Idaho women win right to vote

Special to The Idaho StatesmanJanuary 24, 2006 

— In 1896, Idaho had the distinction of being the fourth state in the union to give women the right to vote. Not until 1920, with the passage and ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, did all American women have that right. As Wyoming historian T.A. Larson reminds us, Idaho very nearly gave women the vote in 1871. Dr. Joseph Williams Morgan, a member of Idaho's lower house from Malad City, introduced a suffrage bill that passed 11-10 on its second reading. But on the third reading a member who had been absent earlier voted against it. The resulting 11-11 tie defeated the measure.

The arguments used to defeat legislation to give women the right to vote were familiar ones, having been used in every part of the country since 1848 when the suffrage movement was started, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. The objections of W.H. Van Slyke, a Republican legislator from Silver City, as summarized by historian Larson were: "Women were already adequately represented by men, and that to give them the ballot would disrupt society, cause domestic discord, and destroy feminine modesty." In Van Slyke's own words: "Woman rules us through her love, and her chiefest power over us is through her graceful impulsiveness of heart and fancy, well enough around the fireside, but dangerous guides in the halls of legislation."

In the 1890s, leading up to Idaho's enfranchisement of women in 1896, The Idaho Statesman, led by editor William Balderston, consistently supported the cause. The Idaho speeches of the eloquent Abigail Scott Duniway of Portland were often reported verbatim. Duniway was easily the most powerful voice for women's suffrage in Idaho in the 19th century. She was the founder and publisher of the weekly women's rights paper New Northwest, and traveled throughout Oregon, Washington and Idaho seeking subscriptions and giving lectures. She addressed the Idaho Legislature in January 1887 and the Constitutional Convention in 1889. With tireless energy she had, she later recalled, given 140 public lectures, traveled more than 12,000 miles "by river, rail, stage and buckboard," and given out half a million copies of her paper.

Duniway was a shrewd politician, and realized that another powerful organization, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, could jeopardize the chances of getting the vote for women if the men needed to vote for universal suffrage thought women would promptly close the saloons. She urged her followers to get the vote first, not scare away the men by talk of prohibition and reforming the morals of society. Remember, women could not vote in Idaho until two-thirds of Idaho men were enlightened enough to give them that right. The 1896 vote was close, and it appeared at first that the necessary majority had not been attained. On appeal, the Idaho Supreme Court's three male justices ruled unanimously that women had won the right to vote in Idaho elections.

Did you know that more than 15 million American women between the ages of 18 and 34 did not vote in the 2000 presidential election? "You've come a long way, baby," but a lot of work must be done if we are to fulfill the dream of those pioneer women and men who worked so hard for equal opportunities for women.

Next week we'll examine further how Idaho women have used that privilege to change society, how women's rights and opportunities were expanded in the 20th century, and how women's history is now taught in our state.

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