The history of women’s suffrage in Washington is like a vintage version of whack-a-mole. Women’s right to vote popped up, and got beaten back, several times during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But Washington’s efforts were still ahead of most of the rest of the nation, according to Richard Burrows.
“Washington was the first state to pass suffrage in the 20th century,” said Burrows, the community outreach director at The Historic Trust. The trust’s third annual Vancouver Chautauqua series next week will focus on suffrage and other historical topics. Starting Monday, the six-day educational and cultural festival will feature talks, workshops, tours, performances and more, all based at Vancouver’s favorite historic sites, Providence Academy and the Fort Vancouver campus.
“We have a women-and-leadership theme going this year,” said Burrows. “Most states that were early adopters (of women’s suffrage) were in the West. Women and men were more equal in the West because of the legacy of pioneer days, when everybody had to pull their weight to be successful. I think men in the West were more used to that.”
Well, maybe. Washington women were already exercising the right when the Territorial Supreme Court revoked it in 1888, determining that the legal term “citizen” really meant “male citizen” when it came to voting.
After that, struggles over the matter even descended to petty trickery, like one voting rights bill getting swiped and secretly replaced by a similar-but-different one. A legislator named Laura Hall Peters discovered the subterfuge and rescued the original bill — and it failed.
If You Go
There’s way too much happening at The Historic Trust’s third annual Vancouver Chautauqua to cram it all in here; what follows are selected highlights. Check the website TheHistoricTrust.org/calendar/vancouverchautauqua for complete details, registration and prices. Many events are free; a few cost $5 or $10.
Walk-and-talk history tours: Different sites and subjects, from the Marshall House to Providence Academy, daily at 10 a.m. New this year is a Saturday morning tour of Officers Row trees, plants and flowers, hosted by the city’s Urban Forestry office and local botanical experts. “There are some really rare species there, and we expect this one to be very popular,” Burrows said.
Exhibitions: “Standing Together” is an exhibition on loan from the National Woman’s Party featuring photos and artifacts from the suffrage campaign. On display from 2 to 7 p.m. daily in the Red Cross Building at 605 Barnes St. Also ongoing, at the Artillery Barracks next door, will be military displays and an extensive Columbia Gorge model train layout.
Lectures/talks: A film about botanist David Douglas; a talk by Tracy Reilly Kelly about leading Washington women who pressed for suffrage; a talk by Leslie Durst about Scottish women and stitchery samplers; a talk by Barb Kubik about Sacagawea; and a League of Women Voters’ panel on women’s issues, past and future. That’s all at 7 p.m., different evenings and locations.
Workshops: A collective origami art project, every morning at 9 a.m.; a collaborative crochet sculpture project, every afternoon at 1 p.m. That’s all at Providence Academy.
• Monday: Portland folk musician Laura Sheehan hosts a free, creative folk music salon 1 p.m. at the Marshall House, and then plays a concert at 7 p.m. at Providence Academy.
• Tuesday: The Misty Mamas, a Clark County bluegrass group, host a community singalong at 1 p.m. at the Marshall House.
• Wednesday: A “distilled” version of Vancouver’s old-timey Ne Plus Ultra Jass Orchestra performs toe-tapping hits of the 1920s and 1930s, 7 p.m. at Providence Academy.
• Thursday: Washington Dance Creative presents a modern, diverse dance program, 7 p.m. at Providence Academy.
• Friday: “A Suffrage Play” by Magenta Theater, 7 p.m. in the Red Cross Building; the Misty Mamas play at 7 p.m. at Providence Academy.
• Saturday: Singer Cecelia Otto with “Songs of 1919,” 5 p.m. at the Artillery Barracks; “Opera on Tap” featuring Portland Opera stars with local voice students, 7 p.m. at Providence Academy.
But women’s suffrage finally became Washington law in 1910, well in advance of the constitutional amendment that made it the law of the land in August 1920. Right now is the 100th anniversary of the “glorious year” during which Congress finally passed that law (on June 4, 1919) and states lined up to ratify it, said researcher and Clark College program manager Tracy Reilly Kelly.
Thanks to a $15,000 partnership grant from the Washington State Historical Society, Clark College and the Clark County Historical Museum will follow The Historic Trust’s Vancouver Chautauqua later this year and next year with more events, programs and adult-education classes about women’s history and women’s suffrage. Clark College will offer an oral history project, training students and others to interview women in their lives — those who achieved great things and even those who tried but couldn’t thanks to a “rigged” system, Reilly Kelly said.
“We’ve been meeting to see how we might make Southwest Washington a hotbed of conversation about women’s suffrage,” Burrows said. “With the Chautauqua event, I think we’re on our way.”
Magenta Theater founder Jaynie Roberts said her group will present a short comedy play Friday night about suffragist struggles. It really bolstered her own appreciation, she said.
When Roberts received the most recent Clark County voter pamphlet and saw how few races were underway, she said, she almost shrugged off voting. But she didn’t.
“Wait a minute, this is why those women fought so hard,” she realized. “Women who aren’t voting, look at what your ancestors went through. Look at what’s happening now because of women who don’t vote.
“The fact that this silly little historical play is so applicable today — that sure makes it interesting,” she said.
What is “Chautauqua”? It’s an old-fashioned summer festival of community education and self-improvement. The idea was launched in the late 1800s at a lake by that name in western New York, where vacationing families went to absorb some mental stimulation from cultural celebrities of the day: lecturers and preachers, musicians and thespians, scientists and philosophers.
The popular summer-camp format wound up copied by numerous “Chautauqua assembles” all over the nation. Participant and fan President Theodore Roosevelt famously called Chautauqua “the most American thing in America.”