Across our State

Women's suffrage in Washington state

Women didn't always have the right to vote in these United States of America. Our first presidents were elected by white male landowners. Voting rights for women came slowly and didn't succeed nationally until 1920 when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified.

In Washington State it is thought the first woman to vote was Sacajawea. The question then was whether to cross the Columbia River to winter in Oregon or stay north of the river near Fort Vancouver. The majority voted to cross, thus beginning a long, wet, miserable stay at Fort Clatsop. At any rate, Sacajawea became the poster girl for women's right to vote.

As early as our first territorial legislature in 1854, the question of who was to vote was addressed. Arthur Denny of Seattle sponsored an amendment favoring women's suffrage to a voting bill going through the legislative process. His amendment failed by only one vote. Thirteen years later, the territorial legislature passed another voting bill. This one gave the right to vote "to all white citizens above the age of 21." The next election in 1870 saw 13 women vote in Thurston County, but in 1871 the legislature said that women could not vote until the U.S. Congress passed a law allowing it.

It was on-again then off-again for the next 20 years. In 1883 the Territorial Legislature again passed women's suffrage. Washington Territory joined two others, Wyoming and Utah, to give women the right to vote. Women began voting in local and school elections, but in 1887, the Territorial Supreme Court revoked suffrage because of a suit on a case where women sat as jurors. In 1888 it was again made into law by the Territorial Legislature but excluded women from jury duty. That law was ruled void by the Supreme Court, which said that Congress had not intended women to vote, so our legislature could not enact such a law.

After statehood in 1889, efforts became more organized under the leadership of two women, Emma Smith DeVoe from Tacoma and May Arkwright Hutton of Spokane. By 1909 there was a full-scale campaign to lobby the legislature. The legislation that stands amended today passed in February, subject to a vote of the people in November of 1910.

The lobby effort turned to the people and to grassroot organizations. The Washington State Grange and the Farmer's Union among others supported women's suffrage. A million pieces of literature were distributed and signs and posters were hung. When the vote was in, the measure was ratified by nearly 2 to 1 in favor. We were the fifth State to allow women the vote behind Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and Idaho.

In 1912 the first women legislators were elected-Rep. Frances Haskell from Pierce County and Rep. Anna Colwell of Snohomish County.

There is a very informative exhibit now at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma which tells this story and shows some of the memorabilia of this struggle. It will be coming to Yakima next February. It is worth a visit. I was amazed at some of the ways some tried to deny women this right. It certainly wouldn't go far now!

- Jerri Honeyford, wife of Sen. Jim Honeyford (R-Sunnyside), provides her Across our State column while residing in Olympia with her husband.


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