WOW Museum: The Struggle for Women's Suffrage


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1854-   Washington Territorial Legislature defeats women's suffrage bill by one vote.

1871-   Washington Woman Suffrage Association founded.

1883-   Washington Territorial Legislature approves full suffrage for women, including African-American women.

1887-   Harland v. Washington overturns legislation as unconstitutionally vague.

1888-   Legislature approves "An Act to Enfranchise Women"; Territorial Supreme Court voids new suffrage measure.

1889-   Washington statehood; Washington voters defeat suffrage referendum by 2-1 margin.

1898-   Voters defeat second suffrage referendum campaign.

1910-   Washington voters approve full women's suffrage.

Emma Smith Devoe

Emma Smith Devoe, Washington suffragist (1848-1927).
Tacoma Public Library

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Emma Smith was born in Roseville, Illinois, on August 22, 1848, the same year that the first Women's Rights Convention took place in Seneca Falls, New York. She was such a gifted musician that she earned a teaching position at Eureka College. In 1880, she married John "Henry" DeVoe, a successful railroad attorney. Marriage did not deter Emma's growing thirst for political and social reform. When Susan B. Anthony visited Illinois, she inspired the young Emma to a life working for women's rights and suffrage.

The DeVoes moved to Huron, South Dakota, in 1881. The couple returned to Harvey, Illinois, in the 1890s, when wanderlust struck them once again. In 1905, they moved to Tacoma, Washington, where Emma launched her new life's work as one of Washington's leading suffrage organizers.

As president of the Washington Equal Suffrage Association, DeVoe earned a reputation as a refined, eloquent speaker who invoked a sense of patriotism. "There is nothing in the Constitution of the United States...that should prevent women the right of franchise," DeVoe often began her lectures. "Taxation without representation is tyranny." The musician suffragist sometimes ended her lectures with an inspirational song.

DeVoe's work as a paid suffrage organizer was difficult and tiring. She worked with suffrage leaders throughout Washington but sometimes disagreed with their ideas and actions. One example was her ongoing conflict with the exuberant May Arkwright Hutton of Spokane, whose political style was too flashy and aggressive, DeVoe believed. Another disagreement was with Seattle leaders such as Alice Lord, whose focus was on organizing women workers rather than working for suffrage.

By 1910, the forces for women's right to vote seemed to coalesce. A referendum would be held that year, in which the state's male voters would determine the outcome. DeVoe devoted herself to organizing local suffrage groups, whose help was crucial to winning voters to the cause. May Arkwright Hutton organized in eastern Washington, and national suffrage leaders lectured across the state. When the vote was taken, women's suffrage had finally passed. Washington thus became the fifth suffrage state in the West and in the nation.

DeVoe now immersed herself in the campaign to win the vote in other states. She formed the National Council of Women Voters, which consisted of women from all of the western voting states. The council published articles, organized speaking tours, and gave testimony about the positive effects of women's participation in politics and voting. DeVoe continued this work for the next two decades.

After the victorious 1910 campaign, Emma and her husband longed for some peaceful, family life. They purchased the "Villa DeVoe" in the pine trees fourteen miles outside of Tacoma. There, DeVoe entertained important guests traveling through for suffrage and other political activities. The house also became her archive. For years DeVoe collected trunks and barrels full of suffrage documents, pamphlets, and clippings. A friend "rescued" DeVoe's suffrage treasure trove, which is now permanently housed at the Washington State Library in Olympia.

Emma Smith DeVoe remained active in women's politics until her death on September 3, 1927. Her lifetime of service to the suffrage cause earned her an honored place in the National Women's Hall of Fame in the year 2000.