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13. Abigail Scott Duniway, Path-Breaking

Abigail Scott Duniway’s Path-Breaking first appeared in 1914, near the very end of a long and busy life. Born in 1834, Duniway made the overland migration to Oregon with her family during the 1850s. Upon arrival in Oregon, Abigail Scott married and toiled as a farmer’s wife. She and her husband found it difficult to make money at agriculture. Abigail Scott Duniway eventually went into business, where she flourished, then began publishing The New Northwest newspaper and became Oregon’s leading exponent of women’s suffrage.

Writing years later about overland migration and early homesteading, Duniway, like Arthur Denny and Phoebe Goodell Judson, drew lessons from her experiences as a pioneer—in her case, lessons about the importance of women’s rights. Whereas Denny and Judson had generally emphasized the advantages of overland migration and settling in the Northwest, Duniway (1914:8) highlighted the hardships that men’s “Oregon fever” imposed on women—hardships that in turn inspired Duniway to bring up others: 

How we regretted leaving the dear, familiar haunts, and how our mother grieved as she, for the last time, visited the hallowed spot in the pasture, where the remains of her first-born son were buried, are incidents engraved upon my memory as indelibly as the light of the sun would be if I should never see it again.

I remember standing at the bedside, when another little sister came to our crowded home, and my mother said, through her tears:  “Poor baby! She’ll be a woman some day!  Poor baby!  A woman’s lot is so hard!”

Although Duniway clearly may have dramatized the impact of overland migration, historians have agreed with her that the decision to move across the country, which was made primarily by husbands and fathers, affected women more negatively than it did men (Faragher 1979). The fact that Duniway’s mother died from cholera on the trip meant that the father’s decision to move came at an even higher price. Telling the story of her mother’s death gave Duniway occasion to bring up a bout of her own suffering stemming from frontier conditions: “I lay helpless on a bed of illness caused by my own hardships as a pioneer path breaker…” (Duniway 1914: 8). 

After sketching out Duniway’s life as daughter, wife, mother, and businesswoman, Path-Breaking presents some of the many speeches that Duniway made on behalf of suffrage. These texts remind us of the importance of audience when considering a text. Abigail Scott Duniway faced a difficult challenge in arguing for women’s suffrage. Although she often addressed women’s groups, she was ever conscious that it was really men who needed to be convinced about women’s right to vote. Her writings thus twisted and turned in peculiar ways as Duniway attempted to persuade and cajole and reassure men without offending them. It was a delicate balancing act. Duniway also made use of the region in her argument. She argued that western society was more advanced than the rest of the United States and therefore more prepared to extend suffrage to women. She suggested as well that pioneer women’s labors in settling the West had earned for them a stronger claim to voting rights.  She was correct in one respect—western states generally did extend suffrage to women more quickly than did eastern states. Within the Northwest, however, Duniway’s Oregon lagged behind Idaho (1896) and Washington (1910) in enacting this reform. Oregon enacted suffrage in 1912, and Duniway died three years later.

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