Susan B. Anthony addresses territorial legislature on October 19, 1871, then helps found Washington Woman Suffrage Association
October 15, 2023 at 8:00 a.m.
On October 19, 1871, Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), national women's rights leader and vice president of the National Woman Suffrage Association, becomes the first woman to address the Washington Territorial Legislature. She and Oregon suffragist Abigail Scott Duniway (1834-1915) are touring Oregon and Washington Territory to promote the cause of woman suffrage. Nine days after Anthony's speech, the two women will help organize the Washington Woman Suffrage Association.
Spreading the Word
In the fall of 1871, noted woman suffrage advocates Susan B. Anthony and Abigail Scott Duniway toured the major towns of Oregon and Washington to promote women's right to vote. They arrived in Olympia on October 18 and were hosted at the home of Albert and Olive Manning, civic leaders in the city and active suffrage supporters.
Washington Territory had flirted with woman suffrage since its earliest days. At the first session of the territorial legislature in February 1854, Arthur Denny (1822-1899), one of the founders of Seattle, proposed a measure to grant the vote to all white females over the age of 18. It was defeated by a single vote.
Weeks before the visit by Anthony and Duniway, Representative Daniel Bigelow (1824-1905) of Olympia had introduced a bill that would have given women the right to vote on the very question of whether they should be granted the right to vote. On October 17 the legislature, by a margin of 18 to eight, voted to invite Anthony to speak on the issue.
Anthony took the rostrum to address the legislature shortly after 2:00 p.m. on October 19, 1871. A large number of women had been allowed into the chamber itself and the lobby outside was crowded with interested men and women. Anthony began by stating that this was both her first appearance before a legislature and the first time in American history that a woman had been allowed to speak to lawmakers while they were in session.
Anthony then cited several provisions of the U.S. Constitution and those of various states that guaranteed rights to the people, without regard to gender. She noted that the Declaration of Independence, after listing "self-evident" truths, stated that "whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it" (Declaration of Independence). How, she asked, could this be done peaceably without granting to all the people the right to vote?
Addressing the argument that the use in the nation's founding documents of the male pronouns "he" and "his" necessarily excluded women, Anthony argued that if this was so, laws imposing penalties and levying taxes should only apply to men. Citing provisions of constitutional amendments that guaranteed rights to all citizens, she argued that women, if they were to be regarded as citizens, were equal beneficiaries of those guarantees, including the right to vote.
Anthony continued in a similar vein, demonstrating a broad knowledge of constitutional law and court decisions interpreting that document. To the surprise of some, she argued against Representative Bigelow's proposed law, noting that the rights of the people were embodied in the constitution and therefore not subject to legislative tinkering.
Many territorial newspapers gave Anthony's speech generally high marks. She herself noted in her diary:
"October 19 Thursday. Olympia Wash Ter Addressed Legislature at 2 P.M. Assembly room packed — Made pretty good argument" (The Selected Papers ...).
Nine days after the speech, on October 28, a convention organized by Anthony, Duniway, and local supporters was held in Olympia. Out of that convention came the Washington Woman Suffrage Association, which would continue the fight to win the vote.
It was to be a long battle. The majority of territorial legislators were not persuaded by Anthony's speech or the new organization. Evidently feeling threatened, they reacted by passing, on November 28, 1871, a law withholding the vote from women "until the Congress of the United States of America shall, by direct legislation, declare the same to be the supreme law of the land" ("Suffrage in the Pacific Northwest ... ).
Abigail Scott Duniway, Path Breaking: An Autobiographical History of the Equal Suffrage Movement in Pacific Coast States (Portland: James, Kerns and Abbott Company, 1914); T. A. Larson, "The Woman Suffrage Movement in Washington," Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol. 67, No. 2 (April 1976), p. 31; Ruth Barnes Moynihan, Rebel for Rights: Abigail Scott Duniway (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), 93; Declaration of Independence, United States Archives Charters of Freedom website accessed October 17, 2013 (http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html); The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: Against an Aristocracy of Sex, 1866 to 1873 ed. by Ann Gordon (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1997) 455-458; Stella E. Pierce, "Suffrage in the Pacific Northwest: Old Oregon and Washington," The Washington Historical Quarterly, Volume 3 (April 1, 1912), pp. 110, 111; "Washington: Crusade in the Northwest," Women of the West Museum website accessed October 17, 2013 (http://theautry.org/explore/exhibits/suffrage/suffrage_wa.html).
Note: This essay was substantially expanded and corrected, including as to dates of the events described, on October 18, 2013.