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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
Within a year she was publishing The New Northwest , a weekly with offices in Portland, a mushrooming town of eight thousand on the Willamette River. The Duniway family, which now included five lanky boys, lived on the first floor of a forty-dollar-a-month house whose upper story accommodated the publishing operation. Clara, now seventeen, kept house while Ben tried earning again, a light clerical job having been provided by Abigail’s brother, port collector Harvey Scott. The boys helped the printer run off the paper. The Duniways were a frank-spoken, joking lot. The children called their parents “B. C.” (for Benjamin Charles) and “Jenny” (for Abigail’s middle name, Jane). No disciplinarian, Abigail was instead the chief cutup, coming in from her rounds with hilarious anecdotes and at night thumping on the family organ while she sang popular ditties like “Charming Billie.”
The target area for The New Northwest was Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. From its first edition on May 5. 1871, it stood out from other axe-grinding journals by being entertaining. Remembering her own early resistance to suffrage, Abigail knew better than to bait all her lines with women’s rights. Crime and political-scandal stories bolstered her editorials, which held society to be corrupt for the reason that “the virtuous, the refined, the sensible, the noble mothers, wives and daughters of the nation do not assist in the national housekeeping.” Her exclusive exposé of shady goings on in the Multnomah County Court House Ring made exciting reading in 1872, and the following year she scooped the daily press with her revelations of a schoolbook fraud.
Serial fiction that she wrote herself pointed up the hobbled state of women in a man’s world. Her heroines resembled those of today’s soap operas in the relentlessness of their travail. But instead of suffering in sleek suburbs their milieu was farm or small town, and their circumstances were always straitened because of male incompetence or injustice.
In The Plain Story of a Plain Woman her protagonist struggled under the burdens of farm work, child care, and schoolteaching while her doltish husband, a hunting buff, attended his guns and hounds. Another heroine, a mother of fifteen, several of them defective, had her house sold at auction as her husband lay in bed whimpering, “Give me rum, or I shall die.” Whether the reader placed herself in the miserable pair of shoes or blessed her escape from them, she was exposed to the idea that change was in order.
Abigail understood the reader appeal of conflict. She culled antisuffrage statements from other publications and printed them with her rejoinders. One editor argued: “Men do not oppose woman suffrage because they respect women less, but because they love their families more.” Asked Abigail: “Is this what prompts them to sanction customs that, were death to overtake them, would condemn their daughters to labor for half pay, or to perpetuate laws that compel widows to humiliating conditions … ?” Stated another male of suffrage: “I detest and scorn it. It comes intuitively to every lady of the land to oppose it and her feelings recoil from it.” Abigail said he seemed to possess an “excessively delicate temperament. We think he … should be placed in a dainty bandbox, scented with lavender and laid among catnip and dried clover.”
She waded fearlessly into the journalistic sport of name-calling. She dubbed one editor a “tender-pated popinjay” and hailed “poor vapid Luce of the Independent who is in danger of being suffocated by the reeking fumes of his foul imagination.” She chided one sparring partner: “Now, Billy, stop blubbering and look here.” If her epithet elicited another, she was delighted and printed it no matter how stinging. Routinely she was tagged “the henpecker” and “our free love editorial sister.” The only time she showed distress was when two Oregon editors ordered their staffs never to mention her name in their papers.
In her correspondence column Abigail dispensed sympathy and sound advice. To “Nervous Sufferer” she urged: “You need rest . Get your decaying teeth extracted. Let Molly’s face go dirty and John’s knee peep out. These things will surely happen when you are dead and gone.”
In a day when few reform papers were self-sustaining, The New Northwest returned a modest profit. Abigail held advertisers by exhorting her readers to patronize them and to boycott businesses that wouldn’t place an ad. For a time she was plagued by men cancelling their wives’ subscriptions, but she scotched that by identifying one man and threatening to publish a blacklist of such offenders.
A few months after starting her newspaper she launched her campaign to organize the Northwest for suffrage, using as her trial balloon none less than Susan B. Anthony. Miss Anthony came up after visiting California, lured by Abigail’s offer of steamboat passage to Portland and a lecture tour of Oregon and Washington under her management. Abigail had some reservations about presenting the spinsterish Miss Anthony as her feminist symbol, but she found her not at all the man-hater she had expected.