Women Who Made History in Washington, Oregon and Idaho
It was the 1970s and a second wave of feminism was building momentum. Karen J. Blair was a student at the time. Feeling inspired, she went to the library.
“I realized that women making change at the time needed to know there were women before them who had also engaged in struggle and had been successful,” Blair recalls. “I felt it was a contribution to contemporary activism to be able to provide background to modern women.”
Blair would go on to study, research and write about women’s history for 40 years, publishing “Women in Pacific Northwest History.” Now retired and a professor emeritus at Central Washington University, she says women’s contributions, specifically their push for civic, social and cultural opportunities in the Pacific Northwest have gone largely overlooked.
Bringing this under-told story to light is why Cindy Richards decided she would dive into the history of remarkable women of the Pacific Northwest.
“I went to a high school where my social studies classroom faced the Cascade Mountains, but I never learned about women who climbed the highest peak in the Pacific Northwest and flew a “Votes For Women” banner at the summit,” says Richards, a professor at Willamette University who has chronicled the women’s suffrage movement in the Pacific Northwest.
Richards and Blair argue that women in the Pacific Northwest heavily influenced the suffragist movement at large and many other aspects of civic life as well, whether it be education, civil rights or the arts.
The legacies of those pioneering women can be found all over the Pacific Northwest.
“There’s just so much fascinating history here,” says Richards.
A year before women won the right to vote in Washington in 1910 (a decade before all American women gained that right with passage of the 19th Amendment), suffragettes launched arguably their most well-timed campaign of the movement in the Pacific Northwest.
More than 3 million people visited Seattle for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, that year’s world’s fair. The event coincided with the 41st Annual American Woman Suffrage Association convention.
The Mountaineer’s club in Washington state, which was founded by men and women, organized a 21-day trek up Mount Rainier’s Cascade Crest summit. On July 30, 1909, Dr. Cora Smith Eaton, a founding member of The Mountaineers and a suffrage leader, led suffragists to the summit where they planted an A-Y-P flag that donned a pennant that read “Votes For Women.”
One of the earliest suffragist campaigns recorded in the Pacific Northwest began in Thurston County, right outside of Washington state’s capital. Surrounded by dense old growth and prairie mounds, the region welcomed loggers and feminists alike.
On June 6, 1870, this place set the stage for Mary Olney Brown and her sister Charlotte Olney French to test their right to vote under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
After being denied the vote at the Olympia Courthouse earlier that day, they led a handful of women to the polls at a schoolhouse in Grand Mound, Washington, and inspired another group of women in the neighboring settlement of Black River (now Littlerock) to vote as well. The schoolhouse still stands today, relocated just outside the town of Grand Mound in Centralia.
Now known as Sunshine Hall, it’s on the county’s historic register. Although some ballots were initially accepted, the sisters’ votes were later rejected. It would be 40 years before women in Washington got the right to vote.
The Reed Opera House
In 1871, well-known activist Susan B. Anthony was convinced by her Pacific Northwest contemporary Abigail Scott Duniway to embark on a lecture series across the Pacific Northwest. Their tour began at The Reed Opera House in Salem, Oregon.
The 1,500-seat Italian-style, brick theater had only been opened one year earlier, before Susan B. Anthony gave her “The Power of the Ballot” speech in September 1871 there.
Site of the Hoff Building
The 1930, Art Deco Hoff Building in downtown Boise was once the site of the city’s First Methodist Church, and it’s where the Boise’s Equal Suffrage Association held their first meeting on June 30, 1896. After suffragists across the country first failed to get their votes recognized through the courts via the 14th and 15th amendment, they began to form clubs and organizations to build support for their cause.
The Equal Suffrage Association engaged with as many influential people as they could. Idaho would amend its constitution to allow women to vote in November 1896 within six months of the association’s first meeting in the church.
Like the Olney sisters, Anthony argued that women were inherently franchised under the 14th and 15th amendments. Today, the building is home to a wide variety of boutique shops, restaurants, and can host events in their ballroom.
Nettie Craig Asberry was a teacher, a community activist, civil rights leader and suffragist in Tacoma, Washington. From 1903 until 1966 (just two years before her death at age 103), Asberry lived in the Hilltop neighborhood in her folk-style home on 1219 South 13th Street, with her husband. The house still stands today and was recently nominated to be part of the city’s historic register.
Asberry earned a music degree in an age when few women were admitted into colleges, and she would go on to teach hundreds of students from inside her home. She was civically involved, forming Tacoma’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1913 alongside her husband.
She also helped found the Washington State Federation of Colored Women’s Club thanks to the many connections she made as a talented organizer (she would later become the club’s president.)
Fun fact: At 13 years old, Asberry became the secretary of her local Susan B. Anthony club.
Pioneer Courthouse Square
Located at the heart of Portland’s downtown, Pioneer Courthouse Square is the site of the old Portland Hotel, where Chinese American immigrant and suffragette S.K. Chan gave a remarkable speech on April 12, 1912.
Speaking to more than 100 other suffragist supporters, she’s quoted as saying:
“Oregon is now bounded on four sides by states that have recognized the rights of women: On the north, there’s Washington; on the east, there’s Idaho; on the south, there is California; and far away across the waters in the west, there’s China. I hope the time is not far off when Oregon herself takes her place among them.”
Oregon finally gave women the right to vote later that year.
–Written by Agueda Pacheco Flores, last updated in October 2022.
–Top photo of S.K. Chan and other suffragettes from Wikipedia