By Don MacGillivray
Portland’s new transit bridge will be named this spring with one of four selections. One of the finalists is Abigail Scott Duniway.
Duniway was described as a relentless, outspoken and controversial advocate for equal suffrage in the Pacific Northwest. She was a teacher, wife, poet, shopkeeper, newspaper editor and lecturer.
She became one of the most active and prolific writers and speakers on the subject of human rights and women’s suffrage in the Pacific Northwest.
Abigail (Jenny to her family and friends) was born in 1834 and raised on a farm in Illinois. She and her siblings worked hard on their farm with very little time for schooling.
In 1852 her father, John, decided to go west and join his brother in Lafayette, Oregon. John organized a party of 30 people and 5 ox-drawn wagons to travel the difficult and dangerous 2,400 miles to Oregon.
They lost material and livestock on the trail, but the greatest loss was that of Abigails forty-one year old mother, Anne, and her little brother Willie, who died from cholera. The entire experience is recorded in Abigail’s daily journal and in her future books.
Soon after their arrival in Oregon she married Benjamin Duniway and they settled on his donation land claim in Eola, Polk County, near Salem.
Bearing six children in the next twelve years and between being a mother and a farmer’s wife, she was kept busy. The experience heightened Mrs. Duniway’s awareness of the inequalities endured by women with their limited opportunities.
Their Eola farm flooded and they started afresh in Lafayette, Oregon. Their home then burned down and Ben became a semi-invalid after injuring his back in a fall and Abigail became the primary breadwinner.
They moved into town and she began to teach school again.She then opened the successful Women’s Emporium selling hats and clothing with the merchandise supplied by Aaron Meyer. She also found time to write a novel about her experiences on the Oregon Trail crossing the prairie and the Rockies. She published it herself in 1859 and it became the first book to be published in Portland.
Duniway became active in a small woman’s rights group in Salem which would become the Oregon State Equal Suffrage Association an organization that she would lead for many years.
Deciding to start her own newspaper dealing with social justice issues in the wild northwest, she thought women’s suffrage would be a five year project, but it became her life’s work.
She bought a printing office in Portland in 1871 and began a weekly newspaper called The New Northwest Duniway wrote about the good, the bad, and the ugly in the Oregon territory.
Having had difficulty in a man’s world, she to believed that women must be an equal partners with men.
As Duniway traveled throughout this territory, she she gave 181 lectures, and had traveled more than 3,000 miles by stage, steamer, train, buggy, buckboard, and on foot to spread the word about woman’s suffrage. The trips became fodder for the newspaper along with the opportunity to sell subscriptions.
At a rally in Salem in 1883, a barefoot boy of ten wandered into the crowd. He paid attention to her speech and when she looked right at him and she asked, “Don’t you consider your mother as good, if not better, than an ordinary Salem saloon bum?”
“Sure I do,” answered the boy. This was Oswald West, the future governor of Oregon who she would meet again nearly thirty years later.
Throughout the years, she wrote twenty-seven books. One was a history of the suffrage movement in the Northwest and most of her novels drew heavily from her own biographical experiences. All of them noted the trials and tribulations of the pioneer woman’s experience in the Northwest.
Women’s suffrage was on the ballot in 1884, 1900, 1906, 1908, and 1910 in Oregon. All failed, in part, due to a lack of support from the editor of The Oregonian, her brother Harvey Scott.
The ballot measure in 1912 finally passed with the support of the paper. Duniway was honored by Governor Oswald West when he asked her to write the proclamation for the constitutional amendment and the she became the first woman to be registered to vote in Oregon.
In her autobiography, “Pathbreaking”, published in 1914, Duniway tells the story of her 40 years of service in the struggle for women’s rights.
Despite her lifetime of contributions and achievements to Oregon’s improvement, Abigail Scott Duniway remains a relatively obscure figure to most Oregonians.
Abigail Scott Duniway dedicated herself to social justice, education and family welfare. She is an inspiration even 100 years after her death and her name would be a fitting name for Portland’s new transit bridge.
Her newspaper’s signature line— “Yours for Liberty”—is a reminder of her lifelong commitment to human rights.