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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
Man is, or should be, woman’s protector and defender. The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life.” Thus spake the United States Supreme Court in 1872 in upholding an Illinois statute barring women from practicing law, which a feminine aspirant to the bar had dared to challenge.
Several months earlier another Illinois daughter, transplanted to Oregon, had undertaken to shatter both of the venerable premises upon which the tribunal based its decision. Abigail Scott Duniway, who as a teenager had tramped west over the cholera- and Indian-plagued Oregon Trail and later helped her husband tame a wilderness farm, knew she was neither timid nor delicate. And so far as she could see, man was less defender than exploiter. What unfitted woman in Abigail’s opinion was not God-made emotional and physical characteristics but man-made legal hobbles—hobbles man had applied for his own benefit.
Unhobbling the women of her adopted region so they might defend themselves was the goal of her bristling weekly journal, The New Northwest . The young farmwife-turnededitor simultaneously pried three other levers under her “defenders”: suffrage organizing, lecturing, and lobbying. But she had to assume one task she hadn’t counted on. To her exasperation she discovered that most women still imagined themselves protected. While shaming men into surrendering purloined rights she prodded her sisters to look up from their dish pans “at which they are protected without wages” and from the ironing board “where they are shielded with out salaries” and see they were besieged not only from without but also from within.
Optimistic by nature, Abigail predicted victory would come in five years. When opposition rose and grew and hardened, she revised her estimate but never her aim. Despite setbacks, defeats, financial crises, and abuse, she kept on shaming and prodding for forty years. And they were forty satisfying years, for she thrived on uproar. Moreover, they were years of steady gains, not only for suffrage, but also for a train of other rights—changes that revolutionized the status of women throughout the Northwest. And because her feminist victories generally preceded those won elsewhere, they were a spearhead glinting across the Rockies and influencing the entire nation.
Abigail’s drive and durability were inherited from four generations of restless, combative, adventure-seeking pioneers. Her great-great-grandfather James Scott, after emigrating from Scotland to Virginia in the early i YOO’S, moved on to South Carolina. In turn his progeny picked up and bushwhacked to North Carolina, to Kentucky, to the territory of Illinois. There in 1830 Abigail’s father, Tucker Scott, married Anne Roelofson, daughter of a Danish-English family. By the time a treaty with Great Britain made Oregon the newest American territory, Tucker had already sired a family, but he nevertheless responded to the lure of the Northwest. It is perhaps not surprising that his daughter Abigail, with no geographic frontier left to conquer, turned toward the frontier of women’s rights.
Conditioning for her role began back in Illinois, near Peoria, on Tucker Scott’s debt-ridden farms. Hard times stalked the tall, sharp-faced man, who in any event could never stick to anything. He moved from farm to farm; tried sawmilling; returned to plowing. Whimsical himself, he was strict with others, haranguing his peers on the virtues of teetotaling and barking orders at his nine children. “Work never hurt anybody” was his refrain; and being a girl didn’t excuse Abigail from hoeing corn and chopping wood. Her small, overworked mother was meekness itself, left uneducated by pious parents for fear learning might tempt her to sign her future husband’s name and use his funds. Abigail resolved to escape her mother’s fate and wondered if she might do it through her knack for writing.
The main trail to Missouri—the starting place for Oregon—passed near the Scott farm. Tucker Scott was endlessly fascinated with the travellers and their talk of Oregon’s leaping salmon and tall timbers. One day, as his wife had feared, he announced the Scotts were going too. Her tears and protests were futile. After selling the farm and purchasing draft oxen and five covered wagons Scott enlisted thirty other victims of “the fever.” On April 2, 1852, their wagon train began rumbling westward over still-frozen ruts. Mindful of the error of an earlier migration from their region, the illfated Donner party, they were allowing ample time to make Oregon before winter.
Abigail, then seventeen, kept the trail diary. Her father, who was party captain, assigned her the task and encouraged it (she said) with an occasional box on the ear. Nightly she scribbled amid the furor around a campfire redolent of buffalo chips. Her entries tell of breakfasting in a snowstorm with “victuals crusted not with sugar but with snow,” of billowing dust that hid “wagons, teams and roads entirely from our view,” of perilous river crossings, scary, skidding descents down mountainsides. The party watched apprehensively for “Pawnees who are reported as being rather hostile and very thievish” and for trail parties said to consist of ruffians who boozed and brawled and sometimes murdered. Her later libertarianism was foreshadowed in her comment on the slaves glimpsed toiling in the Missouri fields: “May none of us ever be guilty of buying and selling the souls and bodies of our fellow creatures.”
While noting the number of graves passed, Abigail optimistically attributed them to carelessness in food and drink, which prudent folk might avoid. But when they were passing through the Black Hills of Dakota, Mrs. Scott fell ill of cholera and died the same day. The family was stunned. Later a young man of the party died of dysentery, and in August, after they had reached the fringe of the Oregon Territory, the youngest Scott child died of the same cause.
During the final month, as they crossed the Cascade Mountains to reach the land claim of an uncle, Abigail’s diary showed disillusionment. We hear of broken bolts and wagon tongues, lost cattle, hunger, dirt, and “hard-looking” villages. On September 28, upon reaching the settlement of French Prairie, near Salem, ending their twenty-four-hundred-mile journey of five months and twenty-six days, she closed her journal with this more cheerful but perfunctory note: “We found them [her relatives] all in good health and well satisfied. They were of course glad to see us.”
There was, to be sure, an eerie strangeness about Oregon at first: the tall trees, torrential rains, and cougars crying in the night seemed alien to Midwesterners. The clearing villages with their grizzled men and shacks sitting among tree stumps had a heathen air, Abigail thought.
But opportunity, as had been promised, was there. Foremost was free land. The Land Donation Act of 1850 gave a man 320 acres; twice that to a married couple. And even before staking his claim Tucker Scott profited from the commercial boom. Down in California gold rushers were demanding lumber, fish, and farm products, and money was jingling in the new farm towns. Renting a flimsy structure in Lafayette, Scott turned it into a going hotel merely by calling it one and found that he could even demand total abstinence of his guests.
Another advantage was that nobody questioned credentials. The prevailing attitude was that it was better not to pry. Abigail, who had less than a sixthgrade education, passed herself off as a schoolteacher and was snapped up to teach at nearby EoIa. On top of that she suddenly found herself a belle. Back home she had been considered a tart-tongued string bean of a tomboy, but here, where a wife was a prime status symbol, she was besieged by suitors. And under such attention she blossomed. She filled out and became almost pretty, with long, light brown hair, even features, and flashing blue eyes. But she knew what she was about. A rumor that donation claims might be abolished had precipitated a frenzied scramble for brides, with bachelors galloping about rapping on doors and proposing to any female who opened one. Abigail did not conceal her contempt for men who pressed matrimony upon “tearful widows of a fortnight and little girls making mud pies.”
Cautiously she settled on a young man of similar background. Tall, mild Benjamin Duniway, four years her senior, had come out from Illinois in 1850. After a stint in the Jacksonville mines he had ridden north to select a land claim and found Abigail as well. But remembering her obedient mother resting in the Black Hills, the eighteen-year-old bride purged the wedding ceremony of the word “obey” when they married in August, 1853.
And now, little more than a year after escaping a bleak Illinois farm, Abigail found herself stuck on a backwoods farm in the wilds of Oregon. For Ben Duniway had chosen poorly. His tangled track on the fringe of the tall timber required a constant fight against a stubborn environment. Ben was cheerful and willing, but that was part of the trouble. Because of it Abigail staggered under an extra burden: neighboring bachelor farmers formed a habit of dropping by the Duniway’s split-log cabin around mealtime, sniffing for chicken stews and pies. Amiable Ben always invited them to stay. Stirring pots with one hand in the lean-to kitchen, pacifying baby Clara with the other, Abigail vented her resentment by concocting names for their establishment. “Hard Scramble” was her name for the farm, while their cabin was “Free Hotel.” She also raised chickens and pigs and pieced out their income by making soap and candles for market. Ben genially delivered her products in his handsome buggy and as genially pocketed the proceeds. Reasonable in most ways, he held finances to be the exclusive province of men.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Now came an avalanche of newspaper editorials all over the nation extolling her. She had become the “Grand Old Woman of Oregon.” Her transition from obloquy to veneration amused her. The day she presented the proclamation to Governor West for his signature, she twitted her new image by showing up attired in lavender and lace.
During her last campaign she often said her one remaining wish was to “enter heaven a free angel.” But after that seemed assured, she remembered something more. She had always meant to write her memoirs. Finally she had the time. Her grandchildren remembered her seated amid a heap of scrapbooks and old newspapers, alternately wielding a pair of shears and punching at a monstrous old Smith-Premier typewriter.
In 1914 came publication of Path Breaking , a rambling, chronologically scrambled volume that nonetheless was both informative and entertaining. One might have expected its eightyyear-old laurelled author to have mellowed. While writing it she was often interrupted to receive yet another honor. And the sons her critics had said she was “raising for the penitentiary” were succeeding in law, editing, education, and business. She might have looked back mistily, all benign, all forgiving. But that wouldn’t have been Abigail. She hadn’t altered her opinion that anything less than passionate partisanship was dishonest pussyfooting. Old bones were disinterred, old battles zestfully refought.
Her book kicked up a fuss, as she intended. She spent the final months of her life gleefully retorting to critics. On October 11, 1915, eleven days short of her eighty-first birthday, she died in her sleep of blood poisoning brought on by an infected toe that, independent to the end, she had tried to cure herself.