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The Souvenir of Western Women/A Few Recollections of a Busy Life

< The Souvenir of Western Women

A Few Recollections of a Busy Life

By ABIGAIL SCOTT DUNIWAY


ALTHOUGH the writer hereof began to see in the early '50s the need of a radical innovation in governmental affairs which should recognize the legal existence of wives and mothers, she did not, for a long time, comprehend the fundamental principle of equal rights, as embodied in the law-making power itself.

Souvenir of Western Women 0015 Abigail Scott Duniway.png

ABIGAIL SCOTT DUNIWAY.

In the Territorial days, prior to the year 1859, the States of Washington and Idaho, with a large slice of Montana, comprised a component part of the great original Oregon domain. Settlements of white people were few and far between. Women were relatively scarce, especially on the ranches; and bronzed and rugged bachelors, from far and near, sought frequent relief from their o"vn household labors by mobilizing themselves at the border cabins, where mothers of young children wrestled, as best they could, with the crude surroundings of their scant environments, to provide for the daily needs of their own rapidly increasing families and the added requirements of a free hotel. With the border woman's mental vision continually expanding under the inspirations afforded by the virgin opportunities with which the new country was teeming, she found herself handicapped by a chronic condition of financial nonentity, to which no amount of laudation by the said bachelors could reconcile her reasoning faculties.

As I had been blessed with a more than usually harmonious marriage, and enjoyed the natural ability to express my ideas on paper in a somewhat marked degree, it devolved upon me to voice the opinions of many women who were too timid, or were not allowed by their husbands to speak for themselves.

Like the man or woman of ante-bellum days who was ready at all times to assist a runaway slave to gain his freedom, but failed to comprehend the causes underlying his predicament, I for many years contented myself with the bestowal of unstinted sympathy upon women who were not in a position to speak in their own defense. But as the years went on, and I grew in wisdom, I could not help realizing that the women whose husbands would sell our butter and eggs, pigs, chickens and dried berries, to assist in the payment of taxes, in the distribution of which we had no voice, were being "taxed without representation and governed without consent." After leaving the farm and becoming a school teacher—a change made necessary by an accident that befell my good husband in the early '60s—we settled in the town of Lafayette, where for three consecutive years (or until I became a tolerable scholar myself) I gave up the double occupation of teacher and boarding-house keeper, and we removed to Albany-on-the-Willamette. Here, after another year only of teaching (without the boarders'! I embarked in trade. Prior to that time I had been brought into contact with the women of the farms.

As it was during the six strenuous years that I spent in trade that I learned the absolute need of woman's full and free enfranchisement, I will, by way of illustration, relate as briefly as possible a few of the incidents that gradually awakened my understanding.

One day, late in the '60s, while I was busy in the work-room of my little store, engaged in making some fashionable millinery for an estimable woman, who, having married or inherited a competence, thought all other women ought to be content with their lot, a faded little over-worked mother of half a dozen children came to me in sore distress, saying that her husband had sold their household stuff and departed for parts unknown. Then she told me of a family about to leave the town who would sell her a lot of furniture and rent her their house at a reasonable figure. "If I could borrow the money in a lump sum," she said, "I could repay it in installments." "Then," she added, between sobs, "I could keep my children together, with the aid of a few boarders."

After she had left the store, and while I was inwardly fuming over m.y inability to assist her, a well-to-do and charitable man dropped in on a little errand, to whom I related her story.

"I'll loan her the money," he said, heartily. "She can give me a chattel mortgage on the furniture."

I gladly arranged a meeting between the parties: the exchange was made, and all was going well with the weary woman, when, one day, the husband returned as suddenly as he had departed, and, by repudiating the wife's note and mortgage, the sovereign citizen and law-making husband nullified the transaction and maintained the majesty of the law. The family was broken up and the husband and wife were soon figuring in the divorce court. It is needless to add that my philanthropic friend lost his money and became a forceful advocate of equal rights for women.

Another and later case was that of a woman in another county, whom I had long supplied with millinery and notions, on sixty days' credit, to support a little shop, in which she managed to earn an honorable livelihood for her growing family. Her husband, a well-meaning but irresponsible fellow, noted chiefly for poverty and children, was only one of the "unlucky" heads of families everybody knows, whose wife must make the living—if there is any.

One springtime, after I had concluded that this man's faithful and thrifty spouse had become sufficiently established to warrant the risk, I sold her a tine stock of millinery on credit. Her business opened with unusual promise, when, one day a stranger to her, who held a judgment against her husband on an old note (given prior to their marriage without her knowledge and renewed annually), came into the town, employed an attorney, attached her stock and closed her business. That was more than thirty-three years ago, and I still hold the woman's note for that stock of millinery.

Prior to the year 1872 there was no married woman in all the great domain of the Pacific Northwest (except the comparatively few who held claims under the brief existence of the Donation Land Law) who possessed a right, after marriage, even to the bridal trousseau her father had given her as a dot. As the laws recognized the husband and wife as "one," and the husband was that "one," the wife was legally "dead," and was supposed, as a matter of course, to have no further need for clothes.

For the foregoing reasons, and many others for which the limits of this chapter have no space, I was at last aroused to the necessity of demanding the ballot for woman; and, although at this writing the final victory remains to be won, so many concessions have been made, all trending in one direction, toward the objective goal, that it would be indeed an obtuse man or woman who would doubt our ultimate and complete success.

The first law enacted by the Oregon State Legislature recognizing the legal existence of married women, called "The Married Woman's Sole Trader's Bill," was passed in the year 1872. This law enabled women needing its provisions to register themselves as "sole traders" in the office of their county clerk, thus protecting their personal earnings, outside of the mutual living expenses of the family, from dissipation by the husband's creditors.

A law enabling women to vote for school trustees and for funds and appropriations for public school purposes, "if they have property in the district on which they or their husbands pay a tax," was enacted in 1878. They were also empowered to fill the offices of state and county superintendents of schools, but the law was contested in 1896 by a defeated candidate and declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Public sentiment now encourages the employment of women as court stenographers, as clerks in both houses of the Legislature, on Legislative committees, and in various other subordinate offices. They may serve as notaries public, and no profession or occupation is legally forbidden to them. All the large non-sectarian institutions of learning are open alike to both sexes.

If either the husband or wife die intestate and there are no descendants living, all of the real and personal property goes to the survivor. If there are children living, the widow receives one-half of the husband's real estate and one-half of his personal property; but the widower takes a life interest in all of the wife's real estate, whether there are children or not, and all of the personal property absolutely, if there are no living descendants—half if there be any.

All laws have been repealed which recognize civil disabilities against the wife which are not recognized against the husband except the fundamental right of voting and helping to make the laws which she is taxed to maintain, and to which, equally with man, she is held amenable.

Of the growth of public sentiment regarding the ultimate extension of this right to women, it is significant to note that when a constitutional amendment to enfranchise woman was taken in 1884, the vote was, ayes, 11,223; noes, 28,176. And, although the population was more than doubled when the amendment was resubmitted in 1900, the vote throughout the state stood, ayes, 26,265; noes, 28,402. It will thus be seen that although the "no" vote was only augmented in 16 years by 226, the affirmative vote was increased by 15,042. One county gave a majority for the amendment in 1884. The vote in 1900 gave us two-thirds of the counties of the state. One county was lost by a tie, one by a majority of one, and one by a majority of thirty-one.

As the right of suffrage—the foundation of all enduring rights—is the only right that can be withheld from women by the votes of all classes and conditions of men, it is the only right ever demanded by women which must come through a change in constitutional law. "Therefore," as Miss Anthony well says in her able and comprehensive summary of the state and national situation, "this most valuable of all rights—the one that if possessed by women at the beginning would have brought all the others without a struggle—is placed absolutely in the hands of men, to be granted or withheld at will from women." (See History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. IV.)

And yet, with all these odds against women, four of our Western States have already granted equal political rights to the wives and mothers of men. Wyoming came first, in 1869. Colorado followed by popular vote in 1893; and, in 1896, Utah and Idaho wheeled into line. The writer hereof has in hand enough of unimpeachable testimonials indorsing this movement from the best, ablest and most prominent men and women of each of these states to fill a volume.

The women of Oregon are hopefully awaiting a third effort to secure their own full and complete enfranchisement, for which their friends, the best and foremost men of the state, are preparing to submit a vote at the June election of 1906.