- Historic Sites
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
It was a dry spell, and travelling by stagecoach, they arrived everywhere covered with dust. The churches they had hoped to lecture in were closed to such a radical cause as women’s rights. They had to speak in seedy hired halls; in Walla Walla they were obliged to orate in the back of a saloon, thereby creating a scandal. In one town a woman offered her parlor, but her husband arrived home unexpectedly and expelled them.
Nonetheless, Abigail counted the tour a success. Miss Anthony’s lectures gave her a thorough grounding in the movement, and she picked up scores of subscriptions. Best, she sensed potential for suffrage. Everywhere she appealed for soldiers, not leaders. Indeed, she would have been dismayed had someone emerged waving the standard, for she intended to carry that herself.
After that trip there was no shaking the dust from her shoes. For years she was to spend at least half of each week on the road, waving her banner and conferring smaller banners upon promising protégés. She wrote on the move, mailing copy from stage and steamboat stops. Her following grew, but so did resistance as men ruminated her message and realized its threat. Former speaking places were withdrawn, but she always spoke somewhere, in a barn if necessary. Once when she was addressing a meeting in an unfinished school, the floor collapsed; she just picked herself up and led her audience to a sounder spot. Often she was interrupted by hecklers; sometimes she had to dodge eggs and fruit. None of this disturbed her greatly. She knew the nourishing effect of persecution upon a new movement.
Besides, she could hold her own with hecklers. The same one rarely heckled twice. One man who rose and expressed contempt for women’s rights was pleasantly invited to tell why. He said he didn’t know why he opposed it, but he always had and guessed he always would. Abigail’s quick-as-a-flash response was “I’ve always heard the difference between a man and a mule was that a man could change his mind.” Once when approaching Yakima, Washington, in a stage, a man twitted her about suffrage to the merriment of other passengers. “Madam,” he said, “you ought to be at home enjoying yourself, like my wife’s doing. I want to bear all the hardship of life myself, and let her sit by the fire toasting her footsies.” Inside the town the driver stopped to let the man off at his front gate. There in the front yard was his wife “chopping away at a pile of snow-covered cord wood.” As the man leaped out Abigail called after him, “I see your wife is toasting her footsies!”
But she never picked fights with men. Instead she tried to win them with reasoning and flattery, never forgetting they would have to yield ground. Typically, her appeal was shrewd; “Gentlemen, in our demand for the ballot, we are not seeking to rule over you. … We only ask for our enfranchisement because we desire freedom for ourselves.”
Her writing and organizing were underpinning for her prime effort—political action. She had assigned herself that task as well. She predicted the women of the Northwest would be liberated by their state legislatures within five years. In 1872 she went down to Salem and did her first lobbying. She found quick rapport with the lawmakers, mostly men from farms and small towns who already knew her through her newspaper. Not only did she get a suffrage bill introduced, but she was permitted to address the legislature in joint session. She committed the faux pas of alluding to a legislator by name rather than by county, for which she was called to order. But she gained points with her apology: “Gentlemen, in years past when most of you were studying parliamentary law, I have been rocking the cradle.”
The bill failed of passage, but as a consolation prize the legislature passed the “Sole Trader Bill” she had advocated. The statute enabled women engaged in business to register the fact with the county clerk, thereby protecting their tools, furniture, and stock from seizure by their husbands’ creditors. Further, if abandoned by her husband a wife might obtain the court’s permission to sell or lease property, collect money due him, and make contracts, all binding even if he returned.
Thereafter she pursued the legislators by name through her columns, flattering the favorables, prodding neutrals, excoriating the opposition. Her suffrage bill failed again in 1874, as did her efforts to get the legislature to approve a state suffrage referendum. But another rights bill was forthcoming. In 1878 came passage of a statute enabling married women to sue to protect their rights and property and to receive and hold in their own right the wages of personal labor. Another measure passed that year enabled taxpaying women to vote in school elections.
Without knowing what she was getting into Abigail welcomed the temperance fervor that blew in from the prairie states in the mid-1870’s. The churches, which had snubbed her cause, embraced temperance as if it were part of the Trinity, and she hoped to tie suffrage and temperance together and thereby slide suffrage in through a church side door. She affiliated with a temperance society that met in a prosperous Taylor Street church. But its pastor, the Reverend Mr. Izer, hovered possessively over meetings, and Abigail’s strategy of getting in a few words for suffrage at meetings annoyed him. Repeatedly he cut her off, but she persisted.