It's Almost Time to Vote, Honey-Bun
Is there anyone who was really surprised at the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as our next Supreme Court Justice? You could almost hear a collective sigh of dismay – something more akin to dread than mere disappointment – among a majority of women. Lord knows, Emerson Asher would have been outraged, and equally distraught by our conservative sisters who mocked Dr. Christine Blasey Ford after her gut-wrenching testimony. I will not dwell on all this for fear of digging myself into a deeper emotional hole, but the hearings reminded me of the interesting confluence of alcohol, violence against women, and the suffrage movement that dominated the late 19th century.
By 1870, the issue of women’s suffrage had gained national attention. Abigail Scott Duniway arranged for Susan B. Anthony to address women of the Northwest in 1871, energizing the movement here in Portland. In that same year, Duniway began to publish her influential weekly newspaper, The New Northwest, which championed the cause for sixteen years.
Duniway was not an easy convert to Equal Suffrage. “I had been led from childhood to believe that women who demanded ‘rights’ were man-haters,” she wrote in her autobiography, Path Breaking. On her tenth birthday, her mother informed her that “her sorrow over my sex was almost too grievous to be borne.” By 1872, Abigail was one of four Oregon women who cast ballots in the November Presidential election. Although the votes were not counted, the action demonstrated the kind of courage Duniway would need to stay the course.
But Duniway’s leadership was not without controversy. She dubbed her strategy “the still hunt,” exerting her power of persuasion behind the scenes, influencing the minds and hearts of those in power while minimizing public (male) outrage. Most notably, she eschewed an alliance with the members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) whose cause she found antithetical to the concept of freedom for all. While Temperance Ladies enthusiastically supported women’s suffrage as a way to enact legislative limits on alcohol, Duniway felt that Prohibition was foolhardy and unwise. “It ought to be universally manifest that all men should not be denied the power of self-control over human appetites because some men abuse them.” She believed that the only sure way to protect women from the violence, debauchery and debt of their drunken husbands was to give them the rights they deserved – to vote, own property, earn their own wages, and become self-sufficient if necessary.
And, yet, here we are. Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri could not contain her satiric disdain. In the mock voice of Senator Chuck Grassley speaking to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Petri spewed the outrage of women who, even under circumstances much less dire than the attack on Ford, feel discounted, demeaned, and patronized.
(Click here to read the entire diatribe, entitled I Hope You Feel Empowered, Sweet Cheeks.)
Pundits will argue about which political party has become more energized by the Senate hearings to confirm Judge Kavanaugh. The only important metric is who turns up at the polls, or, in the case of Oregonians, who returns the mail-in ballot. Women have never voted as a block, driven as much by geography, religion, personal economics and education as men. But I hope they speak up for themselves, loud and clear. I hope that they pay as much attention to the climate crisis, the opioid epidemic, immigration, health care costs and a myriad of other issues as they do to reproductive rights and the ravages of sexual assault. The whole trajectory of our state, our country and our world may depend on it. Still, if we don’t get what we want/deserve/need, we can’t allow ourselves to retreat or get discouraged. Abigail Duniway and Dr. Esther Pohl Lovejoy would expect more of us.
It was a man who first tried to give women the right to vote in Oregon. During the state’s 1857 Constitutional Convention, an exclusively male affair, Multnomah County representative David Logan proposed striking out the word male before citizen in the clause pertaining to voting. His motion lost, and the document that emerged made voting a privilege to be enjoyed by white men only. As was often the case, women and all men of color were thrown together in one big, discounted category. David Logan went on to become Mayor of Portland for one year in 1863, but drunkenness plagued him and accusations of rape of a Native American girl cast a shadow on his political career.
Duniway drew a line in the sand, and, in many ways, she was right. Because they feared women would vote for Prohibition, the state’s liquor and business interests organized a well-funded campaign against suffrage. But Duniways’s inflexibility also cost her – and the women she sought to help.
Women’s suffrage would be voted down by Oregon men five times before finally passing in 1912. Physician and public health advocate Esther Pohl Lovejoy is often credited with the change in tactics that ultimately led to victory, but she did not “head” the movement the way Duniway had. “It was pre-eminently a campaign of young women, impatient of leadership,” she told the Women’s Progressive Weekly. “They worked just about as they liked — and that is how they will vote. There was certainly neither head nor tail to the campaign.” Chinese-American, African-American, and wage-earning women, each with their separate leagues, all joined in. Lovejoy believed in pulling out all the stops; there were “lunches, dinners, and talks here there and everywhere.” This coalition of diverse groups and the embrace of mass advertising finally put suffragists over the finish line. What a long haul! Oregon holds the dubious distinction of defeating women’s suffrage more times than any other state. (For more information on Lovejoy, check out historian Kimberly Jensen’s article Neither Head Nor here. Courtesy of Oregon Historical Society Quarterly, 2007))