Volume XIII | Issue 1 | Spring 2013
A woman suffragist works to get out the vote in 1912. Photo: Oregon State University

A century of women’s rights

It took Oregon six attempts to pass women’s suffrage; California did it in two

The early American West demanded tenacity from the pioneers who crossed to settle the Oregon Territory. Farmers, ranchers, miners and trappers were eager to reap the bounty, and the population swelled as the Donation Land Claim Act and later the Homestead Act encouraged people westward.

The women who traveled to the Pacific Northwest were as dogged and determined as their male counterparts to hew out a home here. Life in the early West forged strong, determined men and women among settlers and Native Americans.

The first women to hold state offices in Oregon were from rural counties.

Thocmetony “Sarah” Winnemucca, the self-titled Piute Princess who spent much of her life on the Malheur Reservation in the southeast corner of Oregon, was a translator and emissary between her people and the U.S. Army and Indian Agents, according to the Oregon History Project. Winnemucca lobbied for self-government and land rights for her people. She established the first school in the West for Native American children to stay with families and continue to speak their own language. She was also the first Native American woman to publish a book, Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims, in 1883.

Land claims

For white settlers, Oregon land claims was the first U.S. land policy allowing married women to claim land in their own name. But the pioneer women, like women elsewhere in the United States, were still not afforded all rights of citizenship. In 1870 women’s suffrage organizations formed in Albany and Salem. Oregon’s matron suffragette was Abigail Scott Duniway. The farmer’s wife became the family breadwinner when her husband was permanently disabled in a horsing accident. She taught school and opened a millinery in Albany.

Duniway later moved to Portland where she was a tireless activist for women’s voting rights for more than 40 years. In 2012, The Oregonian called her the movement’s “chief strategist” because she worked on multiple campaigns to win the vote. 

Oregon was hardly a bellwether for women’s suffrage. In all, Oregon voted down women’s voting rights five times (more than other state in the Union) before passing suffrage with a 52 percent “yes” count in 1912. Oregon was the last of the four most western states to give women voting rights. 

Californians gave women the vote in 1911, after failing in 1896. The urban areas of San Francisco and Alameda voted against the suffragists both times, but in 1911 the small towns and rural areas delivered the votes to secure victory. 

However, legend has it that Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst may have been the first woman to vote in California—as early as 1868. Parkhurst, known as Charley, was a road-roughened stagecoach driver living as a man. Voting records in 1868 show the registration of “Charley Parkhurst.” Her ruse was uncovered after she died in 1879.

Rural areas lead the way

The first women to hold state offices in Oregon were from rural counties. Marian B. Towne, a Democrat from Jackson County, was elected to the Oregon House of Representatives in 1914, and Kathryn Clarke, a Republican from Douglas County, won an Oregon Senate seat by special election in 1915.

In 1916 voters in the Eastern Oregon city of Umatilla elected a woman mayor as well as an all-female city council. In 1920, Yoncalla did the same. Also that year, the United States Congress passed suffrage at the federal level with the 19th Amendment.

It took Oregon nearly 80 years to put a woman in the governor’s chair. Barbara Roberts was elected in 1990. California has never had a female governor. Today, 29 percent of the Oregon state legislature and 26 percent of the California state legislature are women.  

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