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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
Temperance boutonnière ribbons still fluttered in Oregon, but Abigail had returned with a scheme of stealthy infiltration. She would turn the fashionable women’s-club movement into a suffrage vehicle. Clubs would form around cultural interests, but suffrage women would be running them, quietly spreading the word. A state federation would link the clubs while also welcoming existing women’s societies of all kinds. Abigail stayed away from the first meeting, at the second took but a minor role, and only gradually revealed her reins. She was now a widow, having lost her faithful Ben in 1896, and she devoted most of her time to the cause. Soon culture groups were flourishing all over Oregon. Thus when Abigail went down to Salem and arranged another referendum, it was small work to enlist the clubs in her vote-canvassing effort. The press was generally favorable with the notable exception of the Portland Oregonian , edited by Abigail’s brother Harvey Scott, who never relented in his opposition to woman’s suffrage. In the 1900 elections suffrage almost passed, the vote being 26,265 in favor, 28,402 against.
Far from being downcast Abigail felt victory was certain to come in the next referendum. And it probably would have but for a major error. In 1904 she authorized the Oregon delegation to the national suffrage organization to invite the women to hold their next convention in Portland, during the Lewis and Clark Exposition. She didn’t know the national would elect as its next president Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, spellbinding W.C.T.U. orator and ardent prohibitionist.
In April, 1905, Dr. Shaw, accompanied by the ailing Miss Anthony, arrived at the flag-bedecked world’s fair city and took charge of the convention. Although dismayed, Abigail was still determined to pursue her plan to take advantage of a new Oregon law and effect a referendum via petitions collected at the fair. She was jubilant when her club ladies succeeded in collecting enough signatures to place the measure on the 1906 ballot.
It never crossed her mind that Dr. Shaw would elect to remain in Oregon and oversee the campaign. Over Abigail’s objections Dr. Shaw brought the “white ribboners” into active participation, and they moved from platform to platform, painting suffrage as the prelude to prohibition. Again the liquor interests were aroused, and their ample resources were thrown against suffrage.
Abigail and her stalwarts toiled to counteract them. When she wasn’t speaking, she clicked out articles and letters to editors. One writer expressed the fear that suffrage would “turn women into men.” Abigail pretended to agree, lamenting what already had occurred in bordering suffrage states. “Look at Wyoming: There hasn’t been a woman within her borders since 1869; no man has had a button on his shirt or a baby in his house for 35 years. Look at Colorado: Not a woman in the state; no man in that woman-forsaken land has had a darn in the heel or toe of his sock for 13 awful years. Look at Idaho: Not a woman to be seen.” But with Abigail’s and Dr. Shaw’s forces working at cross-purposes the campaign went badly and the balloting worse. When votes were counted, suffrage had been routed by more than ten thousand votes. Charged Abigail bitterly: “Dr. Shaw and her hired auxiliaries … swamped and wrecked us.”
It was a weighty blow. Abigail’s lieutenants were demoralized. Her treasury was empty. Rumor said she was finished. Instead, at seventy-four, she announced she was launching a nonstop campaign until victory came in Oregon and Washington. She regrouped her forces, salved egos, spread optimism. Part of her scheme was a public-relations program to convince the liquor interests that prohibition was not a suffrage goal. She culled bolstering statements and clippings and channelled them to liquor executives and their journals. Further, she bombarded newspapers with articles and letters designed to convince men that women did not wish to rule them.
She lost another Oregon referendum in 1908 and another in 1910; but that year the state of Washington voted suffrage. In November, 1912, a few days after her seventy-eighth birthday, victory finally came in Oregon (bringing the number of suffrage states to nine—all of them in the West). Four decades at the barricades had taught her patience. When the polls closed on that last referendum, she announced that should the measure fail, another campaign would start at once. Instead of staying up to await returns she serenely went to bed. Later a newspaper reporter went out to learn her reaction and found her “not in the least excited—simply peacefully contented.”
After the returns had been certified—61,265 for, 57,io4 against—Governor Oswald West announced he was inviting Abigail Duniway, as “the architect of woman’s suffrage in Oregon,” to inscribe the official proclamation of the constitutional amendment. Governor West, it turned out, had long been a fan of hers—ever since that day in a Salem park when she had gazed down at him from the bandstand and asked if he didn’t think his mother was as good as a saloon bum.