Feminist Voices & Visions

Abigail Scott Duniway Exhibit Text
by Debra Shein

* Case 1 Oregon: Land of Promise; Abigail Scott Duniway & the Journey West
* Case 2 Abigail Scott Duniway: Voice of the New Northwest
* Case 3 Abigail Scott Duniway: Visionary Campaigner for Equal Rights
* Declaration of Principles of OSESA (excerpt)
* Whatever Happened to Duniway Hall?

Oregon: Land of Promise
Abigail Scott Duniway & the Journey West

In an era when women were, in the words of Susan B. Anthony, "political slaves," Abigail Scott Duniway (1834-1915) rose from quite ordinary beginnings as an Illinois farm girl to become a nationally famed champion of women's suffrage, as well as a significant author and publisher. Duniway, the best known woman in Oregon history, was a true pioneer, or "path breaker," as she termed herself and her colleagues in the equal rights movement. Her 1852 journey overland to the Pacific Coast by ox-drawn wagon at the age of 17 was a formative experience that she returned to again and again in her writing.

The hardships endured on the trail by the Scott party were proverbial. There were deaths from disease, and deaths from drowning. Cholera was epidemic that year, and before they reached Oregon, both Abigail's mother and youngest brother had perished. Abigail Jane ("Jenny" as she was known by family members) had been appointed scribe by her father, and kept a journal of the Scott's migration under his tutelage. It is an often-eloquent diary, filled with joy and wonder at the magnificent landscapes its writer traversed, as well as with heartfelt sorrow.

In 1859, when Duniway was still a young farm wife burdened by infants and never-ceasing household chores — a decade before her entry into publishing and politics — she penned a fictionalized account of the trip, Captain Gray's Company. This became the first novel to be commercially published in Oregon. It was her first literary work of any length, and was described in a review as "a silly story, comprising the usual quantity of 'yellow covered' love, expressed in bad grammar, and liberally interspersed with slang phrases." Other critics have concurred. And yet, it was a story that the author felt compelled to write, and marks her entry into the larger world beyond that defined by hearthstone and barnyard. Duniway's experiences along the Oregon Trail also surfaced time and again in her many novels serialized in her newspaper, the New Northwest (1871-1887), and received a final treatment in 1905 in another published novel, From the West to the West (i.e., from Illinois to Oregon).

However, to be a pioneer, or "path breaker," meant much more to Duniway than the standard connotations. In her work, the "free, young, elastic West" (and Oregon in particular) would come to represent the land of promise for women, where all could hope to see materialized the kind of freedom that "the women of the older states, crystallized with constitutions hoary with the encrustations of long-vanished years" could only dream of. Duniway longed for Oregon to become "the banner state of the new dispensation" of equal rights for women, and from 1870 on, she would devote her life to making this a reality.

Abigail Scott Duniway's "Journal of a Trip to Oregon" reveals the talent-in-embryo that would later emerge as the editorial voice of the New Northwest. The young Scott sisters, possibly clad in "Bloomer" attire of wide pantaloons and short skirts (quite fashionable on the Oregon Trail in 1852), often raced ahead of the slow-moving ox train to admire the scenery, but were also halted by sorrow when visited by the deaths of those they held most dear.

Abigail thought she was leaving her Illinois home forever, and never imagined how quickly she would be able to retrace her route after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. The "Journal" has been published in Vol. V of the Covered Wagon Women series.

Abigail Scott Duniway's Captain Gray's Company was the first novel to be commercially published in Oregon. From the West to the West is a later fictionalized rendition of her westward journey. However, along with her many novels reprising the westering experience, Duniway also wrote a number of poems that considered the trip and its significance to her.

Some of these are found in My Musings, a booklet published after her first trip to the East Coast to attend a convention of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in 1872. This includes "After Twenty Years," a poem written at the site of her mother's grave near Fort Laramie, in which the author contemplates the remarkable difference between a journey by “iron horse” and one by ox train, and invokes and invokes her mother's spirit to guide her in her fledgling career as an equal rights activist.

Another poem written at the same time, "Oregon: Land of Promise," was published separately in 1907 as a souvenir booklet bearing Duniway's photo and typical signature, "Yours for Liberty." It was written on the train as the author sped west, and the sound of the wheels driving onward over prairie and mountain is echoed in its cadence. Duniway's verses show that, although Oregon was characterized by its "grandeur and beauty," neither its landscape, nor even its commercial potential, was the greatest attraction for those who embarked on the journey west. Rather, the "promise" offered by Oregon was that it provided a home for a newly-nascent liberty for women, a place where their "song could run riot, or fancy go free."

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Abigail Scott Duniway:
Voice of the New Northwest

After travelling overland to Oregon from Illinois at the age of 17, Abigail Scott Duniway became a school teacher, and then entered upon a career as a pioneer farm wife. When her husband, Ben, suffered financial setbacks and was later injured in an accident, Abigail set out to support the family, which by 1869 included six children. She found that, as a woman, her opportunities were severely limited. After another stint at teaching, an occupation that paid women only a fraction of what it paid men, she built up a successful millinery business. But these were only preludes to the discovery of her true vocation — that of relentless campaigner for equal rights.

In 1871, Duniway began publishing the New Northwest, a weekly newspaper devoted to promoting, not just suffrage, but an entire agenda of women's issues. At the time the journal commenced publication, married women did not even have the right to ownership of their own wardrobes. Under the mentorship of the far more experienced Susan B. Anthony, who visited the West Coast and traveled through Oregon and Washington with Duniway at this time, the newly established publisher learned the ins and outs of politics, and went on to become a national as well as local leader of the woman's movement.

In addition to writing for the New Northwest, Duniway authored several books, including her autobiography, Path Breaking, and an epic poem, David and Anna Matson. However, the bulk of her literary accomplishments are found in the pages of her newspaper, and in a later publication she edited, The Pacific Empire. The two periodicals contain over twenty of her own novels, as well as countless columns of editorials and news. A distinctive feature was Duniway's "Editorial Correspondence," an ongoing narrative of her travels throughout the Pacific Northwest and across the United States while campaigning for equal rights.

A few rare issues of the New Northwest survive, although complete sets are now available only on microfilm. It contains most of Duniway's serialized novels, which form a vital record of what life in the "old west" was like from the perspective of an ardent feminist. In these narratives, standard conventions are reversed. Strong women rescue their menfolk from trouble, and the law enforcers are generally the villains — because they carry out legislation that robs women of their rights. Duniway revised several of the novels originally published in her newspapers for eventual publication in book form. The manuscript of Ethel Graeme's Destiny: A Story of Real Life is a revision of Her Lot; or, How She was Protected, which appeared in the columns of the New Northwest in 1878.

The January 21, 1886, issue of the New Northwest was specially preserved by Duniway because it contains an account of her vigil over the deathbed of her daughter, Clara, who passed away at the age of 31 from tuberculosis, the "plague of the 19th century." Because all of Duniway's other five children were sons, she felt the loss of this lone daughter and eldest child most keenly.

However, the boys (Willis, Hubert, Wilkie, Clyde and Ralph) all worked closely with their mother in the publishing business as they grew to maturity — first learning to set type, later writing copy as well — and were able to draw on the experience in their later careers. Duniway's second youngest son, Clyde, went on to become a university president. His son, David Duniway, served as Oregon's first State Archivist, and later donated the family papers to the University of Oregon.

Abigail Scott Duniway, hailed as a noted campaigner, writer and editor, was also a vibrant and compelling presence on the lecture platform. She was a featured speaker at local rallies as well as at national suffrage association meetings, and received complimentary reviews of her powers as a public speaker from a wide variety of sources.

One of Duniway's most treasured goals was to achieve suffrage victories in the three states of what she designated as her "chosen bailiwick." These were Oregon, Washington, and Idaho — the states that had comprised the old Oregon Country. Despite staunch opposition from some of the most influential men in Oregon, including Abigail's own brother and long-time editor of the Portland Oregonian, Harvey Scott, these victories came to pass. Idahoan women won the vote in 1896, followed by Washingtonians in 1910, and, after a number of early near-wins, Oregonians finally achieved victory in 1912, eight years in advance of the passage of the national amendment.

By the time of Duniway's death in 1915, she had achieved near-legendary status. When the Lewis & Clark Centennial was celebrated in Portland in 1905, it featured an "Abigail Scott Duniway Day," and contemporaries honored her as the quintessential "pioneer mother," as well as the "Mother of Woman Suffrage."

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Abigail Scott Duniway:
Visionary Campaigner for Equal Rights

After the passage of equal suffrage in Oregon, congratulatory telegrams poured in from all over the country. In the wake of this momentous event, Duniway proudly exchanged her OSESA (Oregon State Equal Suffrage Association) letterhead for stationery bearing the masthead of the National Council of Women Voters, of which she was named Honorary President.

The lives of Abigail Scott Duniway and her relentless, visionary coworkers in the equal suffrage movement served to bridge the gap between the oppressed, often meek-and-mild women of their mothers' generation, and the bold and modern "New Woman" of the turn of the twentieth century. Fueled by their wrath at a government that classed all women with "idiots, insane persons and criminals" in denying them the vote, women like Duniway dared to break the mold and fight for their rights. Their contributions should not be forgotten, nor underrated. At the time Abigail began her career, women's civil disabilities extended far beyond the mere lack of the vote. The situation was unbearable for single women, but even crueler for women who were married. Married women had no legal existence apart from their husbands. They could not sign contracts, had no title to their own earnings, no right to property, nor any claim to their children in case of separation or divorce.

But because the beginnings of the woman's movement are shrouded by the suffrage issue, the fact that women's civil disabilities were ever this extensive is obscured. And thus, we do not properly credit the enormous struggle undertaken by leaders in the vanguard of the movement — including Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Abigail Scott Duniway. By 1912, when Oregon issued its Equal Suffrage Proclamation, Duniway had spent over forty years directing her efforts towards alleviating a wide variety of the ills that plagued women. She demanded the right to engage in any and all occupations, the right to receive equal pay for equal work, and the right to live free from abuse.

In 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified, and women across the nation had won the right to vote. However, this was only a partial victory. After this momentous event, the women's rights movement lost steam and was not revived in force until the 1960s. Because of this, nearly a century later we are still confronting many of the same inequities that Duniway strove to eradicate. Women in other parts of the globe fare much worse. In remembering Abigail Scott Duniway, we remember her triumphs, but also the tasks left uncompleted. As we enter the 21st century, we must remain united in our efforts to fulfill Oregon's role as a "Land of Promise," and wipe out such inequities for good.

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Excerpt from
Declaration of the Principles of the Oregon State Equal Suffrage Association
For Campaign of 1907-08

We believe in the inherent right of self-government for every law-abiding citizen and we are seeking freedom for ourselves that we may become your legal coadjutors in the formation of a government of all the people. The mother half of all the people is rated in law with idiots, insane persons and criminals, from whose legal classification we are looking to you to release us, your wives, mothers, sisters, daughters and sweethearts, at the June election of 1908, thus leaving us free to choose for ourselves at every succeeding election as to whether or not we shall avail ourselves of the opportunities to which we know it is your duty, and ought to be your pride, to extend to us of your own volition, without waiting for the initiative to come from us.


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Whatever Happened to Duniway Hall?

In 1915, the year of Duniway's death at the age of 80, money was being raised to erect a women's building on the University of Oregon campus. If things had gone according to plan, it would have been named "Duniway Hall." However, when this building was finally completed in 1920, it was known simply as "Womans Memorial." Later, it was renamed "Gerlinger Hall," after Irene Hazard Gerlinger, a University regent. All that remains of the original intent is the portrait of Abigail by Sydney Bell that hangs on the staircase leading up to Gerlinger Lounge. What happened? Simply this — in the 1910s and 20s, the era of prohibition, Duniway was considered too controversial because of her opinions on the alcohol question. Throughout her life, she had maintained a pro-temperance, but anti-prohibition stance because, ahead of her time, she believed that alcoholism was a disease that could not be legislated out of existence. She also believed, and in retrospect was proven correct, that the efforts of prohibitionist organizations such as the WCTU (Women's Christian Temperance Union) would delay the passage of suffrage legislation. And yet, because of concerns that other potential donors would be alienated, Duniway was brushed aside, and has yet to be given a memorial on our campus.

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Last revision: 6/10/06 by N. Helmer