By Debra Shein
The 22 novels written by Abigail Scott Duniway between 1859 and 1905 are entertaining, highly melodramatic fare in the spirit of her times and might best be characterized as "Women's Westerns."
These action-packed narratives, which could play quite well upon the stage, form a vital record of what life in the old West was like from the perspective of an ardent feminist. They contrast sharply with the many male-authored Westerns that typically depict women of the West as clinging vines in need of rescue by men. Although Duniway's stories employ many of the same melodramatic conventions, the situations are reversed - strong women rescue their menfolk from trouble, and law enforcers are generally villains because they enforce legislation that robs women of their rights. Sometimes, we find men and women trapped by the roles that society has dictated they assume, but when this happens, matters don't end happily.
Duniway's Westerns are more intellectual and realistic than most, providing a broader view of the many elements that constituted the new society being formed in the West - elements that combined to make the Western states a haven for equal rights activists. Woman suffrage can rightly be said to be a Western institution; all of the states in which women won full voting rights in advance of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, enacted in 1920, are located in this region. Eastern states lagged far behind. Abigail Scott Duniway's novels, which depicted the actual conditions that plagued women and suggested new courses of action that would remedy the injustices she described, were instrumental in bringing about many of the early victories in the West.
The plots and themes of two of Duniway's novels, Judge Dunson's Secret and Ethel Graeme's Destiny, are summarized below, with links to download the full texts and afterwords by Debra Shein.
Judge Dunson's Secret is a macabre comedy set entirely in Portland, Oregon. Because an important, although often forgotten, part of Western American history is the fact that this is the region in which women first won full voting rights, far in advance of the 19th Amendment that granted women voting rights nationwide in 1920, we might consider Judge Dunson's Secret a true "Women's Western" despite its uncharacteristic urban setting.
In this novel, we meet a leading feminist by the name of Zuleika Shannon who eventually finds happiness with the "Honorable" Judge David Dunson, despite the fact that in the past he has exhibited the worst sort of brutality imaginable. This novel was written at the outset of the 1883-84 campaign for an amendment to Oregon's constitution that - if it had passed - would have given women the vote at that time. It focuses on the variety of tactics movement leaders had to employ to forward their cause in a world where men wielded all the political power. In Judge Dunson's Secret, Zuleika declares, "All's fair in love and war ..."; likewise, Duniway herself (very much a political realist), decreed, "A wise general will use every means in his power to discover the strongholds of his enemy." Readers of this novel find how, in the early woman's movement, a public front of polite persuasion and a private, almost-Machiavellian philosophy might have gone hand in hand. This dissonance between the public and private self is very intriguing.
The plot, as in a number of Duniway's novels, makes great use of disguise and trickery. It features a description of the events taking place at a Woman's Congress held in Portland, which is based on an actual conference held there at the time the novel was being written. In this we see a representation of behavior in the public sphere. The scene is contrasted against events in the private sphere, where Zuleika personally attempts to persuade David Dunson of the errors of his ways and of the legitimacy of women's claims to suffrage and equal rights.
Finally, after both public and private persuasion, Dunson confronts his dark secret. Ultimately, we are impressed that, as in the case of this "Honorable" judge, the man we see in public often bears little relation to his private self. Readers learn that in order to make changes in a society traditionally dominated by men, morality must sometimes be situational, and women might need to employ whatever tactics they can rally to support their interests.
With its vivid depiction of the destructive effects of alcoholism, its first-person narrator and its dark conclusion, Ethel Graeme's Destiny, A Story of Real Life is an extremely compelling work.
Ethel's destiny is, indeed, that shared by most of those who could be placed in the category of "drunkard's wife" (in the language of her time), or - as we would say today - codependent. Duniway's novel shows how families of those suffering from the diseases of alcoholism and addiction suffer as well, and in a way that can't be remedied by legislation alone. Although the harsh laws in Ethel's era severely restricted the rights of married women, because of her codependency she didn't even take advantage of the few prerogatives she had. Advised again and again by her dearest friends to leave her abusive husband, she refuses to do so. At a time when the Women's Christian Temperance Union (was gaining support for prohibition with the claim that alcoholism was a moral failure, Duniway's pro-temperance but anti-prohibition stance, the result of her opinion that alcoholism was a disease, was highly controversial and led to heated disagreements with other movement leaders.
The sensationalistic plot of Ethel Graeme's Destiny begins in a fairytale-like setting in England, but things soon become harshly realistic. The naive Ethel is tricked into marriage with Gerald, a dashing sea captain, who takes her to Australia. Eventually, they travel to America, arriving to take part in the opening scenes of California's 1849 Gold Rush. When Gerald disappears into the mines, Ethel is left to make her own fortune in San Francisco, but Gerald reappears and, through his alcoholism, brings Ethel to ruin ... again and again.
© 2013 Oregon Public Broadcasting.