Abigail Scott Duniway: A Study in Perseverance

Abigail Scott Duniway signing first Equal Suffrage Proclamation ever made by a woman. Governor Oswald West, who had signed the Proclamation, is shown looking on, and acting President Dr. Viola M. Coe is standing near. Created/Published [1912 Portland, OR] Women of Protest: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman’s Party, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

It takes women like Abigail Scott Duniway to make things happen, spirited, stubborn, tireless, passionate women who swim against the tide and manage not to drown, who foster the connections that count, who maintain their integrity, who care and then keep caring. who refuse to take no for an answer. Smart, articulate, occasionally cranky, annoyingly tenacious women. Women you want both by your side and right behind you.

Many things have changed since Duniway began agitating for women’s right to vote in 1884, but this has not. Political change, social change—and most difficult of all, cultural change—is not for the faint of heart or the weekend warrior. Duniway traveled, organized, wrote, spoke and rabble-roused for women’s enfranchisement in Oregon prior to six state votes on the amendment, the first five of which ended in failure. A pioneer diarist (she came across the Oregon Trail at age seventeen in 1852), farmer’s wife, milliner, short story writer (truthfully, not her métier), autobiographer, novelist, journalist, editor, political organizer, and public speaker (in the days when women were routinely egged at the podium), she is the reason Oregon women were able to cast votes in elections eight years before national passage of the nineteenth amendment.

She may also have been one of the reasons Oregon voters defeated woman suffrage more times than any other states. Tenacity and stubbornness get things done. But they can also get in the way of getting things done. Especially when you are a nineteenth-century woman expected to speak softy, if at all. And especially when your brother is editor of the state’s most powerful newspaper—in the days when newspapers called the shots—and if there was anything he wanted more than keeping women from voting it was keeping his sister from winning.

—Author Lauren Kessler, professor and director of the UO Multimedia Journalism Master’s Program, wrote her PhD thesis on Abigail Scott Duniway and went on to write biographies of other stubborn and spirited women, like pioneering aviatrix Pancho Barnes and spy-turned-informer Elizabeth Bentley.