Friday, February 16, 2018

The Long Road to the Vote in Washington Territory

When researching for the upcoming Frontier Matchmaker Bride (Beth Wallin’s story), I came across some Washington State history I didn’t know. In the United States, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution acknowledged women’s right to vote in 1920. But in some states and territories—Wyoming and Utah among them—women could vote much earlier. Washington Territory, alas, took a while to get there, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

It helped that prominent pioneers like Arthur Denny of Seattle and Daniel R. Bigelow of Olympia were willing to sponsor bills in the state legislature. The first failed by only one vote. The story goes that the man who voted against it had a Native American wife. If she wasn’t included, he wasn’t supporting it. A new voting law in 1867 specified that all white citizens had the right to vote (bet he didn’t vote for that one either). In theory, that meant women could vote. They tried in the next election. Except for a handful, their votes were summarily dismissed.

File:Portrait of Susan B. Anthony on her 50th birthday.jpg
In the early 1870s, women in the territory rallied around the national suffrage movement when no less than Susan B. Anthony made a western tour. One of her stops was at the home of Henry and Sarah Yesler in Seattle. I like to think some of my heroines in the Frontier Bachelor series attended, even though the local papers took jabs at the women. The local sheriff (and Deputy Hart McCormick) had to provide additional protection for the suffragettes because of rumored attempts by male agitators to stop them from speaking.

During her tour, Susan B. Anthony spoke before the territorial legislature. Perhaps because of her impassioned pleas, once more a bill was introduced. It too failed. And to make sure there’d be no more of this nonsense, the legislature passed a bill keeping territorial women from voting until the issue was decided at the national level.

But remember, Washington Territory was still largely composed of bachelors. Some were fiercely anti-suffragette, others fiercely pro. Bills were introduced and voted down in 1875 in the legislature, 1878 at the Constitutional Convention, and 1881 in the legislature again.

You would think when, in 1883, the legislature finally passed a suffrage bill, that that would be the end of it. However, in 1887, the Territorial Supreme Court overturned the new law on a technicality. It seems the title of the law didn’t accurately describe its contents. The legislature promptly passed a law with a better title in 1888, only to have that overturned by the court for failing to align with what the court felt was the true meaning of the Territory Organic Act—that votes applied only to males. When the territory voted on its state constitution, women’s suffrage was voted down again.

Suffragettes continued working, hoping to amend the Washington Constitution. Working with members of the legislatures, they drafted an amendment that, once signed by the governor, could be put to a vote of the people. Someone stole it! A woman found the correct amendment just in time for the governor to sign. Unfortunately, when put to a vote by the people, the amendment was voted down.

It wouldn’t be until 1910 that Washington women became eligible to vote, still well before the Nation but long after Susan B. Anthony, Sarah Yesler, and Beth Wallin campaigned for it.  

You can find more information on the long road to the vote from the Women’s History Consortium at the Washington State Historical Society, of which I am a proud member. 

And I can vote.

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