When you hear the word pioneer, you probably think of people who traveled in covered wagons to settle the West. Abigail Scott Duniway did go West on the Oregon Trail, but she did not remain a pioneer housewife. Instead, she became a pioneer for women’s rights.
In 1853, the year after her family arrived in Oregon, Abigail Scott married rancher Ben Duniway. When Abigail’s husband was injured and could no longer work the farm, Abigail had to get a job to support her family.
With the financial help of a male friend, Abigail became one of the first women to open her own store on the frontier. She sold women’s hats which gave her the opportunity to meet many different women. Sometimes she heard about their struggles. One customer’s husband left her and her children without any money. Abigail found a neighbor who aided the woman by helping her rent a house where she took in borders to make money. Unfortunately, when her husband returned, he took possession of everything because there were no laws yet that protected women from irresponsible husbands. Inspired by the stories of the women she encountered in her store, Abigail became an advocate for women’s rights.
Abigail knew she needed to get her women’s rights message to the public. After her first public lecture in 1870, she received invitations to go on lecture tours. She was joined by women’s rights advocate Susan B. Anthony on a lecture tour through Oregon and Washington. Their speeches promoted women’s suffrage, meaning their right to vote. At the time, only men could vote on state laws. Abigail wanted Oregon women to have the right to vote on issues such as the right of women to become jurors, to own property, and to hold state legislative offices. Churches and other establishments often closed their doors to her because of her radical message, but Abigail was satisfied to share her ideas even if she had to lecture outside in bad weather in front of barns or behind saloons.
Eventually Abigail was invited to speak to the Oregon State Legislature and gave her support for a women’s suffrage bill. Although the bill did not become law, giving a speech in front of lawmakers gave Abigail valuable political experience.
Lecturing was only one tool Abigail used to promote women’s suffrage. She also published and edited a newspaper which she named New Northwest. Once again, Abigail led the way for women to hold jobs that were usually held by men. Abigail used the paper to provide readers with news on constitutional amendments that were up for a vote, along with advice on how to convince men to vote in their favor. One issue even contained a petition for women’s suffrage addressed to the United States Congress that she instructed readers to copy and hand out to community members. Abigail no longer published New Northwest after 1886, but she did not stop campaigning for women’s rights.
The traveling Abigail did for lecture tours and for her newspaper gave her a different perspective from other suffragists on how women could successfully get the right to vote. Unlike Abigail, many women’s rights groups not only wanted women’s suffrage, but also advocated prohibition, which meant banning alcohol. Abigail saw that women gained suffrage more quickly in states like Utah where suffragists didn’t insist on prohibition. When other suffragists expressed their frustration at some western states’ successes in getting votes for women, Abigail stated, “Women can’t enfranchise women. They may lead a man to the ballot booth, but they cannot make him vote for us after we get him there. If we are too insistent [about prohibition] they’ll get stubborn and the advantage is all on their side.” Women needed to encourage men to vote for women’s suffrage, but the prohibition movement often led men to oppose giving women the right to vote.
Despite the obstacles to gaining women’s suffrage, Abigail never doubted that women would gain the right to vote. She wrote that “although…the final victory remains to be won, so many concessions have been made, all trending in one direction…that it would be indeed an obtuse man or woman who would doubt our ultimate and complete success.” Some of the new rights for women included a Married Woman’s Property Act, which gave wives the right to own and sell property and keep wages. In addition, the number of votes for women’s suffrage increased during the proposed Oregon constitutional amendment of 1900. Still, the prohibition movement continued to discourage men from supporting women’s suffrage.
In 1910, Abigail made a new appeal to voters. She suggested that since women paid taxes, they should not be denied the right to vote. Abigail’s pioneering efforts finally paid off when Oregon voters approved women’s suffrage in 1912.