A hundred years ago Sunday, the hallways of the Old State Capitol Building in Olympia were buzzing with anticipation. Women from around the state greeted one another. Some held the hands of wide-eyed little girls in party dresses, for this was a day to remember.
Washington was poised to become the next-to-last state to ratify the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
Washington women had won the vote 10 years earlier. Now they were in the forefront of the push for national suffrage. And they were not going to be denied.
Gov. Louis Hart had balked at calling a special legislative session to consider the suffrage amendment because the state General Fund was in the red and he was worried about special-interest mischief.
Citing a highly suspect house-to-house survey of women “of all classes” by a friend in Tacoma, the governor said he believed the “thinking women” of the state opposed a special session. And why should he place the state “in a position of blame” if national women’s suffrage ultimately failed to secure enough states for ratification?
But the governor yielded to some domestic arm-twisting. He relented after state Rep. Frances Haskell from Pierce County and Carrie Chapman Catt, the president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, lobbied First Lady Ella Hart to lean on him.
On the big day, the governor was front and center. Haskell, a peppery equal-rights trailblazer, escorted the famed Tacoma suffragist Emma Smith DeVoe to a seat on the House dais next to him.
One of only two women in the 139-member Legislature, Haskell introduced the ratification resolution with a ringing declaration that “the woman’s hour”— one of the great slogans of the movement — was at hand:
“The women of our grandmothers’ time lived in a very small and narrow sphere,” Haskell said. “But civilization has advanced by leaps and bounds in the last quarter of a century. Now Washington can prove to the world that the greatness of our Evergreen state is not determined by the number of acres that it contains, nor by the number of its population, but by the character of its men and women who today are extending to all the women of America the privilege of the ballot!”
The suffrage amendment was ratified by unanimous votes in both chambers of the Washington State Legislature.
Tennessee put the suffrage amendment over the top five months later on Aug. 18. The man of the woman’s hour there was Harry Burn, a 24-year-old lawmaker under heavy pressure to oppose suffrage. At the urging of his mother, he voted in favor. And that carried the day.
“I knew that a mother’s advice is always safest for a boy to follow,” Burn told reporters.
The push for women’s suffrage in Washington began seven decades earlier. Seattle pioneer Arthur A. Denny abhorred liquor, respected women and became the grandfather of the suffrage movement in our state. At the first meeting of the Territorial Assembly in 1854, Delegate Denny proposed that “all white females over the age of 18” be allowed to vote. The amendment was defeated by one vote.
In 1883, the Territorial Assembly accorded women the vote in all elections as well as the right to serve on juries. In the 1885 and 1886 elections, women “voted intelligently and well,” a suffrage historian wrote, adding: “In fact, it is on record that gamblers and thugs were driven out of the territory … as long as women held the power of the ballot in their hands.”
When the Territorial Supreme Court revoked suffrage in 1887, the Legislature promptly re-enacted the law.
Then things went to pieces. Male-privilege judicial activism was on full display a year later when the justices of the high court divined that the federal government intended to put “male” before “citizenship” in the Washington Territory Organic Act when establishing voter qualifications.
Finally, in statewide balloting on Nov. 8, 1910, Washington women — most of them at least — won the vote from their male counterparts who already could. It was, of course, a vote-by-male election.
Obviously there were a lot of “suffragents” in Washington. Nearly 64 percent of the electorate approved the amendment, with all 39 counties favoring ratification.
“The stunningly decisive victory … is widely credited with reinvigorating the national movement,” Olympia historian Shanna Stevenson wrote in her 2009 book, Women’s Votes, Women’s Voices. “When Washington joined her western sisters in 1910, it had been 14 years since a state had enacted irrevocable women’s suffrage.”
That Dec. 3 in a local special election, Mrs. Mary Wilson of Renton became the first woman in the state to cast a vote under the newly ratified amendment, according to The Seattle Daily Times, which featured her in a two-column photo. She was “the first of more than 50 of the maids and matrons of Renton to appear to vote on the question of forming Renton Waterway District No. 2.”
Two years later, the first woman was elected to statewide office. Josephine Corliss Preston, 39, Walla Walla County’s first female school superintendent, was elected Superintendent of Public Instruction, the direct beneficiary of an expanding suffrage movement propelled by thousands of resourceful female campaigners.
She prevailed in a tricky four-way race by out-campaigning her opponents, including two other women. Support from women’s clubs was decisive in her victory. In 1919, Preston was elected president of the 52,000-member National Education Association and emerged as a national suffrage advocate as well as leader in the movement to secure better pay and pensions for teachers. Washington’s 10,000 teachers were predominantly female.
Preston, who began teaching on the prairies of Minnesota as a teenager, was their champion. As the national suffrage question loomed, she warned Gov. Hart he stood to lose the woman’s vote in the next election if he didn’t get with the program.
Some still had to wait for the vote:
Some Washington women remained disenfranchised after the state and national suffrage amendments, including those who had lost their citizenship by marrying foreigners. That law was modified in 1922, but still prohibited American-born women from voting if they married an Asian immigrant.
Two years later, Congress finally granted citizenship to all Native Americans, though some states suppressed their ability to vote for decades more. A 1943 act sponsored by then-U. S. Rep. Warren G. Magnuson of Washington allowed naturalized citizenship to Chinese immigrants already residing in the U.S., a nod to our World War II ally. But immigrant Japanese, including those on the West Coast sent to desolate concentration camps together with their U.S.-born children, were denied voting rights until the federal McCarran-Walter Act of 1952.
“Ahead of the Curve: Washington Women Lead the Way 1910-2020” explores the suffrage movement in our state and its legacy of trailblazing women. Written by John Hughes and former Seattle Times reporter Bob Young, it includes chapters on Ana Mari Cauce, the president of the University of Washington; Fawn Sharp, the newly elected president of the National Congress of American Indians; and Elsie Parrish, the former Wenatchee hotel chambermaid who won a landmark 1937 U.S. Supreme Court decision on minimum wages.