Women’s Rights in the Washington Territory

February 29, 2008

The 4000 American residents of the Washington Territory were not a fearful lot. The territory seceded from the Oregon Territory to become its own territory on March 2, 1853, 155 years ago. In many ways the visions of this small group of people foreshadowed the Utopian aspirations that were to motivate many communities early in the state’s history.

Washington Territory was born during the tumultuous years before Civil War. Unlike Oregon Territory, Washington Territory permitted residency by blacks, a strong statement in its day. (Another example of Washington’s independence in this regard was the expulsion before World War I of the Washington Masons (a conservative group if there ever was one) from the international order of Masons for admitting a Masonic lodge created by black citizens.)

The territory was empowered to determine the voting rights of its residents and this was addressed with characteristic volatility at the first territorial convention. An influential group of men wanted to give the right to vote to women! At the time such thoughts were widely considered virtually anarchical. There was not a woman in America who had the right to vote and consideration of such things was not appropriate for serious discussion.

Nonetheless these early suffragists fought tooth and nail to give the women who had journeyed here the right to a voice in the government. They almost did it, losing by a single vote. But for a single vote these pioneers would have won a prominent place in the history of American civil rights. This vote occurred 15 years before the creation of the National Woman Suffrage Association, the organization that led the women’s suffrage movement.

The convention’s vote got the attention of Susan B. Anthony, who was then just beginning her suffrage efforts. It surely inspired the people within the fledgling cause, as it was by far the closest any jurisdiction had come to recognizing women’s voting rights.

In 1871 Susan B. Anthony came out the the Washington Territory and became the first woman to address its legislature. Just before her arrival a bill had been introduced giving women the right to vote, but this time it was soundly defeated. Ms. Anthony gave stump speeches around the territory and organized the territorial women for the first time, forming the Washington Equal Suffrage Association.