Abigail Scott Duniway is remembered as “Oregon’s Mother of Equal Suffrage.” From 1871 to 1887, she published The New Northwest, a weekly, Portland-based advocacy newspaper. Duniway challenged social injustice in a variety of forms—for example, she was willing to stand up for Native Americans and Chinese immigrants at a time when these groups had few friends in the press—but her greatest passion was agitating for the rights of women. In the pages of her newspaper, Duniway described what she saw as her life’s mission: “Enfranchisement of women and full emancipation of speech, press and people from every fetter of law or custom that retards the free mental and physical growth of the highest form of humanity.”
The woman who would come to be known as “the pioneer suffragist of the great Northwest” was, appropriately, among the first wave of Americans to immigrate to the Pacific Northwest. She had been born near Groveland, Illinois in 1834. In 1852, her father organized a wagon party to make the move to Oregon—a journey of some 2,400 miles. After arriving and settling in the Willamette Valley, Abigail taught school for a year before marrying a fellow immigrant from Illinois, Benjamin Charles Duniway. She was just nineteen years old on her wedding day.
Over the next decade and a half, the couple would have six children and experience a number of financial upheavals. Things became truly worrisome when Benjamin Duniway was permanently disabled in a farm accident, leaving Abigail as the sole breadwinner for their large family. She again taught school for a brief time, and subsequently opened a millinery store in the town of Albany. Duniway would later trace her political awakening to this period of her life, and particularly to the stories of domestic mistreatment that her married customers regularly shared. With the encouragement of her own spouse, Abigail closed the shop and relocated to Portland in 1871. Her aim was to start a suffragist newspaper.
“Writing was always our forte,” she announced in the first issue. “If we had been a man, we’d have had an editor’s position and a handsome salary at the age of twenty-one.” This was more than just abstract musing on the part of the author. Duniway was, in fact, directly alluding to the career path of her own brother, Harvey Whitefield Scott, who had been granted an editorship with the Portland Morning Oregonian [LCCN: sn83025138] not long after completing his university studies. Ironically, Abigail Duniway’s staunchest opposition in print was often to come from her own brother. Throughout Harvey Scott’s tenure, editorials in the Oregonian would present a derogatory and dismissive view of the suffrage movement.
The New Northwest devoted coverage to a diverse agenda of women’s issues, including temperance, wage equality, and the right to own property. At the time the paper commenced publication, married women in Oregon had no property rights under law. If they worked outside the home, the wages they earned would legally belong to their husbands as well. Duniway campaigned against these economic injustices, leading to the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act of 1878.
In addition to its editorial vigor and political influence, The New Northwest possessed merit as a literary journal. In its pages were regularly published poems and serialized stories; generally works with themes that echoed the progressive mission of the paper. Duniway herself was the author of many of these pieces. A prolific writer in a variety of genera, she would in her lifetime complete an epic poem, David and Anna Matson, an autobiography, Path Breaking, and no less than 22 novels. After Duniway sold The New Northwest in 1887, the new publishers dropped the political content and the paper continued for two more years as a purely literary endeavor.
It must be noted that Abigail Duniway could be irascible, inflexible and undiplomatic. While she was an exceptional writer and compelling public speaker, she was substantially less talented as an organizer. Over the years, she made a number of enemies within her own movement. Though she maintained a lifelong friendship with the prominent eastern suffragist Susan B. Anthony, there were often tensions between the two women arising from their different styles of leadership and conflicting strategies for achieving the goals they shared.
Duniway’s patience grew strained as Oregon voters rejected female suffrage on the ballots of 1884, 1900, 1906, 1908 and 1910. By the time the referendum was finally passed in 1912, Duniway’s health was faltering and her reputation had grown too controversial for her to participate much in the campaign. However, Governor Oswald West recognized her life’s achievement by asking Duniway to author and sign the official Oregon Proclamation of Women’s Suffrage. She was also honored by being registered as the first female voter in Multnomah County.
-- Written by Jason Stone