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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
One night when she rose to speak, the minister raised his hand—a signal. Instantly the congregation began to sing, drowning her out. When they finished, she resumed. They sang her down again. The vocal skirmishing continued until the minister led the group in the Doxology, closing the meeting.
When the next meeting began, Abigail was seated in the front pew. Sermonettes, testimonials, and hymns alternated in close succession. But midway there was a momentary lull. Abigail, who had been waiting, sprang to her feet and intoned, “Let us pray!” Thereupon she delivered her speech as a petition to the Almighty. She prayed that every yoke might be broken and the oppressed go free; that the “mother sex” might be freed from servitude without wages; that press, public, and pulpit be led to realize that political freedom for women could no longer be denied. And finally, concluding her twentyminute prayer, she implored that society be freed from the bigotry and tyranny of the pulpit as well as from the vice and tyranny of the saloon. The moment she said “Amen,” the Reverend Mr. Izer called for the Doxologry.
Shifting to another temperance group, she was astonished to learn it favored attaching temperance to suffrage—but for a disturbing reason. Suffrage was viewed as “a short-cut to prohibition.” Abigail had never counted on prohibition. She had supposed the temperance forces would confine themselves to encouraging self-control. How could women expect to persuade men to yield the ballot if they planned to use it to police them? Prohibition talk would rout suffrage!
So, though a teetotaler from a long line of teetotalers, she declared her self opposed to prohibition. Prohibition wouldn’t work, she argued; the drinker would find his draft. “We might as well try to prohibit sex.” She recommended that the schools teach abstinence. If the young transgressed, she offered parents two remedies. One was to empty a cask of whiskey before the imbiber and let him see the horrid dregs at the bottom. Another was to “overdose” young tipplers until they imagined they were throwing up “the very soles of their feet.”
None of this pleased temperance zealots. They said Abigail had come out for alcohol. Rumors depicted her as a closet drinker. Her oratory had made her a star at national suffrage conventions, but when she urged against commingling suffrage and temperance, she was rebuked, even by Miss Anthony.
Later she would compare the havoc temperance raised to that kicked up by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. The suffrage referendum she had sought finally was set for 1884. Up to Oregon came Frances E. Willard and a flock of other W.C.T.U. speakers. They deployed over the state, urging “Vote for suffrage and pave the way to prohibition.” As Abigail feared, the liquor interests moved in with money and workers, urging men to oppose suffrage and save drink.
At the height of her campaign Abigail held a rally in Salem’s Marion Square. Politicians who had promised to share the rostrum changed their minds and sent excuses. But on the rococo band platform among the tall fir trees she showed no discouragement. She told the women that politically they were “classed with lunatics, idiots and criminals,” since they couldn’t vote. As the crowd on the plank benches savored that she fastened her eyes on a small boy hunched under a ragged sun hat and demanded, “Don’t you consider your mother as good, if not better, than an ordinary Salem saloon bum?” Her surprised target started under the flurry of attention but managed to get out, “Sure I do.” But such aggressive tactics had frightened Oregon men, and the referendum failed.
Her campaign fared better in the Washington Territory. Permitted to speak before the legislature, Abigail made a witty, dramatic appeal which resulted in a suffrage bill that nearly carried. During the next session, of 1883, the measure passed handily. But a little later temperance fervor swept into Washington when it was shifting from territorial government to statehood, and as a result woman suffrage got left out of the new constitution.
There followed what was for Abigail a quiet decade. She decided not to risk another suffrage defeat in Oregon until, as she put it, “temperance had sobered off.” In 1887 she surprised Portland by selling her newspaper and accompanying Ben to southern Idaho. Her daughter Clara had died of tuberculosis, and she presumably wanted a change of scene. They joined their sons in homesteading land near a projected railroad that was expected to inflate Idaho land values. In the mid-1890’s the Duniways returned to Portland, the land venture having proved disappointing. But Abigail came home with a suffrage victory in her pocket. Thanks to her appeals to the Idaho legislature and in the potato towns. Idaho women had won the vote.