By G. Thomas Edwards
A woman of varied careers, Abigail Scott Duniway has consistently and understandably been considered to be Oregon's leading woman. Oregonians believe that she was the major reason, if not the sole reason, for the state's favorable 1912 suffrage vote. The admirable suffragist, however, should share the belated victory with several local and national women. Historians have neglected the role of other Oregon suffragists; furthermore, Duniway's relationship with the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was a significant, complicated and controversial political and personal story. Duniway was more than a victim of insensitive Eastern meddlers.
In 1871 Duniway became acquainted with the famous Susan B. Anthony. Duniway had recently established the New Northwest, a controversial reform newspaper discussing women's suffrage, marriage, divorce, and the general social and economic conditions of frontier women. The Revolution, a reformatory newspaper edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Anthony, had influenced Duniway. But far more important was the three-month campaign Anthony waged with Duniway in the Pacific Northwest. The novice Oregonian managed the strenuous and unsuccessful 1871 campaign for suffrage and learned reformatory tactics from the veteran.
Anthony and Duniway became friends, and their relationship, although sometimes strained, endured until Anthony's death in 1906. Although the two women considered women's suffrage and temperance to be major reform movements, they would sharply disagree over tactics.
As former schoolteachers they used teaching techniques, including sincerity, mastery of facts, and humor. In 1871they realized that ministers, editors, politicians, and lawyers influenced the status of women and must be convinced that women deserved the vote and that their votes would improve society. The negative reaction to their campaign demonstrated to Duniway the difficulties she would face in her stressful struggle for suffrage.
Anthony established regional organizations, emphasizing that their members should continually push women's suffrage, subscribe to reformatory newspapers and attend conventions. Duniway, who was not a skilled organizer, concluded that local suffrage groups were of slight value.
Suffragists celebrated few victories. After a 25-year absence, Anthony returned to Portland in 1896 as featured speaker at the Woman's Congress. At that time only Wyoming, Utah and Colorado had voted for women's suffrage. Anthony shared her familiar reform tactics and demonstrated that she had grown disaffected with Duniway's controversial leadership. Unimpressed with the way that her prot'eg'e had led the unsuccessful 1884 suffrage fight and annoyed by Duniway's sharp tongue and independent spirit, Anthony arranged different Oregon leadership. Anthony blocked Duniway's desire to participate in the successful Idaho suffrage campaign of 1896 and unsuccessfully urged her not to endorse Republican William McKinley in 1896 for it would increase Democratic opposition to suffragists.
In 1900 Anthony and the NAWSA deferred to Duniway's leadership during a second suffrage fight. Duniway had boasted that her tactics would be successful, and her failure was, according to Anthony and other leaders, entirely predictable. Anthony wrote, "Duniway's head is so full of crotchets that it is impossible for her to cooperate with anybody; she must simply control."
Because Oregon was a progressive state enacting the initiative and referendum in 1902, Anthony anticipated a crucial victory in Oregon in 1904. Duniway's inability to organize a campaign that year convinced Anthony, NAWSA President Carrie Chapman Catt and Portland suffragists that they should take charge of the 1906 campaign. To help counter Duniway in 1904, the NAWSA approved Clara Colby's request to transfer her Woman's Tribute publication from Washington, D. C. to Portland. Dismayed by Duniway's lack of enthusiasm for the initiative, suffragists concluded that a well-organized campaign led by Easterners would succeed. To this end the NAWSA held its 1905 national convention in Portland during the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. Handling Duniway with care, the NAWSA endorsed Anthony's tactics and rejected Duniway's "still hunt" tactic that discounted local organizations, public addresses and demonstrations. But the well-known Oregon leader played a greater role in this remarkable and unsuccessful fight than biographer Ruth Barnes Moynihan acknowledged.
The bitter struggle between Duniway and her defenders against NAWSA president Anna Shaw and her allies led to painful internal politics. Duniway managed the disastrous suffrage campaigns conducted in 1908 and 1910; her critics stressed that Emma Smith DeVoe directed Washington to victory at the same time that Duniway failed. Furthermore, in 1911 California adopted suffrage while Oregon still had not.
In 1912 regional women and Duniway finally won a suffrage vote. As recent historians have stressed, the ailing Duniway did not play a major role in this fight.1 Today citizens overplay Duniway's leadership, but her contemporaries knew that Sarah Evans and the Portland Woman's Club played critical roles. Duniway deserves considerable credit for her long and exhausting fight for suffrage, but it also should be acknowledged that her personality and tactics contributed to the failure of six referenda votes - more than any other state - to win suffrage.
1 See Sheri Bartlett Browne, Eva Emery Dye: Romance with the West and Rebecca J. Mead, How the Vote Was Won: Woman Suffrage in the Western United States, 1868-1914.
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