The first measure on the Oregon ballot for Nov. 5, 1912, was a brief one — “Equal suffrage amendment, extending the right of suffrage to women. (Proposed by initiative petition.) Vote YES or NO.”
In Douglas County, 2,285 men voted “yes” on that measure. They joined almost 60,000 other men in the state in passing the amendment that allowed the women in Oregon to vote in state and local elections.
This achievement of equal suffrage in our state was not an easy task. For more than 40 years, women and men in and out of Oregon had worked to make votes for women a reality. A women’s suffrage amendment had been on the Oregon ballot five times before the 1912 election (1884, 1900, 1906, 1908, and 1910) and each time had met with defeat.
As early as 1871, nationally known suffragist Susan B. Anthony had visited Oregon to promote the woman’s vote. That year Ms. Anthony spoke in Roseburg. Arrangements for her visit here were made by Bethenia Owens, a Roseburg milliner who later would become very active in the state’s suffrage movement.
Probably the earliest attempt to get a women’s suffrage amendment in Oregon was in 1872, when one failed to pass in the Oregon House of Representatives by one vote. The leader of that attempt was Abigail Scott Duniway, who spoke for the amendment to the Legislature and became the first woman to address that body.
Mary P. Sawtelle, who had lived on the North Umpqua River in the 1850s, was the only woman Duniway could get to accompany her to the Legislature. Duniway would continue to be a leader in the struggle to gain votes for women in Oregon, clashing at times with leaders in the national women’s suffrage association over the best way to get amendments approved.
Some women in Oregon could vote in school elections as early as the 1850s, but they had to hold property in order to do so. The Drain Echo reported in July 1886 that “Four ladies exercised their right of suffrage at the school meeting last Saturday. A number of people of Elkton and vicinity ... voted unanimously to levy a tax ... for the purpose of building a schoolhouse.” But those who were working for women’s suffrage wanted voting rights for more than property owners and school issues.
Each time a women’s suffrage amendment came up for a vote, there was much work to be done by those in favor of its passing. Passage of similar amendments in neighboring states spurred on the suffrage supporters. They asked Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, to visit Oregon in 1906. Dr. Shaw gave a speech in Roseburg that year. The national leader visited Roseburg again in October 1912, and the Roseburg Review reported that her courthouse speech was “... a powerful plea for woman suffrage ... no more effective plea was ever made in any cause in Roseburg or vicinity ...” Perhaps Dr. Shaw’s visit could be considered the ‘October surprise’ for that election year.
For the 1912 election, suffrage supporters started early. After the unsuccessful try of 1910, the Oregon State Equal Suffrage Association gathered enough petition signatures within a few months to put another amendment on the ballot. In February 1911, both houses of the Oregon Legislature passed resolutions recommending ratification of the amendment in the 1912 election. Local legislators George Neuner (House) and Albert Abraham (Senate) voted for the resolutions.
Roseburg newspapers reported on pre-election activities in 1912. In September the Roseburg Review wrote of a suffrage tea at which a “Votes for Women” pennant adorned the wall. Both pro- and anti-suffrage advertisements appeared in the papers. An article on a “dry” parade in Roseburg in early November mentioned that onlookers were surprised when a group for women’s suffrage was part of that parade. (A prohibition in Roseburg measure was also on that year’s ballot.) On Nov. 5, after many years of work and wisdom, an equal suffrage amendment passed, and Oregon joined eight other states in giving women the right to vote. On this 100th anniversary of the successful women’s suffrage vote in Oregon, the League of Women Voters of the Umpqua Valley remembers all those who toiled to make that happen. The League thinks that the best anniversary gift we can give all of them is to be sure to vote in this year’s election. You must deliver your gift (i.e. ballot) to the county clerk by 8 tonight. We agree with a statement that was part of the affirmative argument for that equal suffrage amendment in the Oregon voters pamphlet of 1912: “Suffrage is a duty that should be performed by every citizen of every state, otherwise Democracy is a failure.”
Alice Lackey is a retired teacher. She is a past president of the League of Women Voters of the Umpqua Valley. She can be reached at email@example.com.