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Spreading the Light:
Abigail S. Duniway

By: Dorothy M. Ashe

Art By: Olga Dunayeva
Art By: Olga Dunayeva

The women of the United States owe "an incalculable debt to the classically liberated feminists who came before us and fought long and hard, ultimately with spectacular success, to gain for women the rights that the men of this country had taken for granted for over two hundred years" (Sommers, 17).

    Sound like a new idea?

    Only when coupled with the phrases that follow it in Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women by Christina Hoff Sommers, philosophy professor at Clark University. In her 1994 publication, Sommers sheltered the reputation of Nineteenth-Century American feminists but attacked today's "gynocentric" adherents of "gender feminism" for their hypocrisy, their anger, and their resentful anti-male divisiveness (22).

    Sommers is not the first feminist to attack the anti-male strategies of other women. The "First Wave," or "Equity Feminists," sought humanistic as opposed to gender-specific goals--fair treatment without discrimination. But that first wave included women who themselves were challenged by suffragists from the 1870s. Among these women was Abigail Scott Duniway.

    Happily married mother of six (five of whom were boys), Duniway often found it necessary to point out that feminists were not men-haters:

    "Not only is our movement not instigated in a spirit of warfare between the sexes, but it is engendered, altogether, in the spirit of harmony. . . . Every good woman in the world likes men a great deal better than she likes women, and there isn't a wise woman in all this goodly land who isn't proud to say so . . . . Show me a woman who doesn't like men, and I will show you a sour-souled, vinegar-visaged specimen of unfortunate femininity, who owes the world an apology for living in it at all" ( Path Breaking, 157).

    Duniway often humorously exaggerated her points, and she was clearly not from a time when alternative lifestyles were much considered. Still, she was always serious about insisting that women's rights should not (and could not) be won by making enemies of men. In an age in which suffrage for women was frequently associated with prohibition of alcoholic beverages, such common sense was, in fact, uncommon. Dissociating the two movements became one of the Oregon suffragette's primary goals. In public speeches and in her newspaper, The New Northwest, she argued for the separation on the grounds of practicality, freedom, and morality.

    Prohibition, Duniway argued, was a direct attempt to impose reform on the American male, particularly those who overindulged and thus made life unbearable for their wives and children. These victims could not escape their situation because there were no educational, property, or employment rights for women. If women could get the vote, she claimed, they could influence legislation that would grant such rights. In this way, they could better the lot of victimized women and their children, a major aim of the Prohibition movement. With the two movements publicly linked, women would never get the vote. Why? The only group that could give women the vote were current voters--all men. Duniway maintained that the strategy of the suffrage-prohibition coalition was polarizing those voting males.

    "Every woman who stands behind the prison bars of her present political environment, reaching her manacled hands to men who hold the key to the locked gates of constitutional law, through which she alone can gain her liberty, and says to them, "Give us the ballot, and we'll put down our whiskey!" only arouses a thousand men to say by their votes, "Very well, we won't give you the ballot, and that will settle it!" (Oregonian, 33).

    Women's suffrage amendments were repeatedly rejected on state and local ballots when the women's movement was tied to Prohibition and the Women's Christian Temperance Union. If women wanted the vote, it was evident that practicality demanded the separation of the two movements.

    Duniway carried this message up and down the Pacific Coast, to the East and back, in lecture halls, churches, and living rooms, from primitive settlements to the legislature. Her speeches, stories, articles, books, and poems all extolled women's need for the vote--and how to get it. She was never hesitant about delivering her particular brand of maverick pragmatism to her sisters in the national suffrage organizations who had, she felt, thrust their prohibition platform on the western branch of the movement.

    No matter if those who listened to her speak were mostly women; Duniway's arguments were also directed at the masculine majority. Her speech "How to Win the Ballot" purposed to repair the damage done to the suffragist/voter relationship.

    "Women, under normal conditions, are evolutionists and not revolutionists," she emphasized (Path Breaking, 262).

    Although such words seem quaint today, her terms were consistent with her denial of hatred--as Andrew Sinclair states in The Emancipation of the American Woman: "A revolution feeds on hatred, a reform on compromise" (254).

    There could be no real compromise between Prohibition and Suffrage, between force and the freedom upon which Duniway based her second line of argument. No rational alliance was possible when the granting of rights to women meant a forceful denial of rights to men. She found her reasoning in the Declaration of Independence and the preamble to the Constitution. Their broad protections of personal liberties were to her incompatible with restrictive anti-drinking laws. She wasted no tact in attacking the arguments of anti-saloon activists as irrational, emotional, and impractical. But she was quick to point out that this behavior was directly a result of the frustration women felt in the absence of a viable political outlet--the vote.

    In her third line of argument, Duniway rejected force as an effective means for establishing morality. Morals were the result of freedom, she insisted, and offered five upright, civic-minded, successful, teetotaling sons as proof. Temperance and moderation were behavioral decisions made independently, not by compulsory laws. Duniway believed so strongly in this proposition that she made it the core of the preface to her autobiography, Path Breaking.

    "The man who is only honest because everything he might be tempted to steal is hidden beyond his reach, or destroyed, or driven from use, or abuse, by the fiat of man-made laws, is never safe from his own moral delinquency . . . all men should not be denied the power of self-control over human appetites because some men abuse them" (xiii).

    According to Duniway, then, a woman did not need laws coercing men in order to bring up moral sons. What she needed was the independence the vote could afford.

    "To transmit character-building power to her children, she must first, herself, be free and independent of all restrictive influences and laws opposed to the God-given right of individual liberty" (Path Breaking, xviv).

    Proponents of temperance and prohibition countered that there were laws against murder and horse-stealing, and yet they were not called coercion. Therefore, there should be a similar restriction on drinking. Duniway was impatient with the analogy, calling it a "state argument," for laws against murder and horse-stealing were passed by common and undisputed consent, support that prohibition did not have.

    Duniway would have reminded gender feminists that women need freedom and rights, among which are the options not to eliminate those ties which bind them to men but to improve them. Laws were needed not to deny rights to men but instead to extend citizenship to women, to offer women the opportunity to acquire property, education, and employment. In short, to gain independence.

    Sinclair calls this one-woman campaign an "isolated and successful battle" (xxiii). In 1912, Oregon granted women the right to vote, eight years before that right was extended to all American women. The state showed its appreciation for her efforts by asking Duniway to write the proclamation of that franchise; the governor signed it and then issued it in her hand.

    In retrospect, this feminist's argument that female freedom would lead directly to a community of moral individuals seems to have been overly optimistic. Women have many freedoms, but that utopian ideal eludes us still. Although written in 1965, Sinclair's observation still holds true: "The geography of liberty still has many frontiers to cross" (xxix).

    As we approach the year 2000, those frontiers extend beyond the borders of Abigail Scott Duniway into a world where many women still have no voting rights. Especially in the Middle East and developing countries, women's rights to their own future, let alone the right to help make political decisions of national importance, are consistently denied. Duniway would have had us pursue their rights as passionately as our own. Her legacy, after all, is about freedom.

    "The young . . . [American] women of today, free to study, to speak, to write, to choose their occupation, should remember that every inch of this freedom was bought for them at a great price. It is for them to show their gratitude by . . . spreading the light of freedom and truth still wider. The debt that each generation owes to the past it must pay to the future" (Path Breaking, 297).


    Duniway, Abigail S. "Ballots and Bullets. The Portland Oregonian, 9 September 1906: 33.
    Path Breaking, 2nd edition. Portland, Oregon: James, Kern, & Abbott Company, 1914.
    Sinclair, Andrew. The Emancipation of the American Woman. New York: Harper & Row, 1965.
    Sommers, Christina Hoff. Who Stole Feminism? New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.

This is a revised version of an article
that originally appeared in Western Speech, XXXV: 1.

Dorothy Ashe has published in numerous fiction and non-fiction markets. She is a tenured professor of writing and speech at West Hills College in Coalinga, California.


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