History of Women’s Suffrage in Olympia

Excerpted in part from Women’s Votes, Women’s Voices: The Campaign for Equal Rights in Washington by Shanna Stevenson, published by the Washington State Historical Society 2009.  Copyright Washington State Historical Society—Used by permission, all rights reserved. 

As the territorial and state capital of Washington, Olympia was central to women’s suffrage history of Washington. 

During the Territorial era, the legislature could define who could vote.  In 1854, just six years after the Declaration of Sentiments was signed at the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848, Seattle legislator Arthur A. Denny proposed women’s suffrage in the first meeting of the Washington Territorial Legislature in Olympia. Denny proposed to amend a pending bill relating to voting “to allow all white females over the age of 18 years to vote,” but it failed in the house of representatives by a vote of 8–9.[1]

The 1867 territorial voting law clearly stated that “all white American citizens twenty-one years of age” had the right to vote.[2]  This territorial law empowering “all white American citizens” to vote became the rallying point for Washington suffragists who also cited the 1868 Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution as defining citizens as “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.” In 1869 suffragist Mary Olney Brown tested the 1867 law in White River, but was turned away from the polls. 

Undaunted, Brown launched her own suffrage campaign the following year, writing several newspaper editorials urging women to vote.[3] By 1870 she had moved to Olympia, and her sister  Charlotte Emily Olney French was living in Grand Mound, in southern Thurston County. With other women in the area, the sisters planned a picnic dinner near Grand Mound at the schoolhouse at Goodell’s Point, where the June 6, 1870, election was to be held. French, like her sister, was well-versed in the arguments for women’s suffrage and spoke at the gathering. After the picnic, the women—seven in all—handed in their ballots. The husband of one of the women was an election inspector for that precinct; this may have had something to do with their ballots being accepted. Women of nearby Black River (present-day Littlerock) had stationed a man on a “fleet horse” at the Grand Mound precinct to report whether the women there had been allowed to vote. The man arrived at the polling place waving his hat and yelling, “They’re voting! They’re voting!” Eight Black River women immediately cast their ballots.

While the southern Thurston County women were successful in having their votes counted, a small Olympia delegation was not. When Brown and two women presented ballots at the Olympia courthouse, they were rejected despite Brown’s legal arguments and threats of prosecution against the election officials.[4] Although those fifteen votes did not constitute a permanent stride toward suffrage in Washington, they provided a significant stepping-stone in the overall history of the movement.

In autumn 1871 women’s rights leaders Susan B. Anthony and Abigail Scott Duniway toured the Northwest, accelerating the women’s suffrage movement in Washington Territory.  The women endured a difficult stage trip from Monticello on the Cowlitz River (near present-day Longview) to Olympia, the territorial capital, where Anthony spoke on October 17 to an audience of about one hundred, including some legislators.

Two days later Anthony and Duniway addressed the legislature in session.   The day before her legislative speech, Anthony dined at the home of fellow suffragists, Daniel and Ann Elizabeth Bigelow in Olympia, now the Bigelow House Museum at 918 Glass Avenue NE.

On October 19, Anthony spoke before the legislature. The Olympia Transcript said of her speech: “Miss Anthony is a woman of more than ordinary ability, and the able manner in which she handled her subject before the Legislature, was ample warning to the members of that body who oppose woman suffrage to be silent.”[5] Duniway also spoke to the legislature. The house of representatives turned down a proposal to print Anthony’s legislative address, but the Washington Standard published a summary of it.[6]

After a swing around Puget Sound, Anthony returned to Olympia to participate in Washington’s first women’s suffrage convention, which began on November 8, 1871. A committee including Sarah Yesler, Daniel Bigelow, and Anthony drafted the constitution for the Washington Territory Woman Suffrage Association (WTWSA), the principle outcome of the convention.[7] The WTWSA spurred the creation of local suffrage organizations in Olympia and Thurston County.

Throughout the 1870s the WTWSA continued its work and the territorial legislature considered various suffrage measures.  In 1873 Territorial Legislator Edward Eldridge introduced a women’s suffrage bill, which lost 12–18 in the house of representatives. In 1875 Olympia legislator Elwood Evans, then speaker of the house, introduced another suffrage bill, which was again defeated—this time 11–15. An effort to repeal a definitive law of 1871 that precluded women’s suffrage until Congress took action also failed.[8]

In 1881 the issue of women’s suffrage was again before the legislature, brought to the forefront with a petition signed by fifty women.[9] Although the bill carried the house 13–11, it lost in council 5–7.[10] (Once Washington achieved statehood in 1889, the council became the state senate.)  Saloon owners, and other anti-prohibitionists thwarted the council effort for suffrage legislation.

Building on gains for women during the previous decade, the suffrage movement gathered momentum in Washington after 1881. In 1883, the Territorial Legislature passed women’s suffrage.[11] Only Wyoming and Utah territories had enacted woman’s suffrage after the Civil War before Washington. Washington’s victory was different from those two territories because women in Wyoming and Utah had not solicited the right to vote, while Washington’s women petitioned and campaigned for the ballot.[12]

After the success of the suffrage bill, celebrations erupted around the state, but Olympia was the site of special jubilance. Duniway described the festivities in her newspaper the New Northwest:

It is 4 o’clock p.m. on Monday, November 19, 1883. As we write, church bells are ringing and a grand salute of minute guns sends out its joyful reverberations through the air proclaiming that Governor William A. Newell has formally announced that he will sign the Woman Suffrage bill and thereby make the women of Washington Territory free beyond peradventure…. All the people of Olympia…are rallying around the standard-bearers of liberty and justice, lifting their hearts and voices in unison with theirs to swell the glad anthem of rejoicing that ascend to heaven through the mingling hallelujahs of the guns and bells. [13]

In her account of the victory, Duniway recognized the many women of Olympia who supported the cause of suffrage, including sisters Emily Olney French and Mary Olney Brown,  and Clara Sylvester, Ella Stork, and Janet Moore. It is no coincidence that many of these same women had been charter members of the first women’s club on the West Coast, the Woman’s Club of Olympia, which began meeting in 1883 at Clara Sylvester’s home. By one account, the club’s purpose was to promote suffrage principles.[14]  

Women’s right to vote aroused strong opponents. Made legal householders by the legislature in 1881 and voters under the 1883 suffrage law, women became qualified jurors.  This spurred legal challenges which came before the Territorial Supreme Court.

In 1887, the Territorial Supreme Court focused on the legality of women’s suffrage. The court decided that the title of the 1883 law did not describe the content of the legislative act, making it invalid along with the provisions of a1886 amendment. The justices ruled that because the 1883 act was invalid, women were not qualified electors and thus not legal jurors.

After the judicial decision overturning women’s right to vote, suffragists descended on the legislature once again, and on January 18, 1888, legislators reenacted a women’s suffrage law with the appropriate title. However, this version of the law excluded women from jury service.

The suffrage victory was short-lived. Another case came before the court in 1888 and the court decided that when the Washington Territorial Organic Act passed Congress, “the word ‘citizen’ was used as a qualification for voting and holding office and, in our judgment, the word then meant and still signifies male citizenship and must be so construed.”[15]  

 Only male voters selected the members of Washington’s second Constitutional Convention, (the first was an unsuccessful try at statehood in 1878) which began in Olympia on July 4, 1889, and the suffrage cause was weakened correspondingly, although suffragists “flooded” the convention with petitions.[16]

Despite these efforts, the constitutional convention delegates decided that women’s suffrage would be a separate issue on the statewide ballot, along with adoption of the proposed constitution itself and separate tallies on the location of the capital and enactment of prohibition. While the state constitution was ratified on October 1, 1889, by a territory-wide vote, the separate suffrage proposal lost by 19,000 votes, 16,521–35,913. Prohibition also failed, 19,546–31,487.

Washington joined the union on November 11, 1889. The next year, the state legislature authorized women to vote for local school trustees and directors but not for county or state school superintendents.

While the (male) voters of the state did not believe that women should have the franchise except in school elections, women alone voted for the state flower. The issue arose when Washington was invited to participate in the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition and part of each state’s exposition display was to be a flower representing the state. Washington did not have an official flower, and the Washington State Fair Committee left the matter to its female members.

Polling places for women voting in the flower election included post offices and even a drugstore in downtown Olympia, which encouraged women to choose their preference of the state flower. Balloting closed August 1, 1892, and the rhododendron won over clover 7,704–5,720 out of 14,419 votes cast. The Washington State Senate confirmed the rhododendron on February 10, 1893.[17] In 1959 the legislature further defined the state flower as Rhododendron macrophyllum, native to western North America, which continues to represent Washington today.

The Fusion Party (Silver Republicans, Democrats, and Populists) gained legislative seats in 1896, providing a positive political climate for women’s suffrage in the legislature which passed a suffrage constitutional amendment in 1897.  The amendment ratification lost on November 8, 1898, by a vote of 30,540–20,658, which was a gain of 9,510 pro-suffrage votes over the 1889 tally. From 1906 to 1908 suffrage leaders focused on organization, and from 1908 forward their emphasis was on campaigning.

At the Washington Equal Suffrage Association State Convention in 1908 the executive committee authorized DeVoe to take charge of the effort to introduce women’s suffrage legislation in the 1909 legislature that would amend the Washington constitution.[18]

 By 1909, the political climate favored the suffragists’ efforts in the legislature.  For its Olympia headquarters WESA rented a large house near the capitol. Suffragists, using persistent but low-key lobbying, are generally credited with the passage of the suffrage-enabling legislation in the house of representatives on January 29, 1909.

The legislative journey through the senate proved much more arduous. The senate eventually voted for the legislation on February 23, 1909, by a margin of 30–9, Acting Governor Marion Hay[19] signed the bill on February 25, 1909, authorizing a statewide vote for ratification of the amendment in November 1910. At that time, statewide elections were held only in even-numbered years.  

In addition to general support, Olympia and Thurston County suffragists Lena Meyer, Clara Lord, and Libbie Lord spearheaded the effort to secure a straw ballot at the State Grange Convention in 1910.  Members of the state Grange voted in favor of women’s right to vote in their September straw poll—foreshadowing victory in November 1910.

Leaders Emma Smith DeVoe, May Arkwright Hutton, and other Washington suffragists generally conducted a “womanly” campaign.  The Washington Women’s Cook Book was one of the campaign’s primary fundraising projects.  They also published a newspaper, put up posters and used grass roots organizing.

The vote result on November 8, 1910 was 52,299–29,676 in favor of ratification of the women’s suffrage amendment—a margin of nearly two to one.[20]   Washington joined the four western states where women had already won the vote—Wyoming (1890), Colorado (1893), Utah (1896), and Idaho (1896). Governor Hay officially signed the proclamation of adoption on November 28, 1910. Twenty-two years had passed since the Territorial Supreme Court had last taken away Washington women’s right to vote.[21]

The stunningly decisive victory in 1910 is widely credited with reinvigorating the national movement. When Washington joined her western sisters in 1910, it had been fourteen years since a state had enacted irrevocable women’s suffrage.

Women started voting in the same proportion as men.  The period between 1911 and 1920 was a period of significant legislative changes regarding women’s issues abetted by coalitions forged during the suffrage movement among women’s clubs and working-class women. Mothers’ pensions, the eight-hour workday for women, and Prohibition were part of the Progressive agenda adopted after women attained the ballot.

In June 1919, after intense pressure from both the National Women’s Party and the National American Woman Suffrage Association, Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and sent it to the states for ratification. Washington was the penultimate of thirty-six states needed to ratify the amendment and the last enfranchised state to take action. Leaders Emma Smith DeVoe and Carrie Chapman Catt pressured a reluctant Governor Louis Hart to call a special legislative session. Hart eventually agreed to call the legislators together in March 1920. PPierce County representative Frances Haskell, the fourth woman elected to the Washington legislature, introduced the resolution, stating:

This is a very important hour in the history of our state and nation, for we have met here in special session the 22nd day of March, in the year of our Lord 1920, to ratify the federal suffrage amendment and to prove to the world the greatness of our Evergreen state, which is not determined by the number of acres that it contains nor by the number of its population, but by the character of its men and women who today are extending to all the women of America the privilege of the ballot.[22]

Governor Hart, Speaker Fred Adams, and Emma Smith DeVoe shared the dais in the house of representatives, and by special resolution, DeVoe expressed her thanks to the legislature. In the senate, veteran suffragist Carrie Hill shared the podium with President of the Senate Philip H. Carlyon of Olympia. Both houses cast a unanimous vote to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment—the twelfth state in which no one voted against the amendment.[23]  Tennessee was the final state needed to ratify the amendment which codified that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” The amendment became official on August 26, 1920.[24] 

Not all women in the United States could vote after passage of Washington’s suffrage act or the Nineteenth Amendment, since many groups were restricted from becoming U.S. citizens, a qualification for voting. Native American women, who were excluded from voting in even after passage of the suffrage amendments in 1910 and 1920, finally achieved the right to vote in 1924 when Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act, which extended U.S. citizenship to Native Americans. Asian women faced other citizenship restrictions. By national law, native-born Asian residents were considered citizens by 1898. Immigrant Asians, however, were denied citizenship well into the mid-twentieth century. By 1943 Chinese immigrants could be naturalized and vote; immigrants from India received the same rights starting in 1946; and Japanese and other Asians in 1952.[25]

Some voters faced racist barriers. Although black women achieved the right to vote in 1910 in Washington and in 1920 nationally, barriers remained. Most significant was passage in 1965 of the Voting Rights Act, which ended practices that disenfranchised black voters and broadened and guaranteed voting rights specifically to minorities. The Twenty-sixth Amendment lowered the voting age to eighteen in 1971. In later years, the Legislature has enacted other measures to ensure voter equality including the Washington Voting Rights Act in 2018.

After the state enacted women’s suffrage in 1910, Washington women began to run for office in ever-increasing numbers. Elected in 1912 and serving in the 1913 state house of representatives, Frances C. Axtell from Bellingham and Nena J. Croake from Tacoma were the first two women to serve in the Washington State Legislature. Reba Hurn from Spokane was in 1923 the first woman elected to the state senate.  Josephine Corliss Preston, elected in 1912 as superintendent of public instruction, was the first woman to serve in a statewide office.   Washington has consistently been a leader in electing women to the state legislature. From 1993 to 2004 Washington led the nation in the percentage of female state legislators. In 1999 and 2000 Washington boasted the highest percentage of female legislators in the nation’s history, with women making up 41 percent of its legislators. In 2021, women comprised approximately 41.5 percent of the state’s legislators, the ninth highest in the country. [26]

Washington women have served on the Washington Supreme Court and as superintendent of public instruction, secretary of state, attorney general, commissioner of public lands, and insurance commissioner. Washington women have also held elected positions on local school boards, local courts, special purpose districts, city councils, county commissions and councils, and as county executives throughout the state’s history.

Olympia has had three women mayors—Amanda Benek Smith, Holly Gadbaw and Cheryl Selby. As of 2021, 5 of the 7 City Council members are women.[27]

[1] Washington Territory, House Journal, 1854, 98.

[2] Laws of Washington Territory, Olympia, Public Printer T. F McElroy, 1867, 5.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Mrs. Brown’s Argument,” Elizabeth Cady Santon, Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Josleyn Gage, and Ida Husted Harper, ed. History of Woman Suffrage, 6 vols. (Rochester: J. J. Little & Co., 1881-1922) Hereafter cited HWS, 3:784-85.

[5] “Miss Anthony’s Speech,” Olympia Transcript, October 21, 1871.

[6] “Woman Suffrage,” Washington Standard, October 21, 1871.

[7] “Woman Suffrage Convention,” Washington Standard, November 11, 1871, 2; and Simmons, “History of Woman Suffrage in the State of Washington,” 22. Anti-suffragists were James H. Lasater of Walla Walla and Mrs. J. B. Frost, and pro-suffragists were Father (likely A. A.) Denny, Alfred Elder, John Denny, and Abigail Scott Duniway.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Clyde  B. Simmons, “History of Woman Suffrage in the State of Washington,” (master’s thesis, University of Washington, 1903) 24.

[10] William H. White (aka “Warhorse Bill”) was a prominent Washington jurist. He served in several capacities, including prosecuting attorney, legislator from King County, U.S. attorney, and Washington State Supreme Court justice. In 1912 he helped his wife, Emma McRedmond White, in her bid for King County clerk. She also organized the Woman’s Democratic Club in King County. “Justice William Henry White,” http://www.redmondwashington.org/biography/white/white-william-henry.htm.

[11] The bill was introduced in the Washington House by Representative Copley, and was supported in speeches by Messrs. Copley, Besserer, Miles, Clark, and Stitzel, while Messrs. Landrum and Kincaid spoke against it. The vote was: Ayes—Besserer, Brooks, Clark, Copley, Foster, Goodell, Hungate, Kuhn, Lloyd, Martin Miles, Shaw, Stitzel and Speaker Ferguson-14. Noes—Barlow, Brining, Landrum, Pin, Kincaid, Shoudy and Young—7. Absent—Blackwell, Turpin, and Warner—3. The bill was favorably reported in the Council, November 15, by Chairman Burk of the Judiciary Committee. No one offered to speak on it. The vote stood: Ayes—Burk, Edmiston, Hale, Harper, Kerr, Power and Smith—7. Noes—Caton, Collins, Houghton, Whitehouse and President Ruax—5. Governor W. A. Newell Approved the bill November 23, 1883.

[12] T. Alfred Larson, “The Woman Suffrage Movement in Washington,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly 67, no. 2 (April1976) 53.

[13] Abigail Scott Duniway, “The Ratification,” New Northwest, November 22, 1883.

[14] Rebecca Mead, How the Vote Was Won, (New York: New York University Press, 2004) 99.

[15] Bloomer v. Todd, 3 Wash. Terr. 599 (1888).

[16] Beverly Paulik Rosenow, ed., The Journal of the Washington State Constitutional Convention (1889; reprint, Seattle: Book Publishing Company, 1962), 642-43. Petitioners: P.G. Hendricks, 394 other men and 414 women; William West and others; Francis Miner of St. Louis; A. M. Sweeney, Jennie Aukney and others of Walla Walla; H. J. Beeks and others; Mr. Giliam and others; Marty T. Jones and others; G. C. Barron and others; W. V. Anders and others; Lucinda King and others; L. W. Studgall and others; W. P. Stewart and others; P. J. Flint and others; Zerelda. McCoy and 26 teachers; Dr. A. K. Bush and 94 others; S.M. Ballard and 151 others; George E. Cline and 163 others; L. M. Lord and 82 others; C. F. Woodcock and 120 others; ninety-three voters of Buckley; and Zerelda McCoy, a taxpaying woman.

[17] Lucile McDonald, “The Battle over the State Flower,” Seattle Times Magazine, January 31, 1965, 2; Ruth Fry Epperson, “Rhododendron, Our State Flower: Talk Given by Mrs. Ruth Fry Epperson at the May Breakfast, 1944 of the Women’s Century Club, Seattle, Wash,” unpublished manuscript, Museum of History & Industry, Seattle, Washington (MOHAI) Accession No. 1964.3359.

[18] C. H. Baily, “How Washington Women Regained the Ballot,” Pacific Monthly 26 (July 1911): 1-11, 8. See also ”Women Play Game of Politics,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 4, 1908.

[19] Governor Samuel Cosgrove was ill and Lieutenant Governor Hay was Acting Governor at this time. Governor Cosgrove died on March 28, 1909.

[20] Only 59.3 percent of those casting ballots in the general election voted on the suffrage issue. The reason for this anomaly is unknown, but the ballot wording may have confused some voters.

[21] “Women Are to Give Special Thanks.” November 13, 1910, DeVoe Scrapbooks, DeVoe Papers.

[22] “Suffrage Amendment Ratified Unanimously,” Washington Standard, March 23, 1920, 1.

[23] Dr. Cora Smith Eaton King et al., “Washington,” HWS, 6:685-86.

[24] Nineteenth Amendment. http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured_documents/amendment_19/print_friendly.html?page=index_content.html&title=The_19th_Amendment

[25] Jill Severn, The State We’re In: Washington, Your guide to state, tribal and local government, (Seattle: The League of Women Voters Education Fund, 2004), 36.

[26] 61 woman legislators for 41.5%;  19 in the Senate, 39%; 42 in the House, 43%. The 61 is a historic high, matching the total in 1996. The 42 in the House is the highest yet, beating the previous House high of 41 in 2019.https://leg.wa.gov/legislature/Pages/MemberInformation.aspx

[27] City of Olympia website:  http://olympiawa.gov/city-government/city-council-and-mayor.aspx

 

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