives.

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