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.

Washington, Crusade in the Northwest: Washington's Suffrage Experiment

Posting Suffrage Bills

Had it not been for one vote in 1854, Washington Territory might have won away from Wyoming the honor of being the nation's first state to enact women's suffrage. Despite this disappointment, several women voted in Washington as early as 1869. Congress had passed the 15th Amendment and the Territorial Suffrage Act expanding voting rights and citizenship to black male citizens, and the territory's legislature had passed a voting code granting the right to vote to all white citizens. Mary Olney Brown caused a scene in 1869 when officials refused her entrance to her local polling place as she attempted to vote with her husband. "I was looked upon as a fanatic and the idea of woman voting was regarded as an absurdity," she complained.

Tacoma, Washington Attitudes changed by 1871, when Susan B. Anthony and Abigail Scott Duniway launched a 2,000-mile suffrage crusade through the territories of Washington and Oregon. The Washington Woman Suffrage Association was born that same year. Nonstop agitation of suffragists and temperance workers yielded an early victory, when the Washington Territorial Legislature enacted full suffrage for women in 1883. A small African American community in Seattle rejoiced as they became the first black women voters in the United States.

A few short years of female moral authority at the polls yielded dramatic changes. Some women voted to abolish "whiskey hells," which antagonized the state's liquor lobby. Saloonkeepers out-organized women, tapping sympathetic Territorial Supreme Court judges when the legislature could not be persuaded to disfranchise women. By 1888, two measures granting suffrage were ruled unconstitutional by the Territorial Courts.

Statehood for Washington offered promise the next year, as women agitated for suffrage in the new constitution. But delegates rebuffed the provision, as did male Washingtonians at the polls in 1889. School suffrage (limited to local school board elections), granted shortly after statehood, also offered hope. Members of women's clubs and church groups ran for local school boards as suffragists reassessed their strategy. Seattle's African American women joined the national black club movement, which emphasized the potential of women's vote to uplift and reform their communities.

Emma Smith Devoe Abigail Scott Duniway had long warned suffrage activists to distance themselves from the strident, moralistic temperance movement. Leaders like Emma Smith DeVoe, of Tacoma, advocated a quiet educational campaign that steered clear of the public displays of the temperance movement (which might arouse hostility). Others, like Spokane's feisty May Arkwright Hutton, declared: "There's no such thing as bad publicity." DeVoe and Hutton rejuvenated the suffrage movement by 1906.

Seattle offered urban women jobs and a sense of community not possible in the rural farming areas. Waitresses, domestic servants, teachers and nurses flocked to the growing metropolis. Labor organizer Alice Lord seized upon low wages and long hours as the catalyst to unionize women into Local 240 of the Seattle Waitresses Union in 1900. May Arkwright Hutton Lord supported women's right to vote as a means to improve working conditions, but focused on labor agitation rather than the work of suffragists she described as "short-haired women."

Despite a nasty split between Devoe and Hutton over strategy and tactics, Washington suffragists won voters over when the issue was put before them for the third time in 1910. The victory took the national suffrage movement out of the doldrums, breaking a 14-year hiatus in state suffrage victories.