Karen Blair comes to SMU to discuss women’s suffrage

Women's suffrageOlivia Alvord, Staff Writer 


In commemoration of Women’s History Month and the centennial anniversary of women winning the right to vote in the U.S., Saint Martin’s University welcomed Karen Blair, Ph.D., 

History Professor Emeritus at Central Washington University, to speak. The departments of History, Political Science, and Gender and Identity Studies co-hosted the event.  

Blair’s lecture and discussion titled, “Pacific Northwest Women and Power at the Dawn of Suffrage,” was centered on prominent historical women in the Pacific Northwest, and events leading up to women’s suffrage both in Washington and throughout the U.S. 

Blair has been a part of the History Department at Central Washington University since 1987, and devotes much of her time to researching Pacific Northwest history, the history of education, and American women. Blair was granted the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Pacific Northwest Historians on Friday March 6.

One of the key points of her lecture was how Washington and the majority of the West Coast paved the way for women’s suffrage. 

According to the Washington Historical Society, “Washington was the first state in the 20th​ century, and the fifth state in the Union, to enact women’s suffrage. Washington women’s success in 1910 helped inspire the campaign that culminated in passage of the 19th​ Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920, when women won the right to vote nationally.”  

In the 19th​ century, this part of the world was dominated by men. Cities were minimal and most communities were small and agricultural. Therefore, most jobs outside the home were for men: mining, logging, farming, etc. Women began to form societies such as book clubs just to get together outside of the home and talk with their peers. This was a chance for many to read things they would not have had the opportunity to do otherwise, often as a result of upbringing and poor education. 

These book clubs were typically held once a month, and granted Pacific Northwest women the ability to discuss taboo topics and engage politically, economically, and socially. 

“As women began researching, they began to feel dissatisfied with the way that no one was addressing these problems in society,” explained Blair. 

But this increased action and involvement only brought up the counterargument that the woman’s place was only in the home, and they should not be welcome to engage in activities such as book clubs. 

Blair explained the viewpoint behind this: “how dare women spend two hours a month to read a book and talk about it when they could be cleaning their home and taking care of their families.” 

Not to be torn down, however, these women decided they would learn public speaking skills and how to organize support in their communities. Not long after this, the women learned about an amazing opportunity offered by the Andrew Carnegie Foundation, which was based out of Pittsburgh. The foundation provided a generous gift of $10,000 to build a library in a town, provided the town raised taxes to pay for a librarian and books for the library shelves. The women made it their personal goal to use their newly learned skills to acquire this service for their community. 

“These women are responsible for 75 percent of the libraries in Washington State today,” said Blair. After achieving a bit of success in their communities, these women began to think outside the box and focus on new ideas such as the creation of parks, cleaning up cities, and issues specific to women and children. 

Some ideas included, “clinics that doctors might volunteer for where families who could not afford to go to the doctor could get regular checkups for their babies; and factory inspections to make sure that women had access to a restroom or a bench to sit on and rest, or a table to eat their lunch at so they didn’t have to stand out in the rain,” Blair explained.  

As women began to organize for the greater good of their communities, and the state as a whole, their numbers increased rapidly, moving from books clubs of six to crowds of 200. At this point, meeting in their homes was no longer an option.

Blair explained their motive: “if they grew bigger, this would provide a better opportunity to go to the people with the purse strings [the money] to get things done in their communities.”  

After going out in their communities to ask for money and to achieve great things, these women began to realize that because they did not have the vote, their requests and ideas were not taken seriously. Thus began the push to attend public meetings, parades, and lobby at the legislature as another way to increase support for women’s suffrage.

Blair mentioned that “women were divided on how they should ask for the vote: some decided to be ‘annoying and outrageous’ and others decided to take on the ‘polite and ladylike’ approach.”  

In 1910, Washington women gained the right to vote, followed by Oregon in 1911, California in 1912, and the U.S. as a whole in 1920. In Washington, minority groups such as Catholic men and labor union activists, who knew what it felt like to be outsiders, banded together in support of this new normal. According to Blair, “women became the backbone of the electorate,” and began to think of bigger issues like education and the conditions in which women teachers worked, which resulted in the hiring of a woman who would become the first female to hold a government position as Washington Superintendent of Schools. 


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