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The Unsinkable Abigail
In forty years of scraping and scrapping for women’s rights, Abigail Scott Duniway never lost her nerve or wicked tongue
February 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 2
Man is, or should be, woman’s protector and defender. The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life.” Thus spake the United States Supreme Court in 1872 in upholding an Illinois statute barring women from practicing law, which a feminine aspirant to the bar had dared to challenge.
Several months earlier another Illinois daughter, transplanted to Oregon, had undertaken to shatter both of the venerable premises upon which the tribunal based its decision. Abigail Scott Duniway, who as a teenager had tramped west over the cholera- and Indian-plagued Oregon Trail and later helped her husband tame a wilderness farm, knew she was neither timid nor delicate. And so far as she could see, man was less defender than exploiter. What unfitted woman in Abigail’s opinion was not God-made emotional and physical characteristics but man-made legal hobbles—hobbles man had applied for his own benefit.
Unhobbling the women of her adopted region so they might defend themselves was the goal of her bristling weekly journal, The New Northwest . The young farmwife-turnededitor simultaneously pried three other levers under her “defenders”: suffrage organizing, lecturing, and lobbying. But she had to assume one task she hadn’t counted on. To her exasperation she discovered that most women still imagined themselves protected. While shaming men into surrendering purloined rights she prodded her sisters to look up from their dish pans “at which they are protected without wages” and from the ironing board “where they are shielded with out salaries” and see they were besieged not only from without but also from within.
Optimistic by nature, Abigail predicted victory would come in five years. When opposition rose and grew and hardened, she revised her estimate but never her aim. Despite setbacks, defeats, financial crises, and abuse, she kept on shaming and prodding for forty years. And they were forty satisfying years, for she thrived on uproar. Moreover, they were years of steady gains, not only for suffrage, but also for a train of other rights—changes that revolutionized the status of women throughout the Northwest. And because her feminist victories generally preceded those won elsewhere, they were a spearhead glinting across the Rockies and influencing the entire nation.
Abigail’s drive and durability were inherited from four generations of restless, combative, adventure-seeking pioneers. Her great-great-grandfather James Scott, after emigrating from Scotland to Virginia in the early i YOO’S, moved on to South Carolina. In turn his progeny picked up and bushwhacked to North Carolina, to Kentucky, to the territory of Illinois. There in 1830 Abigail’s father, Tucker Scott, married Anne Roelofson, daughter of a Danish-English family. By the time a treaty with Great Britain made Oregon the newest American territory, Tucker had already sired a family, but he nevertheless responded to the lure of the Northwest. It is perhaps not surprising that his daughter Abigail, with no geographic frontier left to conquer, turned toward the frontier of women’s rights.
Conditioning for her role began back in Illinois, near Peoria, on Tucker Scott’s debt-ridden farms. Hard times stalked the tall, sharp-faced man, who in any event could never stick to anything. He moved from farm to farm; tried sawmilling; returned to plowing. Whimsical himself, he was strict with others, haranguing his peers on the virtues of teetotaling and barking orders at his nine children. “Work never hurt anybody” was his refrain; and being a girl didn’t excuse Abigail from hoeing corn and chopping wood. Her small, overworked mother was meekness itself, left uneducated by pious parents for fear learning might tempt her to sign her future husband’s name and use his funds. Abigail resolved to escape her mother’s fate and wondered if she might do it through her knack for writing.
The main trail to Missouri—the starting place for Oregon—passed near the Scott farm. Tucker Scott was endlessly fascinated with the travellers and their talk of Oregon’s leaping salmon and tall timbers. One day, as his wife had feared, he announced the Scotts were going too. Her tears and protests were futile. After selling the farm and purchasing draft oxen and five covered wagons Scott enlisted thirty other victims of “the fever.” On April 2, 1852, their wagon train began rumbling westward over still-frozen ruts. Mindful of the error of an earlier migration from their region, the illfated Donner party, they were allowing ample time to make Oregon before winter.