Duniway, Abigail Scott (1834–1915)

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Duniway, Abigail Scott (1834–1915)

American writer, editor, and businesswoman who was a leader in the women's suffrage movement. Born Abigail Jane Scott (nicknamed Jenny) on October 22, 1834, in a log cabin in Groveland, Tazewell County, Illinois; died on October 11, 1915, in Portland, Oregon; second daughter and third child of John Tucker Scott (a farmer and sawmill owner) and Ann (Roelofson) Scott; schooled mostly at home and self-taught; had less than a year of formal education; married Benjamin C. Duniway, on August 2, 1853 (died 1896); children: Clara Belle Stearns (1854–1886); Willis (1856–1913); Hubert (b. 1859); Wilkie Collins (b. 1861); Claude Augustus (b. 1866); Ralph (b. 1869).

Immigrated to Oregon via the Oregon Trail (1852); published first novel, Captain Gray's Company (1859); founded and began teaching at Lafayette Union School (1862); helped found Oregon State Equal Suffrage Association (1870); established New Northwest weekly newspaper (1871); went on first lecture tour, in company of suffragist Susan B. Anthony (1871); women's suffrage referendum passed in Oregon (1912).

Selected publications:

Captain Gray's Company; or Crossing the Plains and Living in Oregon (1859); My Musings (1875); David and Anna Matson (1876); From the West to the West: Across the Plains to Oregon (1905); Path Breaking: An Autobiographical History of the Equal Suffrage Movement in Pacific Coast States (1914).

Abigail Scott Duniway hated patchwork quilts. "Nobody but a fool," she wrote in 1880, "would spend so much time in cutting bits of dry goods into yet smaller bits and sewing them together again, just for the sake of making believe that they were busy at practical work." For Duniway, the quilt was a symbol of woman's unpaid subjection within a male-dominated society, a situation she was determined to change.

When woman's true history shall have been written, her part in the upbuilding of this nation will astound the world.

—Abigail Scott Duniway

Born in a log cabin on October 22, 1834, in newly settled Tazewell County, Illinois, Abigail Jane Scott, whom the family nicknamed Jenny, was the second daughter and third child of the twelve children of John Tucker Scott and Ann Roelofson Scott . Their first child, a boy, had died within four months of his birth, and they grieved when Abigail was born, so great was their disappointment over the birth of another girl. Abigail's behavior during her childhood did not help her cause. She was a wild, difficult, and dreamy child.

Abigail's parents were farmers, who believed in hard work. Abigail had many household duties, including washing dishes, milking cows, making butter, planting and hoeing corn and potatoes, and helping her younger brother, Harvey, gather and chop wood. She also picked wool by hand (her most hated task), and then spinned, spooled, reeled, and hanked it. Later, in her first serialized novel, and her only novel dealing with early childhood experience, Duniway chose wool picking as prime punishment for the female child character. Despite her dislike for the numerous chores, Abigail worked herself harder than her parents demanded and suffered numerous ailments as a result, including rheumatoid arthritis, which affected her throughout her life.

Largely due to her fragile health, Duniway was unable to spend much time in a formal educational setting. Though she attended lessons at nearby Pleasant Grove schoolhouse for about five months and in 1850 was enrolled in a school she later described as "an apology for an academy," she received most of her education at home. Newspapers were important to those on the frontier. For Abigail, they were valuable tools for improving her reading skills. She also relied upon a Webster's Elementary Spelling book which she so valued that she later carried it across the plains to Oregon.

The Scott family experienced financial ups and downs. In 1840, John Scott lost their farm and in 1842 was forced to declare bankruptcy. Family fortunes improved in 1846, however, when John borrowed money and was able to purchase the first circular sawmill west of Ohio. This enabled the family to move from their log cabin into a larger home. The Scotts lived in the path of the emigration to the West, and John had for years been longing to join the migration to Oregon. By 1850, he was financially able to consider such a move. Though Ann Scott was reluctant to make the long journey, John believed that a move to the temperate Oregon climate would benefit her health. She had recently become an invalid following the difficult birth and loss of her twelfth child. Thus, the Scott family was among the emigrants making up the migration of 1852, the largest in American history.

The overland journey to Western Oregon began April 2, 1852, and ended on October 1. The six months were filled with wonder, hardship, and tragedy for the Scott family. Believing she was best qualified, they assigned Abigail the task of keeping a journal to chronicle their experiences along the way. She also wrote to family left behind in Illinois.

Duniway saw slavery for the first time when the family crossed into Missouri. Offering the family's opinion of the institution, she wrote, "Slavery is a withering blight upon the prospects happiness and freedom of our Nation." Less than a month after leaving home, she wrote her grandfather, describing the trip and detailing family illnesses and difficulties of the journey, but adding, "I never enjoyed myself so well before and never had as good health before in my life." But tragedy soon struck. On June 20, 1852, Ann Roelofson Scott died suddenly of "plains cholera," an illness characterized by violent cramps and diarrhea. Hardships continued as the family lost oxen, a horse, a wagon, and the family savings along the way. On July 30, 1852, a young man, believed to be Abigail's sweetheart, drowned while attempting to recover cattle that had stampeded into the Snake River. Abigail's three-year-old brother, Willie, also died on the journey.

The remaining nine members of the Scott family arrived in Western Oregon penniless, exhausted, and grieving. They settled in Lafayette, Oregon, at that time the seat of Yamhill County. Shortly after their arrival, John Tucker Scott purchased an inn, the Oregon Temperance House, which housed regular boarders as well as the traveling elite. Like proprietors of other 19th-century temperance houses, Scott promoted the consumption of the milder intoxicants: cider, beer, and wine.

In March 1853, John Scott married Ruth Eckler Stevenson , who had also been widowed during the journey to Oregon, while Abigail left home to teach in the village of Cincinnati (present-day Eola). Her one-room log-cabin school was one of the first in Oregon, but her tenure was short-lived. On August 2, 1853, Abigail married Benjamin Duniway, a young man she had first met in Eastern Oregon when he greeted new arrivals to the territory.

It was not long after her marriage that Duniway began to consider housekeeping a drudgery. Though he was a gentle man, Ben was not happy when she refused to perform tasks he expected of a wife. She later said that she regretted doing "heavy work for hale and hearty men," which often compelled her to neglect her children. Despite her protests, Abigail Duniway was a hard worker, often driving herself to exhaustion, sickness, and attacks of rheumatoid arthritis.

The Duniways' first child, Clara Belle, was born nine months after their marriage. Their second child, and the first of five sons, Willis, was born in February 1856. Duniway almost died during the difficult birth and was not well for a number of months thereafter. To quietly pass the time, she began to write poems and stories. With encouragement from her husband, she submitted a poem, "The Burning Forest Tree," to the Oregon City Argus under the pseudonym "Jenny Glen." The newspaper printed the poem and several others that soon followed, but the editor suggested that her talents might be better spent writing prose.

Duniway took the editor's advice and, at age 23, began to write a novel, drawing from her experiences while journeying to Oregon and as a resident of the Oregon territory. The novel, Captain Gray's Company, or Crossing the Plains and Living in Oregon, was published in April 1859, and is believed to be the first book published in Portland. Duniway's views on the plight of frontier women, and women in general, were revealed through her female characters, especially through her heroine Ada, who advocated improved conditions and health care for women. But it was not just in her novel that Duniway was expressing her thoughts regarding the rights of women. She also became embroiled in a more public debate over the issue.

In 1857, a controversy emerged over women's rights when the Oregon Constitutional Convention debated the issue. Only one delegate, Republican David Logan, favored female suffrage, but the issue of a woman's right to hold separate property from her husband had more backers and won conditional approval from the delegates. Women's rights continued to be debated in Oregon's leading newspapers during 1858–59, and Duniway joined in. An issue that especially stirred her was that of wife abuse; she was outspoken in her scorn for laws that allowed an abusive and/or drunken husband to keep custody of the children in the event of separation or divorce.

But women's rights were not Duniway's only concern. From 1859 to 1862, under the pseudonym "A Farmer's Wife," she became a regular contributor to the Oregon Farmer, in which she discussed the economic crisis faced by farmers and offered solutions, including encouraging women to buy Oregon products rather than send their money out of state. Her column was, for the most part, non-controversial, except for her advocacy of hiring help for farmers' wives.

Throughout their early years of marriage, the Duniways suffered a number of financial ups and downs. In June 1855, a storm, possibly a tornado, destroyed their home and furnishings. Friends and neighbors helped them rebuild, but in 1856 their cabin burned down. Family financial problems led Duniway to return to teaching several times in addition to earning a small income from her writing. Just when the Duniways were beginning to see some improvement in their finances, Ben, ignoring the pleas of his wife to avoid risking their economic future, co-signed for a loan to an acquaintance. Soon Ben discovered he had made a poor decision, as the borrower left him responsible for the debt. Despite desperate attempts to earn more money, the Duniways were forced to give up their Lafayette farm in 1862 to pay the debts. Legend has it that Abigail never forgave her husband for his folly. Although she publicly expressed only respect for him, she vented her anger through her fictional characters, this episode being reenacted in the first serial novel in her New Northwest newspaper. Shortly after losing the farm, Ben suffered an injury when a team of horses knocked him down and pulled a wagon over his back. From then on, his physical condition was poor, and he was incapable of performing farm labor. The weight of the Duniway family's financial support thus shifted to Abigail's shoulders.

She opened a small school, Lafayette Union School, in her home, and took in "young lady" boarders. In 1865, she sold the school and opened a new one in Albany, but, in partnership with another woman, she converted the school into a millinery shop the following year. Duniway's decision was a profitable one. In the post-Civil War boom, the demand for clothing, hats, and notions was high. The millinery shop made quick profits, and soon she was able to buy out her partner's share of the business.

By this time, Duniway's teaching, writing, and millinery shop brought her name recognition throughout the sparsely settled state of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest. Women knew, also, that Abigail Scott Duniway was a woman they could rely on in times of need. She was frequently visited by women who told of their lives with abusive husbands or of husbands who had deserted them and left them penniless. Duniway helped them as best she could, offering advice and occasionally advancing small loans. One evening, when she returned home frustrated over yet another incident that reminded her of how few rights women had, Ben responded, "Don't you know it will never be any better for women until they have the right to vote?" Abigail forever credited Ben's response as the impetus that launched her championship of women's suffrage.

It has been said that Abigail Duniway was not happy in her marriage. In addition to causing their financial woes, she found that Ben did not share her intellectual interests. But, according to biographer Ruth Barnes Moynihan , Abigail realized that it served her interests to maintain an image as a dutiful wife who was forced by necessity to enter the public arena. And while Duniway appeared to be a self-confident, secure woman as she campaigned for women's rights, she knew the price, in loss of material security and public esteem, that she might have to pay were she to disregard the wishes of her husband and the accepted duties of a 19th-century wife.

In 1870, Abigail Duniway helped found the Oregon State Equal Suffrage Association, and in December 1870 she traveled as an Oregon delegate to a suffrage convention in San Francisco. While in California, she gave her first public lecture, receiving praise from both her audience and newspaper reporters, and was offered a salary for a speaking tour of the state. When she wrote Ben of her success, he sent a telegram advising that she was needed back in Oregon. Fearing an emergency, she hurried home, turning down the lecture tour and missing the last two weeks of the convention. When she arrived home, she was angered to find that there was no special reason for Ben's request for her return.

For several years, Abigail had been wanting to establish a newspaper, and the disappointment over the lecture tour seemed to serve as impetus. Over the next three months, she moved her family to Portland, by now the largest city in the Northwest, and established the weekly New Northwest newspaper. Her paper, she said, was "not a Woman's Rights, but a Human Rights organ." Duniway's brother, Harvey Scott, who had achieved success since his arrival in Oregon as editor of the Portland Oregonian and President Ulysses Grant's recently appointed customs inspector for the area, gave Ben a job in the Portland customs house.

In 1871, Duniway convinced national suffragist Susan B. Anthony to accompany her on a two-month lecture tour of the Pacific Northwest. Abigail had asked Elizabeth Cady Stanton to join her also and was disappointed when Stanton turned her down. Although the tour met with mixed success and the often primitive living conditions along the way were uncomfortable for Anthony, Duniway was inspired by the experience. These tours helped her gain stories as well as new subscribers for the New Northwest.

Duniway's newspaper exposed injustices toward women due to their inequality under the law, such as a woman's failure to be judged by a

jury of her peers since women were not permitted to sit on juries, and the hardships a woman must face if divorced, including the possibility of never again seeing her children. She also advocated birth control through abstinence, a not unusual stand for the time, but a controversial one: abstinence often meant a woman must disobey her husband, a stand that angered both men and many women. She believed that too many children contributed to poverty and illiteracy among children and made a drudge out of a wife. She spoke out against prostitution but sympathized with prostitutes, whom she saw as victims of the double standard, leaving women to take the blame for indiscretions involving both sexes. Ambivalent over the issue of divorce, she preferred that women help establish laws that would prevent child marriages or marriage to "drunkards" so that divorce could be avoided. Duniway did not, however, shun divorcees, as was the common practice among her contemporaries. Her activities and reputation as an outspoken suffragist resulted in ridicule and circulation of gossip and rumors about her personal life, including accusations that she was a smoker and heavy drinker and that her husband was "hen pecked."

Duniway regularly attended the annual National Woman Suffrage Association conventions, which were often held on the East Coast. She was away at one of these conventions when her only daughter Clara eloped with Don Stearns, a man Duniway did not consider suitable. Abigail was further grieved when Clara died of consumption in 1886, at age 31. Her elder sons also caused her worry. Willis was developing a reputation as a womanizer, Hubert was responsible for the pregnancy of an 18-year-old boarder whom he was forced to marry, and Wilkie was known for his associations with a gambling crowd. Duniway apparently sought relief in her writing, venting her frustrations through the characters in her novels.

During the years she published the New Northwest, she remained a controversial figure. In conservative Oregon, her openmindedness often brought her into conflict with fellow citizens. Her associations and friendships with divorcees, Jews, and Unitarians induced criticism, but her stand on the temperance issue engendered such controversy that she eventually sold the New Northwest to escape the heat.

The early temperance movement was dominated by men, including many anti-suffragists, with women members following their lead. It was not until temperance workers came to realize that votes for women could help their cause that they came to support women's suffrage. Duniway, however, felt it was wrong to give women the ballot based solely upon using them as a means to achieve prohibition. Also, she had long believed that the answer to problems associated with liquor, such as drunkenness and resultant wife abuse, was through education and temperance—not through laws that would dictate prohibition. In her mind, laws of the proposed prohibition type were contrary to the American spirit and the American Constitution. Her views thus conflicted with those who defined "temperance" as "prohibition" and led to charges that she had "sold out to liquor" interests.

In 1872, Duniway appeared before the state legislature on behalf of women's rights and submitted suffrage petitions to every legislature thereafter. In 1880, when a women's suffrage amendment to the Oregon constitution was finally introduced and received legislative approval, Duniway organized a ratification jubilee and claimed credit for the victory. To become law, however, the amendment needed to pass the legislature a second time in 1892 and then receive approval in a general referendum in 1894. Election dirty tricks, such as bribes to needy immigrants willing to vote against suffrage or distribution of purposely defective ballots with the suffrage amendment crossed out or marked "no," helped defeat the measure by a 5-to-2 margin.

Duniway also campaigned for women's suffrage in the Washington territory and spoke regularly to the territorial legislature, and suffrage in the late 1870s and early 1880s came close to being passed several times. But when she arrived in Olympia in October 1883 to voice further support for suffrage, she found Washington women suffragists afraid that the many controversies surrounding Duniway would lose the vote for them. At first, she acceded to their wishes but later returned to Olympia to speak before the legislature, where the suffrage bill passed. Four years later, Washington women lost their vote in a rigged court case and did not get it back for 21 years.

In 1886, Duniway's family convinced her to sell her newspaper. In doing so, she lost what political influence a female non-voter could have. Funds from the sale of the Duniway Publishing Company enabled her sons and co-owners, Willis and Wilkie, to buy ranch land in Idaho. Ben Duniway moved with them, and Abigail planned to settle there the following year, once the New Northwest completed its final months of publication. As matters turned out, she only spent summers on the Idaho ranch. The ranching venture ended in failure, and by the mid-1890s both her sons and husband were back in Portland.

Abigail, long desiring to be free of financial worries and able to spend her time writing, proposed a "trust" arrangement whereby her sons could support her and, in turn, her invalid husband. The early arrangement was that she would turn ownership of her property over to her sons who would guarantee $100 per month support. The plan did not work out, however, as the Depression of 1893 made the arrangement unsatisfactory and payments to their mother had to be lowered. Duniway's letters of the 1890s are said to be full of complaints over her lack of money and resentment over having to support Ben, blaming him for misuse of her profits from the Duniway Publishing Company. She reluctantly nursed him until he died in 1896.

Her poor financial straits caused her to be careful with money and cognizant of payments for lectures and expenses incurred while working for women's suffrage. Other, more affluent suffragists had little understanding of her financial woes and considered her a money-grubber, excluding her from leadership positions. Nevertheless, she kept up her fight. A vote on suffrage in Oregon in 1900 was close, failing 28,402 to 26,265. Duniway's brother Harvey, who had promised his support, left town at the height of the campaign, while his newspaper, the Portland Oregonian, launched a campaign against the amendment two weeks before the election.

Following the suffrage referendum, Abigail suffered episodes of illness, almost dying following a mastoidectomy in 1903. She did not give up her fight for the ballot, however, and prepared for another vote in 1906. Arguments with other leading suffragists, particularly over the prohibition issue, caused her to be snubbed at the national convention held in Oregon in 1905. She was again ignored in 1906 when leaders traveled to Oregon to campaign for suffrage as a tribute to the recently deceased Susan B. Anthony. The 1906 campaign was an expensive failure and left the Oregon State Woman Suffrage Association in debt. Duniway blamed the national organization and its association with prohibition issues for the failure, and the national leaders blamed Duniway.

Duniway led another campaign in 1908, which was again defeated. A printing error on the 1910 ballot led to confusion and another defeat. In 1912, public support for women's suffrage in Oregon was much stronger, probably influenced by the fact that neighboring Washington and California had obtained women's suffrage in 1910 and 1911, respectively, and the death of Harvey Scott in 1910 put an end to opposition in the Oregonian. With the help of loyal supporters, Duniway again obtained petitions and submitted the amendment in January 1912. Shortly thereafter, however, she became gravely ill, suffering from pneumonia and then blood poisoning in her leg. Her family thought she would die, but she vowed to live to see victory. In the spring of 1912, she directed the campaign from her bed. Women's suffrage finally won in Oregon, although by a small majority. Duniway also lived to see prohibition become an Oregon law in 1914. Nevertheless, she continued to believe that prohibition was wrong and correctly predicted that the law would only be temporary because it was sure to be disobeyed.

Abigail Duniway died in 1915, the result of a recurrence of the infection she had suffered in 1912. Without antibiotics, there was little doctors could do to help. While she lived, Duniway was a speaker for women, particularly those on the Western frontier. Her controversial stands created enemies, but she called attention to important issues of the day. Duniway emphasized the important role women played, working together with men to civilize the West, and she had a vision of the future with women playing major roles in the shaping of society. In her autobiography, Path Breaking, written in 1914, Duniway wrote that "the world is moving and woman is moving with it—not always in the same direction, maybe, in the best chosen paths, for we are no wiser than our brothers—but always moving onward, in some direction toward a higher goal."


Duniway, Abigail Scott, Captain Gray's Company: or Crossing the Plains and Living in Oregon. Portland, OR: S.J. McCormick, 1859.

——. David and Anna Matson. NY: S.R. Wells, 1876.

——. Path Breaking: An Autobiographical History of the Equal Suffrage Movement in Pacific Coast States. 1914.

Moynihan, Ruth Barnes. Rebel for Rights: Abigail Scott Duniway. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983.

Smith, Helen Krebs. The Presumptuous Dreamers: A Sociological History of the Life and Times of Abigail Scott Duniway (1834–1915). Vols I and II. Lake Oswego, OR: Smith, Smith and Smith, 1974.


Oregon Historical Society, Portland, Oregon, file on Abigail Scott Duniway includes journal of trip to Oregon, ledgers of Duniway Publishing Co. and Oregon State Woman Suffrage Association. New Northwest, 1871–87, Oregon City Argus, 1855–60 and Oregon Farmer, 1859–62, on microfilm.

June Melby Benowitz , Ph.D., Instructor of American History, Keiser College, Sarasota, Florida