The Unsinkable Abigail


Eventually Ben conceded the battle with Hard Scramble and acquired a tamer tract near Lafayette. Abigail, rid of the bachelor freeloaders, now found herself cooking for a flock of hired hands, part of Ben’s ambitious project to start an apple orchard. Chained to routine tasks, she began writing again. She mailed some verses to a country weekly, with disappointing results. The editor printed one with the mortifying comment “We publish the following to please the writer.” He suggested she try prose. She obliged with a strongly worded piece painting women the “victims of wrongs condoned by law,” which drew letters expressing sympathy for “the writer’s hen-pecked husband.”

Undaunted, she attempted a novel based partly on her trail diary. Assembling a diverse group of overlanders, she followed them across the plains and through their initiations in Oregon. Each learned his lesson- good health habits, the virtues of education for women, stick-to-itiveness, or the folly of child marriage and procrastination. The book’s sole virtue was a lively style, and when a Portland printer ran off a small edition in 1859—the first novel published in the Northwest—it lost money after unanimously bad reviews.

Abigail’s plunge into literature coincided with a family crisis. A crony of Ben’s persuaded him, over her protests, to cosign a loan for a milling venture. After faring badly the mill floated away in a flood. They had to sell their farm to meet the note. In 1862 a chastened Ben moved his family, which now included five children, into Lafayette. There he took up hauling. A year later his team ran away and threw him under a wheel, leaving him a semi-invalid.

Abigail, who had been told not to bother her head about money, suddenly found herself forced to. By hanging muslin partitions she converted their attic into a dormitory and ran a small boarding school for girls. Cramming before classes, she kept one jump ahead of her scholars while Ben turned his hand to housekeeping. Within a year she had saved enough to shift the Duniways to the lively town of Albany, where she opened a millinery and notions shop.

While fitting hats she heard many tales of domestic woe. Women complained their husbands took their egg and butter earnings and spent it on fancy horses and rigs. Some said they had to steal from their husbands’ trousers to clothe the children. Fingering items on the notions counter, they would sigh, “I’ll have to ask him first.” It roused Abigail’s ire. “Those farm women worked as hard as their husbands, yet were treated like children!” she wrote.

Her shop became something of an underground feminist propaganda center. But women’s rights, she discovered, were practically nonexistent. The husband of one faded mother of six sold all the family furniture and disappeared. Abigail persuaded a businessman to lend the woman money to buy more furniture and open a boarding house. But after the boarders moved in, the husband returned, repudiated the note, and sold the new furniture. In the eyes of the law what he did was perfectly all right. It was his wife who had misbehaved, by signing a note without his consent. Abigail helped another needy woman by advancing supplies to stock a shop in another town. One day a stranger appeared with a judgment against her husband on a debt contracted before their marriage. While a man’s property was indubitably his own, what was his wife’s was his. The creditor seized the stock, and Abigail was out her advance.

Abigail brooded over these injustices. Why weren’t women allowed to own property so they could support their children? Why couldn’t they file lawsuits to protect their interests? One night at the dinner table she asked Ben how the law ever got so one-sided. To her surprise he had an answer. Laws were one-sided, he said, because men made them—through their voting power. Naturally they made the laws to suit themselves. If women helped make laws, they’d be different. Abigail laid down her fork. She had been brought up to believe that women who asked to vote were eccentric manhaters. Her hopes took a mighty leap as Ben continued mildly. “It will never be any better for women until they vote. Some day a woman will start something.” That was the spring of 1870, and Abigail was thirty-five. Having beheld the comet, she swiftly maneuvered into its train. She boned up on the suffrage movement from its coffeeklatsch beginnings in upstate New York in the i84o’s, through the formation the year before of the ambitious National Woman Suffrage Association. Two victories already had been won. In the fall of 1869 women in the rugged Wyoming Territory had coaxed the vote from their tiny legislature. Three months later in the Utah Ter ritory Mormon women, who had always had a say in church affairs, extended their equality to the voting booth.

Soon Abigail was conducting meetings of a group she called the Oregon State Equal Suffrage Society. Appointing herself a delegate, she boarded a stage for Sacramento to attend a regional suffrage convention. Much exhilarated, she stopped in San Francisco on her way home to visit the office of The Pioneer , the West Coast’s first suffrage newspaper. She decided on the spot that she was going to have a newspaper too.