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Life Story: Abigail Scott Duniway (1834–1915)

Writer, Editor, Activist

The story of a writer and newspaper editor who fought for women’s suffrage in the Pacific Northwest.

Portrait of Abigail Scott Duniway

Abigail Scott Duniway. Oregon Historical Society.

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Abigail Scott was born on October 22, 1834, in Illinois. She was the third of twelve children in her family, but not all her siblings survived into adulthood.

When Abigail was 17 years old, her family, including nine surviving children, moved from Illinois to the Oregon Territory. Her parents asked Abigail to keep a daily journal of their months-long journey. One of Abigail’s brothers and her mother died during the trip to their new home.

Abigail received little formal education as a child. But her intelligence and strong skills as a writer allowed her to become a teacher shortly after her arrival in Oregon. During this time, she met Benjamin Duniway. The two married the following year. Ben had acquired land through the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850. This law gave white men who arrived in the Oregon Territory before 1850 the opportunity to own land. The government gave these men access to a plot of land in the territory. If they took good care of their plot for four years, the government gave them full ownership of it.

The young couple settled on their farm. Abigail gave birth to a daughter in 1854 and a son in 1856. Abigail and Ben faced multiple setbacks during these years. In 1855, a storm destroyed their home. They rebuilt the house, then it burned down the following year. They sold the farm and the family moved to another farm in Yamhill County in 1858. They had two more children while living there.

Keeping a diary during her journey to the Oregon Territory inspired Abigail to continue writing. In 1859, she published her first novel, Captain Gray’s Company. The book described the experiences of people who traveled to Oregon, as she had done. It was the first novel written in the Pacific Northwest.

By 1862, the Duniway’s financial situation had much improved. Ben decided to help a friend by cosigning a loan with him. Abigail did not agree with this decision, but as her husband, Ben had full control over the family’s finances. Ben’s friend failed to pay the loan and the Duniways then became responsible for it. They had to sell their farm to settle the debts.

Later that same year, Ben suffered a permanent injury after an accident. Because of this injury, he could no longer perform physical labor. Abigail earned most of the family’s income. In addition to taking care of her husband and their four children, she ran a boarding school in the town of Lafayette for four years. In 1866, she returned to teaching in Albany. Later, Abigail opened a store where she sold sewing supplies and hats that she made herself. She also gave birth to two more children during this time.

The Duniway family moved to Portland in 1871. Abigail was inspired to move to a larger city because she was frustrated by the lack of rights for women. In Portland, she was able to start a newspaper called The New Northwest. The purpose of the paper was to support women’s rights, including the right to vote. Publishing the newspaper became the Duniway family business. Abigail served as the newspaper’s editor. Ben worked on the business side, and several of their sons worked as printers.

In addition to publishing articles about women’s rights, The New Northwest also promoted other social justice issues. For example, Abigail approved stories about the unfair treatment of Chinese immigrants and Indigenous people.

Living in Portland also made it possible for Abigail to join other suffragists in organized efforts to gain the right to vote. In 1873, she was a founding member of the Oregon Equal Suffrage Association. Shortly after, the organization’s members elected her as their president.

“When women’s true history shall have been written, her part in the upbuilding of this nation will astound the world.”

Abigail became a well-known advocate for women’s voting rights. In 1871, she managed Susan B. Anthony’s speaking tour in the Pacific Northwest. Just a few years later, Abigail traveled all over the region giving speeches in favor of women’s suffrage.

Abigail also continued writing and publishing her newspaper. In 1875, she published a book of her poems called My Musings.

She led a major campaign for women’s voting rights in 1884. The campaign was unsuccessful in achieving women’s suffrage. One of Abigail’s outspoken opponents was her own brother, Harvey. Harvey Scott was the editor of the newspaper The Oregonian. His views were much more conservative than hers. He used The Oregonian to successfully argue against a woman’s right to vote in Oregon.

After the unsuccessful campaign of 1884, the Oregon Equal Suffrage Association was less active. Abigail stopped publication of The New Northwest in 1887 and moved to Idaho. She continued to write and published 22 novels in her lifetime.

Despite her inability to achieve women’s suffrage in Oregon, Abigail’s activism was influential in the Pacific Northwest. Washington Territory gave women the right to vote in 1883, and the state of Idaho adopted women’s suffrage in 1896.

Abigail returned to Portland in 1894 and became the editor of the weekly newspaper, Pacific Empire. As she had done before with The New Northwest, Abigail used the paper to advocate for women’s voting rights. She also became more active in the Oregon Equal Suffrage Association, once again serving as the organization’s president. However, another referendum on women’s suffrage, held in 1900, failed to grant women the right to vote in Oregon. Similar ballot measures failed in 1906, 1908, and 1910.

While Abigail organized for women’s suffrage on the state level, national organizations also got involved in the fight in Oregon. Abigail believed that these national organizations, like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the National American Woman Suffrage Organization, hurt the cause in her state. She believed that her work was set back several years because these organizations linked suffrage with prohibition. She felt that organizing was more successful when activists understood the issues that mattered most to the local community.

In 1912, the women of Oregon finally won the right to vote. Abigail was less involved in the 1912 effort because she was 71 years old at the time and confined to a wheelchair. However, her decades of activism played an important role in reaching this achievement.

Several weeks after voters passed women’s suffrage, the governor of Oregon asked Abigail to write the Oregon Equal Suffrage Proclamation. He signed it in her presence, making women’s suffrage official in the state. Abigail was the first woman to register to vote in Oregon.

Abigail Scott Duniway died on October 11, 1915, five years before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment granted all American women the right to vote.

Vocabulary

  • boarding school: A school that provides students with food and lodging.
  • Pacific Northwest: Geographic region in the northwestern United States, including the states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.
  • referendum: Direct vote on an issue.
  • suffrage: The right to vote.

Discussion Questions

  • How did Abigail Scott Duniway fight for women’s voting rights?
  • What challenges did Abigail Scott Duniway face in her personal life? How might that have affected her activism?
  • Why did the governor of Oregon ask Abigail Scott Duniway to write the Oregon Equal Suffrage Proclamation? What does this say about her legacy as an activist?
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Themes

ACTIVISM AND SOCIAL CHANGE

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