How Washington women won the right to vote

It was a time when a shocking murder in the streets of Everett and a radical newspaper published by an Edmonds woman named Missouri Hanna helped spark the flagging movement to give women the right to vote.

And to fund the suffrage campaign, women sold for the steep price of a dollar a cookbook edited by a La Conner woman.

A century ago, Washington became one of the first states in the nation to give women the right to vote alongside their husbands, brothers, fathers and sons. But the tale that leads to this centennial is full of little-known histories.

Even before Washington achieved statehood in 1889, women already had won the right to vote, only to see it taken away a few years later when the territorial Supreme Court reversed the decision on a technicality.

The story, with its cast of famous and infamous characters, includes chapters on the state flower, the liquor lobby, labor unions, poster paste and a lot of ladies determined to win a better life for themselves and their families.

On Nov. 8, 1910, men in Snohomish County and around the state cast their ballots and decided overwhelmingly to give women the vote. The news from Washington state energized the national women’s suffrage movement and the fight for what would become the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.

* * *

Susan B. Anthony, the country’s best-known suffragist, once wrote that someday young women would think that their privileges and freedoms were there from the beginning. They would have no idea, Anthony said, that they stood on ground gained by some brave women from the past.

The origins of women’s suffrage reach back to the American Revolution, when people of what would become the United States fought for the right to govern themselves, writes Shanna Stevenson of the Washington State Historical Society in her book “Women’s Votes, Women’s Voices.”

As John Adams and his contemporaries devised a framework with which to govern the new republic, Adams’ wife, Abigail, his behind-the-scenes adviser, urged her husband to “remember the ladies” as participants in democracy.

In the early decades of our nation’s history, women who wanted to vote were aligned with those who wanted other reforms, such as the abolition of slavery and tempered alcohol use. Drinking was seen as the cause of all sorts of problems that plagued families in the young nation.

In 1848, these women came together for the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y. The convention passed a resolution, “That it is the duty of women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to elective franchise.”

The first women to win the privilege of voting were those in the territories of Wyoming and Utah. Then, in 1883, women in Washington Territory got the vote.

* * *

In the 1870s, women around the country, including a well-known group in Olympia, tested the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, which defined citizenship and a citizen’s right to vote. They went to the polls armed with legal arguments, but in the end, it didn’t work. Many were arrested and the U.S. Supreme Court determined that the right to vote was not an automatic right of citizenship.

So suffragists switched tactics and began to work for a Constitutional amendment to allow women to vote, said Stevenson in her book.

Over the years, numerous men in Washington’s territorial Legislature fought to give the vote to their fellow female citizens. Those efforts never went far until 1877, when women were allowed to vote in school board elections — education being considered the natural realm of women.

In 1883, many in the Legislature who supported the bill that would grant women’s suffrage were Eastern Washington farmers, who may have viewed women voters as a way to clean up the morals of the territory, Stevenson said.

Elections in 1884 were attended by a greater percentage of women voters than men. They helped vote out municipal governments run by men involved in gambling and liquor and elect legislators sympathetic to their concerns.

The following year, the Legislature made laws calling for alcohol education and alcohol prohibition where local citizens wanted it. The gambling and saloon lobby began to fear that women voters would further push prohibition and that uppity female activities might harm the territory’s chance to achieve statehood. Suffrage was bad for business, they argued.

In 1888, the conservative territorial Supreme Court overturned on a minor technicality the legislation granting women’s suffrage. Washington became a state in 1889.

* * *

In 1892, state officials needed to choose a flower that would represent Washington state the following year at the Chicago World’s Fair. The state’s fair commission decided that only women would participate in the election to choose the state flower.

After all, state officials decided, women were concerned about the beautification of cities. And they were, along with more serious issues such as environmental conservation, clean water and underground sewers (for sanitation and to keep their long dresses out of the foul-smelling gutters.)

Most women, many of whom had lobbied for decades for social change and suffrage, were not offended by the request to choose the state flower, Stevenson said.

Indeed, the flower election was popular.

In post office polling places from Seattle to Spokane, women signed their names next to their choice for Washington’s flower. The ballot included the rhododendron, dogwood, wild rose, Oregon grape and clover — a frontrunner.

In her book, Stevenson tells the story of Alsora Hayner Fry’s support for the rhododendron, which is native to much of Western Washington.

Fry ran her campaign from a drugstore in downtown Seattle. To dissuade other ladies from voting for the clover, Fry set up a store window display of fresh clover and live bunnies to eat it. When the ballots were counted, the winner was the rhododendron. Fry wore a fancy dress printed with pink rhody blossoms to the state ball in Olympia the following year.

In celebration of the centennial of suffrage in Washington, women are again using the rhododendron as a symbol of enthusiasm for the right to vote.

* * *

Women’s clubs in Washington kept the suffrage movement simmering early in the 20th century. Organizations such as the Everett Book Club, as well as music clubs, ladies’ aid societies and hospital guilds, taught women how to organize and get results.

Women rode bicycles and began to hike and climb mountains in the state, proving their physical abilities and stamina. And though teaching had for many years been a career dominated by women, the state now had three teacher-training schools, and these colleges were populated primarily by young women who wanted the right to vote along with their teaching certificates.

Women were entering the work force in greater numbers, though many were underpaid. This disturbed the labor unions, whose members were worried about losing their jobs to those willing to work for less. So, women’s right to vote became a union cause, too.

Labor leaders thought women would surely vote to support better working conditions, safety regulations and eight-hour workdays for everybody. But women also would vote for equal pay for equal work, and then, the union bosses figured, employers were sure to hire men instead of women.

By 1908, the suffrage movement was back in full swing in Washington. The campaign was funded with quarters pilfered from grocery budgets, the support of labor unions, the state Grange and a few churches, and by the sales of “Washington Women’s Cookbook: Votes for Women, Good Things to Eat,” edited by La Conner suffragist Linda Deziah Jennings.

“At the turn of the century women in the home also were very interested in municipal housekeeping. They wanted sewers, clean water, safe food and municipal beautification,” Stevenson said. “It became clear to men and women that they really needed the vote to influence changes.”

* * *

In Everett, the ill treatment of women was on the minds of many who followed in the Everett Daily Herald the story of Margaret Quinn, who was shot and mortally wounded by her drunken husband, Richard Quinn, in the Riverside neighborhood in the fall of 1908.

The tragedy may have energized local people who supported rights for women and alcohol prohibition, said David Dilgard, historian at the Everett Public Library.

Deaths of men working in the cedar shake industry were frequent in part because of the high level of alcohol use among them, Dilgard said. Richard Quinn was a mill worker and a known drunk.

The story went that his drunkenness, cruelty and unfounded jealousy forced Margaret Quinn to move to a nearby boarding house. She found work as a housekeeper. Upset that his wife refused to come home, Richard Quinn threw her steamer trunk into the street and went off to the saloon. Margaret was walking to get the trunk when she encountered Richard in the street. He rode up on his horse, carrying a rifle. Though he claimed later that it was an accident, Richard Quinn shot his wife at point blank range. She died five days later.

“A crowd of women attended her funeral,” Dilgard said. “It was a rallying point for women who were sick of the abuse by drunken husbands and who were without a vote to make social changes.”

As an aside, it was Richard Quinn’s botched hanging that led to capital punishment reforms in the state.

* * *

In early 1909, the state Legislature decided to place on the ballot a referendum to amend the state constitution. It asked the state’s voters, all of them men, if they wanted women to join them at the polls.

Suffragists had 20 months to persuade the electorate. The campaign was waged in the press, in front parlors, at county fairs and on street corners. Women were urged to wear golden Votes for Women pins, talk to all their friends and business associates and distribute suffrage literature.

“Votes for Women,” a statewide suffrage newspaper edited by Missouri Hanna of Edmonds, printed large posters and a recipe for flour paste with which to post the campaign messages. Even timid women can put up posters, the newspaper admonished.

The posters quoted Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Mark Twain in their historical support for women’s suffrage. Other posters noted that women in four other Western states and several other countries already were marking their ballots, so wasn’t it time for Washington women to join them?

In downtown Everett, suffrage club members strung a large golden banner across Hewitt Avenue from their office on the third floor of the Commerce Building at Rockefeller Avenue. It read: “Vote for Amendment, Article VI. It Means Votes for Women.”

In an opinion piece in the Everett Daily Herald the week of the election, club member Mrs. John B. Allen wrote that voters had the opportunity to restore suffrage to the women of Washington.

“I beg of you men, do not any longer make (the ballot available) on the inane (basis) of sex,” she wrote.

The Everett Suffrage Club also had one of the most active groups of poll watchers in the state. They were on hand as men in the city and across the state cast their ballots on Nov. 8, 1910.

* * *

As the Everett Daily Herald predicted, voter turnout was good despite the rain on Election Day. Along with suffrage, the ballot included a local-option measure to restrict sales of alcohol, which undoubtedly brought out the male voters in the city.

Just two weeks before the election, renowned Chicago lawyer Clarence Darrow, 15 years before he would defend John Scopes, had been in town to extoll the virtues of personal liberty. Which liberty did Darrow speak about? The workingman’s right to whiskey.

Everett voters approved the local option measure by only 271 votes, but ratified the women’s suffrage amendment by 1,000 votes. Statewide, in every county, the vote was 2 to 1 in favor of a woman’s right to vote.

Stevenson, when researching for her book, found that many newspapers, including the Everett Daily Herald, downplayed suffrage in the election results editions.

“That was somewhat puzzling at first,” Stevenson said. “But, of course, by then, for most men the time had come and the victory was not a surprise.”

Washington’s achievement was hailed nationally, she said. Washington was the fifth state in the union and the first state in the 20th century to permanently enfranchise women.

“The success in Washington reinvigorated the suffrage movement,” Stevenson said.

Within the next several years, California, Oregon, Arizona, Kansas, the territory of Alaska, Montana and Nevada had joined Washington, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Idaho in giving women the right to vote.

A popular postcard in 1915 was “The Awakening,” in which a golden-clad Lady Liberty spreads enlightenment from West to East.

“The West had a more progressive culture,” Dilgard said. “And that continues today.”

Before the rest of the country granted suffrage, women voters in Washington helped pass legislation that guaranteed pensions to widowed mothers and an eight-hour day for overworked waitresses.

In Washington, D.C., suffragists in 1917 protested outside the White House. Some were arrested, sentenced to prison, beaten and tortured.

In 1919, Congress passed the 19th amendment to the Constitution, “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex,” and sent it to the states for ratification. With enough states voting to ratify, the amendment took effect on Aug. 26, 1920.

Of course, not all women immediately had the right to vote. American Indian women achieved suffrage with the 1924 federal Indian Citizenship Act. Most immigrants from Asia had the right by the ’50s. And although black women got the vote in 1910 in Washington, and nationally in 1920, racism kept many from voting. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 ended practices that disenfranchised black voters and other minorities.

* * *

During the past 100 years, Washington state has elected many women to public office. Women were elected in 1912 to serve in the state House and in 1923 to the state Senate. In all, 250 women have served in the halls of Olympia.

Seattle’s Bertha Knight Landes in 1926, became the first female mayor of a major U.S. city. Dixy Lee Ray was elected the state’s first female governor in 1976. Catherine May of Yakima was elected in the late 1950s as the state’s first federal representative. Since then, six other Washington women have served in Congress, and, in 2005, Washington became the first state to have a female governor and two female U.S. senators serving at the same time.

During her trade mission to China and Vietnam last month, Gov. Chris Gregoire said that when she meets with leaders of other countries, they often want to talk about the rise of women to positions of power in Washington and the rest of the country.

That’s not a surprise to many women still working for women’s rights internationally. Washington is still leading the way, Stevenson said.

“The centennial of women’s suffrage in this state is the sort of anniversary that helps us take stock, look back and then look forward,” Stevenson said. “It’s important to know what happened and why, and draw strength from that.”

To commemorate the suffrage centennial, an Olympia nursery has hybridized a new rhododendron named “Emma and May,” after two of the state’s most active suffragists, Republican Emma Smith Devoe of Tacoma and Democrat May Arkwright Hutton of Spokane.

Everett Community College student body president Stephanie Kermgard knew little about the history of Washington women until she realized it had been on 100 years since women here got the right to vote. Kermgard likes to think she would have been among the suffragists fighting for the vote a century ago.

“I hope I would have been that courageous and that bold.”

Learn more

Women’s History Consortium:

Suffrage movement in Snohomish County:

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427;

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