Search This Blog

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sarah Evans on Women, Lobbying and Voting and the Oregon Legislative Session of 1911

Clubwoman and Portland Market Inspector Sarah A. Evans wrote about Oregon women and the 1911 legislative session in her weekly Women's Clubs column for the Oregon Journal (February 26, 1911, 5:7). She assessed the political action of women and contrasted lobbying and attempts to influence the political process with the greater power of the vote. Washington women had achieved the vote in 1910 and were using it; Oregon women and their supporters had gathered enough signatures to put the measure on the 1912 ballot and the Oregon legislature had just endorsed it.
These developments gave her the context to emphasize the importance of the vote for women to achieve reform. "Women," Evans wrote, "have much to be thankful to the twenty-sixth legislative assembly, and a little to be resentful for, and a great deal to study over."
Evans counted several gains. One was legislation establishing the Oregon State Board of Nursing "which will put the profession on a dignified footing and insure to the state the most efficient service." Another was the end to Oregon's controversial whipping post law for men convicted of domestic violence. "Women of Oregon would sooner have seen the whipping post abolished than kept on the statute book," she wrote, "not that they object to the wife beater being whipped, but because it is a reflection on the women of the state that they would allow themselves--even a few--to be whipped for it isn't the stuff the real Oregon woman is made of, and the world should not think she had to be protected." (For more on the whipping post law, see David Peterson Del Mar, "His Face is Weak and Sensual": Portland and the Whipping Post Law," in Women in Pacific Northwest History ed. Karen J. Blair, rev. ed. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988): 59-89.)
The 1911 legislative session provided a strong lesson about the need for woman suffrage for Evans. The "strongest body of women lobbyists that ever went to the legislature," she wrote, failed to convince the Oregon legislature to pass a statewide pure milk law. Portland women, led by Esther Pohl, Evans and a coalition of activists, had passed several progressively stronger city ordinances for pure milk (my forthcoming biography of Esther Pohl Lovejoy explores this in detail). In 1911 they hoped to remove state Dairy and Food Commissioner J.W. Bailey and pass a statewide bill. Governor Oswald West asked the legislature to investigate and women testified before a joint house and senate committee. The failure of this bill, for Evans, proved that women without the vote, even though working actively in the political process through coalition building and lobbying, could not hope to effect political, social and economic change in a significant way.
"Influence," she wrote, "only reaches to the narrow confines of one home each, and sometimes not that far." Suffrage supporters like Esther Pohl Lovejoy joined Evans in calling for the vote to achieve what "influence" could not.
Evans also provided a perspective on what lobbying was like for women in 1911 before the achievement of woman suffrage. "No woman enjoys lobbying: she is met with cold indifference, distrust and often jeers and jokes; she feels herself out of place and she is as long as she holds an inferior place among those she is trying to influence, and it is only the brave and courageous who will dare this for a just cause." Oregon women, she wrote, were "wrestling with the legislature."
She contrasted this with the recent action by newly enfranchised Seattle women to recall Mayor Hiram Gill, whom they felt was not addressing gambling and prostitution in the city. (For more on this see Shanna Stevenson, Women's Votes, Women's Voices: The Campaign for Equal Rights in Washington (Tacoma: Washington State Historical Society, 2009) and John C. Putnam, Class and Gender Politics in Progressive-Era Seattle (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2008).) Seattle women, she wrote, "did not have to rush to Olympia by an early train, remain away from their families several days, face a jibing crowd of political corruptionists, and plead their case before an unbelieving committee" as Oregon women had just done in Salem. They went to the polls and voted.
For Evans "this is the greatest lesson the legislature left the women of Oregon to ponder on."

Sarah A. Evans, "Women's Clubs," Oregon Journal, February 26, 1911, 5:7.