As the Territorial and State Capital; Olympia and Thurston County were central to the history of women’s right to vote. Activist women gained the vote and women were and continue to be leaders in local governments and tribes. Washington’s governors, First Ladies and even the Governor’s Mansion were central to the suffrage movement.
The first women’s rights convention, held at Seneca New York 1848, was a public call for voting rights for women. After Washington Territory was created in 1853, the first Washington Territorial Legislature in 1854 considered enacting women’s suffrage. House member Arthur A. Denny introduced an amendment for women’s suffrage to a pending voting bill and the amendment failed by only one vote.
Following new laws in the Washington Territory and the post-Civil War U.S. Constitutional amendments regarding the rights of citizens—some Thurston County women were determined to go to the polls without waiting for legislative action to empower them to vote. In 1870 activist women, led by sisters Mary Olney Brown and Emily Olney French, went to the polls. Fifteen women cast their ballots and had them accepted at Grand Mound and Littlerock (Black River) in southern Thurston County. However women who tried to vote in Olympia were turned away from the polls.
In 1871, the national suffragist, Susan B. Anthony came to the northwest accompanied by suffrage advocate Abigail Scott Duniway from Oregon. They visited several cities and addressed the Territorial Legislature in session in Olympia.
In 1883, the legislature enacted women’s right to vote in Washington Territory; only women in Wyoming and Utah had the right to vote before Washington women, including African-American women, after the Civil War.
Reflecting concern about women serving on juries when they gained the right to vote, lawsuits were brought to invalidate the suffrage law. The Territorial Supreme Court revoked suffrage in 1887 because of a technicality in the enacting clause. In 1888 the Washington Legislature re-enacted the suffrage law with an appropriate title. However, that same year the Territorial Supreme Court decided another suffrage case, again invalidating women’s right to vote.
When Washington was poised to became a state in 1889, suffragists made concerted effort to include woman suffrage in the body of the constitution which was ratified. However women’s voting was a separate issue on the ballot which lost by a substantial margin as did another ballot issue—prohibition. Washington came into the union as a non-suffrage state. In 1898 male voters turned down a suffrage amendment to the Washington constitution.
In 1909 suffragists were in Olympia to lobby the legislature for another try at a constitutional amendment. May Arkwright Hutton and Emma Smith DeVoe led the lobbying efforts. The Governor’s Mansion was at the center of the debate when suffragists used the occasion of the housewarming for the new residence on January 28, 1909 as an opportunity to persuade legislators who were present to vote for the amendment.
The suffragists were eventually successful and the amendment was passed on to male voters for ratification. Governor Marion Hay (then acting Governor because of Governor Cosgrove’s illness) signed the suffrage amendment bill on February 25, 1909 with First Lady Lizzie Hay present.
Washington women knew the correct tactics for a suffrage victory in the state—they were low key; used reasoned arguments and let men know they wanted to vote.
Both Governor Hay (1909-1913) and his wife Lizzie supported the suffrage cause—Governor Hay spoke at the Puyallup Fair in 1909 on Woman’s Day and Mrs. Hay acted as a “Vice-President” for the suffragists on the day. Leader May Arkwright Hutton credited Governor Hay for his support of the movement.
Upon the victory in November 8, 1910, Governor Hay congratulated Mrs. DeVoe on the tactics used in the campaign. Washington is called the “Five Star Suffrage State” since it was the fifth state in the Union to permanently enact women suffrage and the first state to do so in 14 years. They joined their sisters in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and Idaho. But there was still work to do since Native Americans could not generally become citizens until 1924; immigrant Asians were barred from citizenship well into the 20th century, and voters in 1910 were required to read and speak English among other restrictions.
Governor Hay appointed Tacoma resident Virginia Wilson Mason to a new organization of western voting women—the National Council of Women Voters (NCWV) headed by Emma Smith DeVoe—that would work for women in other states to gain the right to vote.
As a women’s voting state, the governors were often called upon to testify about how women’s suffrage was working in Washington.
Governor Marion Hay wrote February 1912: “During the short time woman suffrage has been in effect in this state a profound interest has been manifested among all women in the study of civic questions and the promotion of legislation and projects designed to advance the best interest of the people of the state. They are taking their responsibility seriously and proving a powerful agency of progress.”
During the early years of women’s suffrage in the state and as part of the Populist movement, legislation was enacted that benefitted women and families including: worker’s compensation, standard age of consent, 8 hour day for women workers, mothers’ pensions and equal pay for men and women teachers.
Washington women, notably Dr. Cora Smith Eaton King and Emma Smith DeVoe through the NCWV were active players on the national scene. Washington women could vote for Congress and the President and so were effective lobbyists.
Governor Ernest Lister (1913-1919) of Washington was pivotal for suffragists as they worked for the federal amendment. From 1913-1915, both houses of Congress had a Democratic majority. As a Democrat, Lister was called upon to write to Congressional Democrats to advance the cause of suffrage. He like Hay, wrote many letters testifying to the success of women’s right to vote in Washington.
Lister wrote in 1913: “ . . .I would say that the women of this State have enjoyed full suffrage now for about two and one half years. I know of no one who was in favor of granting this right, who today opposes it; and large numbers of those who were opposed to the constitutional amendment granting equal suffrage, are now in favor of it. The results in the State of Washington have certainly indicated that the women of the State assist, rather than otherwise, in public affairs, by having the right to vote.”
First Lady Alma Thornton Lister, who had been with her husband in managing his campaigns, undertook at the request of Emma Smith DeVoe and NCWV to put together a booklet which was a compilation of impressions of the governors of all of the voting states at the time—more evidence of the influence of voting women on the passage of the 19th amendment.
By the mid-nineteen teens, the state-by-state strategy of women’s voting rights turned to advocacy for a federal amendment to the U. S. Constitution, called the “Susan B. Anthony Amendment.” Two factions worked toward the amendment: the National American Woman Suffrage Association, headed by Carried Chapman Catt, and the National Women’s Party headed by Alice Paul. Both groups called upon Washington governors for support as leaders of a women-voting state.
The 19th Amendment Ratification:
The 19th Amendment for Women’s Suffrage passed Congress June 4, 1919. Three quarters of the states were needed to ratify the amendment which was 36 at the time.
Governor Ernest Lister became ill and Lieutenant Governor Louis Hart (1919-1925) took over as acting governor February 13, 1919. Lister died June 14, 1919. Because the Washington State Legislature had already met in early 1919 and there were only biennial legislative sessions, any ratification in 1919 or 1920 would require a special session of the legislature. A goal was to achieve ratification before the Presidential election in November 1920. Hart was reluctant to call the session. He received entreaties from suffragists, including Carrie Chapman Catt, that Washington as a voting state should be in the forefront of the effort. When Mrs. Catt visited Olympia in 1919, First Lady Ella Hart attended a luncheon in downtown Olympia where Catt advocated for a special session. By February 1920 the other first voting states of the West—Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and Idaho—had ratified. Although legislators even volunteered to forgo a per diem for a suffrage special session, Hart still hesitated—waiting for more states to ratify.
As other issues came to the forefront, Hart decided to call a special session for March 22, 1920 to address the suffrage amendment, soldier bonuses for World War I veterans and a limited range of issues—likely to also solidify his leadership for a 1920 election campaign and to enable women to vote nationally for U.S. President that fall. By that date, only two states remained before official ratification.
According to one account, “The capitol was thronged with women who had traveled from every corner of the state to participate in the occasion.”
Representative Frances Haskell, of Pierce County, one of two women legislators in 1920, introduced the resolution: “This is a very important hour in the history of our state and nation, for we have met here in special session this 22nd day of March, in the year of our Lord 1920, to ratify the federal suffrage amendment and to prove to the world the greatness of our Evergreen state, which is not determined by the number of acres that it contains, nor by the number of its population, but by the character of the men and women who today are extending to all the women of America, the privileges of the ballot.” The other woman serving in the House, Anna Colwell from Snohomish County also made remarks as did Governor Hart and other Representatives and the resolution passed unanimously. Emma Smith DeVoe was on the dais and was asked to make special remarks. In the Senate, the vote was also unanimous and Carrie Hill, another longtime suffragist, made remarks. Thus Washington became the 35th state to ratifiy the 19th amendment and the 12th state to do so without a dissenting vote.
The 36th and final state needed was Tennessee which ratified the amendment August 18, 1920 and the amendment became effective August 26, 1920 which reads:
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
After the ratification, suffragists gathered in the office of the Secretary of State as then Secretary I. M. Howell certified the action of the House and Senate.
The restrictions on citizenship for Native Americans and immigrant Asians still remained and many African Americans still precluded structurally from the ballot nationally until voting rights acts of 1960s.
Nevertheless the 19th Amendment was a landmark event for women to take their place as equals in the political life of the country.
Constitutional Convention–Beverly Paulik Rosenow, ed., The Journal of the Washington State Constitutional Convention,1889. Seattle: Book Publishing Company, 1962.
Dora Dean, “Vote for Suffrage at Olympia is Unanimous,” Seattle Daily Times, March 23, 1920, pg. 11, 14.
Ella Hart at Catt Speech, “Mrs. Catt Says not to Nag Men, Olympia Daily Recorder November 11, 1905, pg. 5
Federal Ratification: Martha E. Pike “Washington,” History of Woman Suffrage, 6:683-686.
Alfred Larson, “The Woman Suffrage Movement in Washington,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly 67, no. 2 (April 1971): 49-62
Governor Ernest Lister Papers, Washington State Archives, Box 2H-2-134
Governor Louis Hart Papers, Washington State Archives,
Governor Marion Hay Papers, Washington State Archives, Box 2G-2-31
Hutton Recognition of Hay Support: “Page 029 : Hay Names A Suffrage Day,” PRIMARILY WASHINGTON, accessed April 13, 2020, http://primarilywashington.org/items/show/24905.”
M. Mattison, “Special Session May Conclude Job Tomorrow: Suffrage Given Unanimous Vote,” Seattle Daily Times, March 23, 1920, pg. 1, 10.
Rebecca Mead, How the Vote Was Won: Woman Suffrage in the Western United States, 1868-1914. New York: New York University Press, 2004.
“Page 108 : Women Rejoice as Hay Signs Suffrage Bill,” PRIMARILY WASHINGTON, accessed April 11, 2020, http://primarilywashington.org/items/show/22288.”
Douglas Pullen, “The Administration of Washington State Governor Louis F. Hart, 1919-1925,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Washington, 1974.
Jennifer Ross-Nazzal, Winning the West for Women: The Life of Suffragist Emma Smith DeVoe. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011.
Seattle Post Intelligencer, February 26, 1910. Mrs. Hay Vice-President of Woman’s Day.
Shanna Stevenson, Women’s Votes, Women’s Voices: The Campaign for Equal Rights in Washington. Tacoma: Washington State Historical Society, 2009.
“Suffrage Amendment Ratified Unanimously,” Washington Standard, March 23, 1920.
Susan B. Anthony Speech, Washington Standard, October 21, 1871.
“Women Rejoice as Hay Signs Suffrage Bill,” Olympia Daily Recorder, February 25, 1909, pg. 1.
Territorial Supreme Court: Harland v. Territory of Washington, 3 Wash. Terr. 131 (1887); Bloomer v. Todd, 3 Wash. Terr. 599 (1888).
1870 Voting: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and Ida Husted Harper, eds., History of Woman Suffrage, 6 volumes (Rochester and New York City, 1881-1922), account by Mary Olney Brown , 3:784.
1897 Legislation—Martha E. Pike, “Washington,” History of Woman Suffrage, 4:972.
Washington’s Two Women Governors
Governor Dixy Lee Ray–Governor 1977-1981
Washington’s First Woman Governor was a native of Tacoma. An excellent student, she earned degrees in zoology from Mills College in Oakland, California and a Ph.D. from Stanford University. She taught at the University of Washington and served in several federal agencies including the National Science Foundation and the Committee on Oceanography, part of the National Academy of Science. Dr. Ray became the director of the Pacific Science Center in Seattle in the early 1960s. In the early 1970s she served on the Atomic Energy Commission and later served briefly as an Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans, International Environment and Scientific Affairs.
An unlikely politician, she ran for Governor and won in 1976. Sometimes controversial, Governor Ray was fittingly in office when Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1980. She served one term and later retired to her home on Fox Island where she died in 1994.
(Note this information is adapted in part from the excellent biography by Paula Becker at https://www.historylink.org/File/601)
Louis R. Guzzo, Is it true what they say about Dixy? : a biography of Dixy Lee Ray. Mercer Island, WA: Writing Works, 1980.
Mary Lou Hanify, First Families: A collection of stories about First Ladies of the State of Washington and their families. Dubuque: Kendall Hunt Publishing, 1988.
Governor Christine Gregoire–Governor 2005-2013
Washington’s second woman governor, Christine O’Grady Gregoire grew up in Auburn, Washington. She attended the University of Washington and Gonzaga Law School. She worked as an assistant Attorney General and later headed the Department of Ecology before being elected as the state’s first woman Attorney General in 1992. Governor Gregoire was re-elected as Attorney General for two additional terms before running for Governor in 2004. Her husband, Mike Gregoire, was the ground-breaking “First Gentleman” of the state.
After the end of her second term as governor, Governor Gregoire, a cancer survivor, served on the Board of the Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center in Seattle and was a Fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics. She currently leads “Challenge Seattle.” The Gregoire Fellows program at the University of Washington School of Law is named in her honor.
See also: Christine O. Gregoire and Fred Olson; Tale of two terms : governing in good times and bad. Olympia, WA: C. Gregoire, 2013.