Love of Learning: What the right to vote means to women

Today is International Women’s Day (March 8). It is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. Susan B. Anthony passed away on March 13, 1908. The entire month of March is also known as Women’s History Month commemorating the vital role of women in American history.

To celebrate this observance, Love of Learning will focus on women’s suffrage.

Constitutional Background. When the U.S. Constitution was first signed on Sept. 25, 1789, the first Congress of the United States adopted 12 amendments to the U.S. Constitution — the Bill of Rights. None of these first 12 amendments allowed women the right to vote. The 14th amendment granted citizenship and equal civil and legal rights to African Americans and enslaved who had been emancipated after the American Civil War.  The 15th amendment granted African American men the right to vote but not women regardless of race or color.

What is suffrage? According to Dictionary.com, suffrage is a noun that means the right to vote. Women’s suffrage is a woman’s right to vote. One of the biggest women’s rights activists of the late 1800s and the start of the 20th century was Susan B. Anthony from Rochester, New York. She strongly advocated that women should enjoy the right along with African American men who were given that right with passage of the 15th Amendment. She started the National Woman Suffrage Association to petition and advocate for women’s rights. This organization evolved over time to eventually become the League of Women Voters.

Susan B. Anthony
Susan B. Anthony (Photo courtesy of Susan B. Anthony Museum & House)

Susan B. Anthony, Abigail Duniway and Sacajawea. Despite existing laws prohibiting women voting in 1872, Susan B. Anthony courageously voted in the presidential election between Ulysses S. Grant who defeated Liberal Republican nominee Horace Greeley. Susan B. Anthony cast her vote for Ulysses S. Grant. She was subsequently arrested, put on trial and ultimately fined $100 for illegally voting. She refused to pay her fine and ultimately never did. Interestingly enough, there is a bronze statue of a ballot box that still sits on West Main Street in Rochester to remember her courageous act in the face of existing laws.

In 1873, Anthony delivered an address titled “Is It a Crime for a US Citizen to Vote?” She started giving the talk in cities throughout New York State and eventually travelled across the county advocating women suffrage, giving lots of speeches and promoting change. She became great friends with Oregon’s leading suffragist named Abigail Scott Duniway. Abigail invited Susan B. Anthony to come to Oregon and help launch a Pacific Northwest campaign for woman suffrage.

Susan B. Anthony made three trips to the state of Oregon in 1871, 1896, and finally in 1905. Susan B. Anthony’s trip to Oregon in 1905 was for the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s 37th Convention which coincided with the Lewis and Clark World’s Centennial Exposition (World’s Fair). Lewis and Clark had reached the Pacific Ocean in what would later become Astoria, Oregon, a century earlier on Nov. 15, 1805. To mark this centennial milestone in 1905, the Portland Committee of Women raised funds for a bronze statue of Sacajawea to honor one of the first women pioneers in the Oregon Territory.

Sacajawea statue
The bronze Sacajawea statue as seen in 1912. It is still in Washington Park in Portland today. (Photographer unknown, public domain photo)

Sacajawea helped Lewis and Clark during their journey.  The sculpture pictured here was presented to the city of Portland in 1905. Both Anthony and Duniway presided over the presentment ceremony. Historical accounts of the ceremony quoted Susan B. Anthony saying, “We pay homage to thousands of uncrowned heroines.” This is the first time in history that a statue has been erected in memory of a woman who accomplished patriotic deeds. 

The statue still sits in Washington Park in Portland and serves to symbolize both Women’s Suffrage and the role of indigenous women in the exploration of America.

Sacajawea and Susan B. Anthony coins
It is noteworthy that the U.S. Mint chose to later make dollar coins of both Sacajawea and Susan B. Anthony. (Images courtesy of U.S. Mint)

Susan B. Anthony sadly passed away on March 13, 1906 (just eight months after her visit to Oregon). She was quoted on her death bed saying, “To think, I have had more than 60 years of hard struggle for a little liberty, and then to die without it seems so cruel.” Her trusted friend, Abigail Scott Duniway, would continue to aggressively advocate for women’s suffrage. Abigail formed the Oregon State Women Suffrage Association and lobbied to put women’s suffrage on the state ballot in 1884, 1900, 1906, 1908 and 1910 but lost all five times. It wasn’t until the sixth time on the ballot, in 1912, when the state of Oregon finally granted the right to vote via a proclamation that Duniway herself would write.

Abigail Scott Duniway
Abigail Scott Duniway places her first vote in Oregon in 1912. (Photo courtesy of Oregon Historical Society)

You can find it at the State of Oregon Secretary of State Website (click on the link). Oregon became the eighth state to allow women to vote. It took Abigail 42 years of advocating to get to this proclamation. I would encourage you to take a few minutes to read it.

While Duniway lived to finally see the passage of women suffrage in Oregon and had an opportunity to cast her vote, she would pass away on Oct. 11, 1915, five years shy of when the 19th Amendment would be signed.

Philomath Suffrage. So how does Philomath fit into all of this you may ask? Philomath was incorporated back in 1882. Philomath’s incorporation document reads as follows: “All widows and other women who are over the age of twenty-one and are the owners of and legal representatives of any real estate in this city, shall be voters at any municipal elections.” This suggests that women in Philomath who owned property could vote from when the city was first incorporated, nearly 30 years prior to when Abigail Duniway signed the proclamation with Gov. West in Salem. Turns out, Philomath was progressive!

Winnie Hull Springer
Winnie Hull Springer (Photo published July 7, 1912, in Oregon Journal)

One of the main suffragists in Philomath at that time was named Winnie Springer, who was an 1895 graduate of Philomath College. Winnie graduated just 13 years after Philomath was incorporated. She served as a regular columnist for the Corvallis Gazette-Times advocating for women voting rights. The name of her column was called “Amendment I Woman Suffrage.”

The Oregon Journal reported on July 7, 1912 that Winnie wrote a song called the “Ballots for Women Song” addressed to the men of Oregon. She introduced the song saying “My grandmother and grandfather were the Reverend and Mrs. John S. Reasoner, who crossed the plains with a large family in 1852. My mother Mrs. Ellen Reasoner Hull was one of the children that came across with them. My grandmother and mother were brave women. I am glad they were not the ‘Fuffy Ruffle’ type that think that it is womanly to faint at the sight of a mouse and to disclaim the possession of the brain.

“My grandmother believed in the enfranchisement of women, as does also my mother, and I am greatly interested in it. My mother will soon be 70. I want her to see the victory before she dies.”

Mrs. Springer’s song follows below:

Ballots for Women
Behind the plodding oxen
Years ago our mothers came
To found here a sovereign state,
And here our home remains.
Patriotism to our hearts is kindred,
To public spirit our hearts beat true,
Then why should not the ballot
Be for us as well as you?

CHORUS
Hurrah, Hurrah for Oregon;
Hurrah for its manhood true!
Hurrah, Hurrah for the ballot,
Hurrah, Hurrah for Oregon;
Make us its citizens true!
Hurrah, hurrah for the ballot,
For me as well as you.

We love our state of Oregon,
Best, our state, of all the west;
Love its mountains, groves and plains,

Our native state, so blest.
And our own dear native soil we tread
We are its daughters, loyal and true—
Then why should not the ballot
Be for us as well as you?

No Shrinking Violets and no small coincidences. I experienced an interesting series of events while writing this column and visiting the Benton County History Museum which is located in the old Philomath College Building. This is the same exact building where Winnie Springer graduated college back in 1895. It just so happens the museum is currently hosting an exhibit called No Shrinking Violets in the Moreland Gallery on the second floor.

For those who don’t know, purple, white and gold were the colors of women’s suffrage movement. In the corner of the upstairs gallery was this purple, white and gold string art piece created by Bonnie Meltzer titled “Homage to Women Activists.” I gotta think Winnie’s assertive spirit was chuckling somewhere in the room when I noticed it. Hey Winnie! Women can vote now! Be sure and tell your mother and your grandmother!

19th Amendment passes. The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was finally ratified on Aug. 20, 1920 and just celebrated that centennial this past year with a record turnout of women voting in the most recent presidential election. It took 131 years after the Constitution to ratify this amendment. Women voter turnout has outpaced male voters in every presidential election since 1980.

American women voted in 2020. One of the rights of passage of these voters is to place a “I voted” sticker on the tombstone of Susan B. Anthony as a means of gratitude to honor the legacy of her sacrifice. Women have continued to vote over the next century and made tremendous progress in terms of representation in government.

Beg your pardon? President Donald Trump issued a posthumous presidential pardon to Susan B. Anthony for illegally voting back in 1873 to honor the Centennial of 19th Amendment passage in 2020. I am uncertain how she may have felt about that. Was she happy? Was she mad? Did she roll over in her grave? Did she send Mr. Trump a posthumous “Tweet?” Let’s take a vote!

Susan B. Anthony Barbie Doll
The Susan B. Anthony Barbie Doll (Photo courtesy of Mattel)

Women are grateful for the right to vote. The world-famous toy company, Mattel, collaborated with the Susan B. Anthony Museum to release a Susan B. Anthony Barbie Doll on Oct. 1, 2020. According to Mattel’s website, Susan B. Anthony Barbie is part of the Inspiring Women Series that pays tribute to incredible heroines of their time — courageous women who took risks, changed rules and paved the way for generations of girls to dream bigger than ever before.

Abigail Duniway’s book Path Breaking closes with this final paragraph: “The young women of today, free to study, to speak, to write, to choose their occupation, should remember that every inch of this freedom was bought for them at a great price. It is for them to show their gratitude by helping onward the reforms of their own time by spreading the light of freedom and truth still wider. The debt that each generation owes to the past it must pay to the future.”

The balance of this article provides a list of reflections from proud women describing why the right to vote is important to them. Enjoy reading their respective inputs and perspectives.

“My first opportunity to vote was after I turned 21 in the 1952 election. I voted for Eisenhower and continued to vote in every election since. I realize the importance of good leadership for our country.”

Mom (Marilyn Niemann) 
Born in 1930, first voted in Nebraska

“Equality, responsibly and the right to share my voice and have it heard. The right to pursue independence and happiness in America. I also think about all the women suffragettes who made huge sacrifices over the years, risking their lives and reputations on behalf of all women in America. They fought so hard for the future of women’s voices and agency. I’m forever thankful. Those brave women inspire me and push me to advocate for the underdog. That’s why I love my job with RAIN — advocating for underrepresented entrepreneurs.

Caroline Cummings
CEO, OregonRAIN.org

“To me, a vote is a voice. An opportunity to be heard, to become informed and express an opinion.While one vote may seem like a small and insignificant voice, the influence on the outcome is real, and not to be taken for granted. In the course of campaigning last fall, I asked a young man if he had voted. He looked at me and said casually, ‘Oh, I don’t vote.’ It made me sad to think of the men and women who fought so hard for all of us to have the right to vote.I can only imagine how that young man would feel if he were told he couldn’t vote because he was a man. While voter suppression is actively practiced in some parts of our country, I am proud to live in a state that does so much to make it easy to vote, and consistently ranks among the highest in voter turnout. I would like to see the rest of the country adopt Oregon’s approach.”

Ruth Causey
Philomath city councilor

“Men and women both are citizens of the country. As such they should both have equalopportunity to exercise their right to vote. The decisions that result from a vote affect all the population, so it’s only right and logical that all the citizens involved (men and women) should have equal rights to vote.”

Lindy Young
President, Philomath Rotary Club

“Voting is the pinnacle of activism. It is a person’s ultimate voice. For women it is even the ability to speak and to speak out. Until 1919 women were told to just shut up. All of us, men and women, owe a debt to the individual suffragettes who fought so hard so women could vote. But they also laid the groundwork for how to be an active participant in society, working together as a community to get something difficult accomplished. The artwork shown is one that gives homage to all the suffragettes and to all the women who are still fighting for equal rights.”

Bonnie Meltzer
Artmaking activist

“Last year’s presidential election has shown just how important and powerful it is to vote. As a woman, it is maddening how long and hard women and people of color had to fight for representation,for personhood!All American women are greatly indebted to warriors like Susan B. Anthony who fought and risked their lives for us. Having had the experience to live and work in other countries — I am acutely aware and grateful of how much more freedom and opportunity womenhave in our USA than in most of the world, but there is still work to be done.What does the right to vote mean to me?It means a responsibility to always improve our world, to move forward with more knowledge, more heart, and love of all.”

Tricia Salcido
Chief elf officer, Softstar Shoes

Oregon Historical Society Resources

Our dear friends at the Oregon Historical Society in Portland have set up a women’s suffrage exhibit. Take a look behind-the-scenes of their original exhibit, “Nevertheless, They Persisted.”

This video provides a brief overview of the struggle for women’s voting rights in America that began over 170 years ago and culminated in the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Curator Lori Erickson highlights some of the 120 unique artifacts and more than 80 compelling images on display.

Learn about the women and men who fought for woman suffrage, some whose names are well known while others have received little recognition for their important work towards equal rights. Visit “Nevertheless, They Persisted” online at www.ohs.org/persisters​ where you will find a brief timeline of woman suffrage history, a compelling blog post and links to entries on The Oregon Encyclopedia.

(Eric Niemann is a former mayor and city councilor in Philomath. He can be reached at [email protected]).

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