Climbing Mountains for the Right to Vote
On the 1909 National American Woman Suffrage Association Convention in Seattle
America’s love affair with world’s fairs was on full display in the decades on either side of 1900, the very years the suffrage movement was picking up momentum. In 1893, the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago brought 27 million visitors to the so-called “White City” for the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage. One of the most popular exhibits there, the Woman’s Building, highlighted women’s contributions to literature, art, and civic life. The wildly successful Chicago World’s Fair was followed by Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition in 1901—notable, unfortunately, as the site of the assassination of President William McKinley—and the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, which marked the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase. Next up was Seattle.
In the five months after June 1st, 1909, when the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition opened on the campus of the University of Washington, over 3.7 million people visited the fair. But the A-Y-P Exposition was not Seattle’s only big event that summer: the National American Woman Suffrage Association held its 41st annual convention there in July—a deliberate choice to take advantage of the expected crowds. To garner publicity, suffragists planned a dramatic entrance into the city. A special Northern Pacific train set out from Chicago and picked up supporters on the way to Spokane, where they were treated to a tour of the city and a banquet. Their ranks swollen by Spokane supporters, the suffragists continued westward, delivering whistle-stop speeches to crowds in Pasco, Yakima, and Tacoma. By the time the train pulled into Seattle’s King Street Station, it boasted more than 250 suffragists.
Once in Seattle, NAWSA conventioneers made good use of the connection to the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, and vice versa. Fair managers offered free passes to speakers, officers, and delegates for Sunday, July 4th, when Reverend Anna Howard Shaw was scheduled to address the crowd, and July 7th, which was designated “Woman Suffrage Day.” NAWSA staffed a suffrage booth on the fairgrounds, handed out “Votes for Women” buttons and balloons, and even sponsored a dirigible towing a “Votes for Women” banner, all the while capitalizing on the crowds and free publicity. The strong suffrage presence at the fair built goodwill for the upcoming 1910 Washington state referendum.
The convention was also conveniently scheduled to coincide with various other activities likely to draw suffragists to Seattle that summer, as the NAWSA monthly newsletter Progress suggested: “Among the many attractive side trips which may be taken, one of the most alluring is the ascent of Mount Rainier. The Mountaineers’ Club will take its annual outing on this peak July 17 to August 7. The dunnage will go by pack train of horses, the Mountaineers on foot, through the flowery meadows, and in and out of the rugged canyons, the trip reaching its climax in an ascent to the summit by way of the White Glacier,” all for the bargain price of $40. Even though suffrage luminaries such as Alice Stone Blackwell, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Harriet Taylor Upton journeyed to Seattle to attend the annual convention, none of them signed up for the side trip, which was a shame, because they missed the chance to join Cora Smith Eaton planting her banner on the summit.
The ascent was a first for the suffrage movement, but it was also part of a long, proud tradition of women climbing. Inspired by pioneers such as Lucy Walker and Meta Brevoort, who first climbed the Matterhorn in 1871, women took to the mountains, both in Europe and the United States. The Appalachian Mountain Club was founded in Boston in 1876, and soon afterward, it admitted women to membership. “In these days of advocacy of female suffrage and woman’s rights,” said an early member with just a whiff of condescension, “it needs hardly to be stated that American ladies can accomplish nearly everything which is possible to their sturdier brethren.” On the West Coast, groups such as the Mazamas, based in Portland, and the Mountaineers, founded in Seattle in 1906, welcomed women from the start; over half of the founding members of the Mountaineers were female, including four physicians. (By contrast, the Explorer’s Club in New York did not admit its first female members until 1981.) With challenging mountain ranges in close proximity to major urban areas, the Pacific Northwest quickly became “a cradle of mountaineering activity.”
Besides lingering prejudice and outright sexism, women climbers faced the additional challenge of finding suitable gear. A Mountaineers flyer for its first annual outing to Mount Olympus in 1907 stated flatly, “all women of the party who expect to go on side trips or climb any of the peaks, must be prepared to wear bloomers or better still knickerbockers, as on all these trips no skirts will be allowed.” The bicycle craze of the 1890s had set a precedent for women to discard heavy Victorian outfits in favor of clothing that actually allowed physical movement, and women climbers showed no qualms about setting off for the mountains sans corsets or skirts. When Cora Eaton hiked in Yellowstone in 1902, she wore corduroy jodhpurs, a gingham shirt, and a jaunty straw hat.
Eaton’s 1909 suffrage feat was part of the Mountaineers’ annual summer outing, on which 68 climbers (gender breakdown unknown, but probably close to equal) reached the summit of Mount Rainer. In those days, climbers hiked in large parties and expected to spend a significant amount of time on the mountain. The large group left Seattle by train on July 17th and planned to be gone for three weeks, with their gear and supplies transported by horse-drawn wagons and pack trains. After hiking eleven miles up the Carbon River to their first camp, “in drizzling rain camp was made, and tents erected to protect everyone, and in spite of the discomforts of wet garments it was a happy party that gathered around the campfire.” Over the next few days they established a base camp at Moraine Park, interspersed with “try-out trips . . . to see the surrounding country with the greatest possible dispatch and to drill members of the party and test their mettle.” Their final high camp was on Ruth Mountain at 9,500 feet.Eaton’s 1909 suffrage feat was part of the Mountaineers’ annual summer outing, on which 68 climbers . . . reached the summit of Mount Rainer.
On the morning of July 30th, a clear but windy day, seven different summit teams set out. The plan was to plant two pennants on the summit—a large one in honor of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition and the smaller “Votes for Women” that Eaton carried. Unfortunately, the wind was too strong, and the climbers were forced to leave the pennants in a nearby crater. If Cora Eaton had planted the pennant, taken a picture, and then brought back either the pennant or a photograph documenting its proud deployment, that image would certainly have been included in this book. In this case, the key artifact was literally lost to history, a reminder of the serendipity that allows some objects to survive and others to disappear forever.
Women climbers were often quite independent characters, accustomed to breaking down barriers and not being held back by prejudice or custom, and that description applied to Cora Smith Eaton. Born in 1867, she attended the newly established University of North Dakota, where she became interested in suffrage, from 1884 to 1889. After graduating from the Boston University School of Medicine in 1892 and marrying Dr. Robert A. Eaton, she returned to Grand Forks, North Dakota, where she was the first woman licensed to practice medicine in the state. She also served as president of the Grand Forks Equal Suffrage Association.
In 1896, Cora Smith Eaton relocated her medical practice to Seattle. Soon she was involved in both the local suffrage movement and local mountaineering. In 1907, she became the first woman to climb the 7,780-foot East Peak of Mount Olympus; eventually she climbed all six of Washington’s major peaks. When Eaton climbed Glacier Peak, she wrote “Votes for Women” after her name in the register on top. In July of 1909, when she planted the “Votes for Women” flag on top of Mount Rainier, she was serving as the treasurer of the Washington Equal Suffrage Association.
Given the turmoil roiling the local suffrage scene that summer, Eaton had probably welcomed the chance to escape to the mountains. When national suffrage leaders arrived in Seattle for the NAWSA convention in early July, the local newspapers were full of stories of a nasty battle between two wings of the Washington suffrage movement. Personality conflicts, regional rivalries between Seattle and Spokane, and clashes over strategy fueled the dispute, and Cora Smith Eaton was right in the thick of it.
Emma Smith Devoe, a talented suffrage organizer, had moved to Washington in 1905 and was elected president of the Washington Equal Suffrage Association the next year. Devoe proved an especially gifted fundraiser but a somewhat autocratic leader. Soon, certain suffragists grew tired of Devoe’s controlling ways, her lack of executive skills, and her constant need to be the center of attention. (Cora Eaton, her trusted lieutenant, didn’t have any problems with that, reassuring Devoe, you “are the State general, or ‘boss.’ You speak and I obey.”) There were also grumblings about Devoe’s conflicted loyalties as a “professional suffragist” (she collected a stipend from NAWSA) who followed the money “from state to state.” In 1909, a challenge to her leadership came from the eastern part of the state in the person of May Arkwright Hutton, a flamboyant, thrice-married suffragist whose husband had made a fortune in Idaho mining silver.
Mainly, the turmoil came down to a matter of political style. Whereas Devoe carefully cultivated the state’s politicians with what she considered ladylike behavior, Hutton had no qualms about aggressively confronting them to present her demands. As the suffrage bill worked its way through the legislature, Devoe was appalled by Hutton’s pushy behavior, and she later claimed that her “aggressiveness was such that it nearly lost us our success in the state.” Cora Smith Eaton totally agreed with this negative view of Hutton, and even suggested to Carrie Chapman Catt later that Hutton had tried to buy votes at $250 a shot. The bill authorizing a referendum for November 1910 did pass, but Devoe and Eaton were determined to sideline Hutton—and they were prepared to play hard ball to do it.
The matter came to a head at the annual Washington Equal Suffrage Association convention in June. Hutton forwarded membership dues from a large number of new recruits, primarily from the Spokane area, but Eaton, then the treasurer, saw it as a blatant attempt to stack the upcoming election and refused to accept the money. She informed Hutton that she was no longer eligible for membership “because of your habitual use of profane and obscene language and of your record in Idaho as shown by pictures and other evidence placed in my hands by persons who are familiar with your former life and reputation,” a reference to Hutton’s supposed connections to a brothel and other illegal activities, a version of Western history which respectable suffragists hoped to leave behind. Even though Eaton insisted to Carrie Chapman Catt that “every word of it was true, and capable of proof,” an independent investigator was unable to corroborate the charges.
Nevertheless, Eaton threatened Hutton in language that sounded like a crude blackmail attempt: “The publicity of the evidence I hold against you depends entirely on yourself. These matters will not be made public by me unless you make further claim to membership.” Privately, Eaton was even more direct about the need to silence Hutton, deploying vivid medical imagery to make her point: “It was a terribly hard thing to do, but . . . it was a surgical operation—an amputation, following the opening of a very foul abscess.
Hutton refused to back down and defiantly showed up at the state convention with many of her supporters. When they were not seated, “pandemonium broke out.” Eventually they walked out, and the remaining delegates re-elected Emma Smith Devoe to a fourth term.
The matter was still far from settled. The insurgents appealed directly to the NAWSA executive board to overturn the election results. NAWSA leaders, looking ahead to the upcoming Washington referendum, were not pleased at the discord in the state organization, and they instructed Devoe to work out a compromise or risk losing her NAWSA salary. Taking the high road, Devoe claimed she had done nothing wrong and refused to apologize. NAWSA promptly fired Devoe, an embarrassing rebuke for the elected head of the local suffrage organization on the eve of hosting the national convention. Eaton was not singled out for censure for her role in the affair.
Despite this nasty internal dispute, just over a year later the voters in Washington approved the state woman suffrage referendum by a hefty two-to-one margin, an unprecedented victory at a time when referenda usually just squeaked by, if they passed at all. But when it came time to write the summary of the Washington State campaign for the final volume of the History of Woman Suffrage, all the chapter had to say about the contested events of 1909 was this: “The Political Equality League of Spokane, Mrs. May Arkwright Hutton, president, worked separately for fourteen months prior to the election, having been organized in July, 1909.” Maybe that omission shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, since the chapter was written by none other than Cora Smith Eaton. Still, the incident is an important reminder of all the personality conflicts and local bickering that never made it into the History of Woman Suffrage and other official narratives of the suffrage struggle. Instead of harmonious unity towards a common goal, the real story on the ground was often much messier.
The Washington state victory in 1910 proved a major turning point for the national woman suffrage campaign. It had been 14 long years since Utah and Idaho had given women the vote, a period often referred to as “the doldrums.” But that pejorative term does a disservice to the amount of suffrage organizing that occurred in individual states throughout that period—activity which laid the groundwork for the emergence of new techniques and leaders who would guide the suffrage movement towards victory in the following decade. In 1911, California voted in favor of woman suffrage; it was followed by Arizona, Kansas and Oregon in 1912, and Nevada and Montana in 1914. Suddenly, an awful lot of women were actually voting and politicians were forced to take notice. Western states played a critical role in these breakthroughs, first by successfully orchestrating state-by-state victories and then by showing the rest of the country what the political landscape looked like when women started to vote.There are no mountains to climb near Washington, DC, but there are certainly parallels between the woman suffrage campaign and mountaineering.
Cora Smith Eaton’s suffrage career was not over yet. Widowed in the midst of the 1909 campaign, she married Judson King in 1912 and moved to Washington, DC, where she established a sanatorium in northwest Washington under her new name of Dr. Cora Smith Eaton King. In March 1913, she marched—or rather, rode horseback—in the Washington, DC suffrage parade, carrying the banner of the National Council of Women Voters (NCWV), an organization founded in 1911 to take advantage of women’s combined political clout from the five western states where they were enfranchised.
As the NCWV congressional chair, she and a delegation of western women voters met with President Woodrow Wilson in the spring of 1913 to press the suffrage cause. That summer, she welcomed another group of western women voters to her home in Hyattsville, Maryland, and together they drove in a caravan to the nation’s capitol to present petitions to their elected representatives. Allying herself with the Congressional Union and later the National Woman’s Party, she also served as Alice Paul’s personal physician, and even smuggled notes in and out of the Occoquan Workhouse on several supervised visits with her patient, who had been imprisoned for picketing the White House and promptly undertook a hunger strike.
There are no mountains to climb near Washington, DC, but there are certainly parallels between the woman suffrage campaign and mountaineering. Annie Peck Smith, one of the best-known climbers of her day and also an avid suffragist, linked women’s conquests of mountains with the larger struggle for women’s emancipation: “We should be free to do whatever we think we are qualified for.” When the president of the Joan of Arc Suffrage League of New York asked Smith to represent the club on future climbing expeditions, she readily agreed. In 1911, two years after Cora Smith Eaton’s triumphant ascent of Mount Rainier, Annie Peck Smith planted a “Votes for Women” banner on the summit of the second highest mountain in Peru, the 21,000-foot Nevado Corpuna. She was then 65 years old and still going strong.
Annie Peck Smith later reflected on the satisfaction she derived from her mountaineering feats: “The chief joy is the varied and perfect exercise, in the midst of noble scenery and exhilarating atmosphere, for the attainment of an object, the conquest of the mountain. The peak utters a challenge. The climber responds by saying to himself, I can and I will conquer it.” Change “himself ”to “herself,” and that’s not a bad description of what it took to win the vote. When Cora Smith Eaton King celebrated cresting the peak of the battle for woman suffrage in August 1920, she likely remembered the proud moment 11 years earlier when she planted her “Votes for Women” pennant on top of Mount Rainier.
Adapted from Why They Marched: The Untold Stories of the Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote by Susan Ware, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2019 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.