Patience, Personality and Perseverance (Abigail Scott Duniway)

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
How Abigail Scott Duniway, the Northwest’s best-known suffragist, helped to turn the tide of women’s rights

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Submitted: August 02, 2020

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Submitted: August 02, 2020

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Patience, Personality, and Perseverance

How Abigail Scott Duniway, the Northwest’s best-known suffragist, helped to turn the tide of women’s rights

 

“Don’t you consider your mother as good, if not better,” the speaker inquired, “than an ordinary street bum?”  The target of her question was a barefoot boy who had wandered up to join her attentive little audience at a Salem, Oregon rally. When young Oswald West glanced around the group, he didn’t see any other street kids.  Instead, his listening companions sported long dresses, sun bonnets and serious expressions.  They had gathered to hear the speaker during her 1883 tour, advocating that newfangled concept sweeping the nation  - women’s suffrage. 

As Oswald donned a solemn face to match the others, he nodded decisively and replied with a firm, “Sure I do.”  Nearly thirty years later,  Oswald West, by then the governor of Oregon, would again wear that serious expression as he signed his name to a bill allowing women the right to vote in his state.  In honor of the lady speaker he had heard as a child, and the decades of spirit and determination she exhibited following that, Oswald had asked her to write the bill.  Within seconds, his signature would forever rest beside that of the personable and persuasive speaker from his childhood, Abigail Scott Duniway.

The signing of that bill culminated Duniway’s lifelong struggle to ensure women’s voting rights in the northwestern states, which had had once formed most of Oregon Territory.  Although she lived in Oregon, success there had long eluded her.  Both Idaho and Washington had already passed amendments to allow women the right to vote. This was due in large part to Abigail’s years of relentless touring and speech-giving.  Despite her nearly endless traveling, as she later described, “by river, rail, stage and buckboard,” the men of Oregon had voted down a suffrage bill five times between 1884 and 1910. 

By 1912, it appeared that the aging suffragist, then confined to a wheelchair, would not live to see the result of her hundreds of speeches in dusty pioneer towns across her own state.  But as the men of Oregon once again cast their votes in November of that year, it seemed the times, and apparently their minds, were finally changing.  Coming a few days after Abigail’s seventy-eighth birthday, the outcome made a wonderful belated present.  As she soaked in the official results - 61,265 in favor and 57,104 opposed, a tired but heartfelt smile surely crept over her time-worn face.  Unlike some of the more forceful suffragists of the day, Duniway had relied on the patient technique of friendly and logical persuasion.  Apparently the men of Oregon fit her assessment of men in general.  “Men like to be coaxed.” she once noted, “They will not be driven.”

The strong self-sufficiency that would lead her through history alongside  Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others, was forged early in Abigail’s life.  Born in 1834 in a log cabin in rural Illinois, she quickly learned that farm girls were expected to shoulder a good deal of the family chores.  As her day-to-day duties crowded into her youthful existence, she was only able to attend school intermittently.  In spite of the hard work and her limited prospects, her close-knit pioneer family provided a steadfast anchor in her early life.  Sadly, that anchor would break away in 1852, during a brutal 2,400-mile wagon journey to Oregon.

Abigail was seventeen-years-old when she and ten other members of the Scott family set off for Oregon.  Her father had designated her as the journalist for the trip. Day after day, she recorded their excitement as the five ox-driven carts bumped along past the novel sights of the trail.  Before the weary oxen finally clomped into Oregon over five months later,  her journal would also contain tear-stained lines written from the depths of sorrow.  Both Abigail’s mother and younger brother fell victim to cholera and took their eternal resting places alongside the perilous trail. The elation and misery inscribed in that journal, found its way into an impressive string of twenty-two novels she would ultimately write.

In addition to her literary pursuits, Scott’s passions would lead her toward suffrage issues, but also to an intricate mixture of career,  marriage and family.In the spring following the disastrous journey, she opened a small school near Salem, Oregon.  Later that same year, 1853, she married a handsome young rancher and prospector named Ben Duniway.  They settled on his land claim in the hill country of Clackamus County.  During the next few years, the couple farmed the land and started their family, which would eventually include five sons and a daughter.  Somehow, sandwiched among the many duties of a farmer’s wife and a mother, Abigail managed to squeeze in time for her favorite pastime of writing.  Drawing on her experiences along the Overland Trail, she wrote pioneer stories that she would read aloud, to the delight of her family and their guests.

Despite enjoying the warmth of family, Abigail began to notice that the woman’s role in this new stage of her life, seemed to be just as harried as it had been on her family’s farm.  Many of her neighbors, she later wrote, “were bachelors who found comfort in mobilizing at meal times at the homes of the few married men in the township.”  “I, if not washing, scrubbing, churning or nursing the baby,” she observed, “was preparing their meals in a lean-to kitchen.”

In addition to the rigors of back-country life, bad luck descended on their already hardscrabble existence.  Just three years after they began farming, a fire destroyed their house.  They moved in with Abigail’s relatives who had preceded her to Oregon, and continued to work the farm.  Once the couple fulfilled their four-year obligation of working their land claim in order to own it, they sold it and moved to a rural area near Lafayette, Oregon.  There, they purchased a farm, which Abigail  christened Sunny Hillside.  Somehow, despite her hectic schedule, she managed to self-publish her first novel there in the spring of 1859.  The book, bearing a then-popular double title, was called Captain Gray’s Company, or Crossing the Plains and Living in Oregon.It was, in fact, the first commercially printed book in Oregon.

Once again though, misfortune stalked them.  In 1861, a flood ruined their harvest.  Not only were they left in bad financial straights, but Ben had previously co-signed a loan for a friend who was later financially wiped out by the catastrophic flood.  Forced to sell Sunny Hillside to cover their friend’s debt, the saddened but resilient family moved to a small house in Lafayette, where Abigail opened a boarding school and Ben took a job as a teamster. 

As Abigail would later point out in her autobiography, she had already developed a strong pioneer character, likely forged by her early tragedies along the trail.  “Do not yield to difficulties,” she advised her readers, “but rise above discouragements.”  Unfortunately, Fate still had another tragic discouragement to deliver.Not long after they had to sell the farm, Ben was crushed beneath the wheels of a heavy wagon pulled by a team of runaway horses.  Although he survived, he was injured so severely he was relegated to light-duty jobs.  Suddenly, Abigail stepped into the role of the family’s primary breadwinner.  Despite the misfortune, their marriage and partnership remained strong, and her husband and children would become lifelong supporters of her suffragist efforts.

Her leanings toward her future role in the women’s rights movements would continue as Abigail joined the full-time labor force.  They moved to Albany, Oregon, where she taught school and later opened a millinery and notions shop.  As her customers tried on hats and searched for thread and material, they filled her ears with stories of their challenges in the male-dominated frontier world.  “The making of new farms in the brush and timber in a pioneer community,” she would later write, “is doubly trying for the women folk.”  The men, her customers informed her, although they worked hard, often toiled together in group efforts like log-rollings, bridge-building and barn-raisings.  The women, she noted, “must remain in solitude, a prey to their own thoughts.”

Her concern for the customers evolved into action over the next few years and pressed her to form an equal-rights society with a couple of friends in 1870.  The following year, she moved the family to Portland where her legacy would begin.  Abigail called upon her writing background to start a newspaper that highlighted various women’s issues.  For the next sixteen years, that publication, The New Northwest, became the first platform she used to launch a legendary career.  The paper’s motto, “Free Speech, Free Press, Free People,” spoke to her zeal for uninhibited discussions about the issues and challenges confronting women in the pioneer country.

Soon her opinions found their way onto a multitude of other platforms across the Northwest.  The impetus for this, came from a two-month lecture tour with the nationally known suffragist, Susan B. Anthony.  Shortly after Abigail started her newspaper, she signed a contract with the national suffrage movement, to manage a tour for Anthony throughout the Northwest.  As Abigail delivered introductory speeches for her at the various stops, she began to realize that, like her more experienced colleague, she was able to capture the attention and imagination of the audiences.  Following the tour, Abigail set out to deliver her own speeches, which would soon transform her into a renowned lecturer

Despite her enthusiasm for female equality, she made it clear that she had no interest, as one local politician had predicted, “in turning women into men.”  “We do not believe,” she retorted, “that a woman can educate herself out of herself.”  Entering business or intellectual pursuits, she explained, would not make a woman lose her femininity, “or eradicate the emotional side of her nature.”  Abigail herself, served as an example of a woman who could step across gender boundaries, yet maintain strong family ties and obligations. 

Her children worked alongside her to help write and print the newspaper.  One son, Wilkie, was later employed by several others papers, while another, Willis, became State Printer.  Two other sons, Ralph and Clyde, also followed successful career paths - Ralph as a prominent attorney and Clyde as a university president.  Sadly, Abigail’s only daughter, Clara, died at thirty-one from tuberculosis.  In later years, Abigail once followed her highly successful lumber-exporter son, Hubert, to the speaker’s podium.  He had just given a well-received speech at a women’s rights conference in Portland.  “Dear friends,” she quipped, “it is not necessary for me to tell you that this is one of my poor, neglected babies.”

Unlike her children, Abigail’s younger brother, Harvey Whitefield Scott, was a lifelong opponent of women’s suffrage.  Like his sister, he gravitated toward journalism, editing Portland’s successful and influential newspaper, The Oregonian.  Harvey’s increasingly conservative views, in fact, turned him further from his sister’s position as the years went by.  Despite maintaining a semblance of sibling closeness, their divergent viewpoints often struck sparks that smoldered in their respective speeches and editorials.  Many historians feel that her brother’s ongoing editorials about the potential drawbacks of giving Oregon women the right to vote, were instrumental in the bill’s repeated rejection.

In vivid contrast to Harvey, many male voters began to envision a new scene emerging on the political landscape.  The image of their wives and daughters joining them as they cast their ballots, somehow didn’t seem as distasteful as it once had.  In fact, a bit of husbandly and fatherly pride even began to creep into the picture. Surely those scenes would have materialized anyway as our country developed, but they were definitely moved along by the tireless traveling speakers.  Year by year and state by state, suffragists like Abigail Scott Duniway, crisscrossed the country and doggedly won over the minds and hearts of sun-bonneted ladies, fair-minded men and barefoot street boys. 

 

I hope you enjoyed the story.  If you have time, please leave a comment.  Thank you!


© Copyright 2020 Dennis L. Goodwin. All rights reserved.

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