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Why Should Women Have the Vote? Why Not?: A history of women's suffrage in Central Oregon

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The question seems ridiculous today but only 99 years ago, in May 1912, the Bend women you see in this picture met on the steps of Drake Lodge to voice an answer to that question. Oregonians defeated measures to legalize the vote for women five times between 1884 and 1910. By 1912, on the verge of the sixth attempt, state suffrage leaders realized the fight was not to be won by campaigning in the Willamette Valley alone. They needed to go beyond the Cascades.


The occasion for this photograph from the collection of the Des Chutes Historical Museum was the arrival in Bend of Sarah Ehrgott, one of the state's leading suffragette speakers. Clues to its identification were found in the May 12, 1912 edition of The Bend Bulletin. The paper's editors provided Ehrgott with front-page space to present her cause. Under the headline "Question Old as Race Itself" Ehrgott concurs that in the past, women had no need for the vote, for they were neither educated nor members of industry and therefore completely unqualified to vote. She then writes:

But all this has changed. Our women are being educated, side by side with men. Today seventy per cent of our High School graduates are girls and fifty per cent of our college graduates are women... There are now three hundred and twenty departments of industry in which women are successfully working in an army of some seven million.

Further reports show that Ehrgott was enthusiastically received in Bend and Redmond, hosted by multiple church groups and local business leaders. The Bend Bulletin editorialized that if the argument for a woman's right to vote had been made as succinctly in previous elections as presented now by Mrs. Ehrgott, the matter would have been settled long ago.

Among Ehrgott's hosts is Dorothy Binney Putnam, wife of George Palmer Putnam, owner of The Bend Bulletin and current mayor of Bend. A graduate of Wellesley College, Dorothy is among those educated women Ehrgott wrote about, as is Ruth Reid Overturf, founding teacher of Bend's schools and wife of elected city official, H. J. Overturf. The bustling town of Bend has only existed for seven years. Many of Bend's business and city leaders, like the Putnams and Overturfs, are just out of college, settling in this small western town to build their own fortunes, launch their careers, and start their families. The seeds of suffrage rights in Deschutes County were planted long before Ehrgott's arrival.

The measure passed that November and women in Oregon won the right to vote in local and state elections. It is by chance that Bend women then are the first in the state to exercise their new rights. In the city election held December 3, 1912, the eyes of Oregon turned on the small town. The anti-suffrage movement long contended that if women did have the vote, they would not use it; they now looked to Bend for the result.

On that day, reported to be as bad a winter day as could be found here, 75-year-old Mrs. S.M. Whitted arrived at the polls before dawn in order to be the first voter of the day, a fact that surprised her son. She was followed by all of the city's teachers, eager to vote before the start of the school day. Knowing the eyes of the state were upon them, city officials not only opened the doors to women voters, they appointed two women to positions on the voting board, as a clerk and a judge. Throughout, the event was marked for its social atmosphere and good feeling, the women serving on the board being kind enough to encourage their male counter parts to continue to smoke as they had done in the past. Children watched just to see what all the fuss was about. One hundred and twelve women voted that December day, compared to 251 men. In terms of eligible voters, more eligible women turned out than did men, in spite of the bad weather.

So it was that Bend proved what many already knew: that Oregon's women were not only capable of voting intelligently, but also of participating in the political process at large. Oregon joined six other states in allowing women the vote, helping turn the tide toward approval of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920, less than one hundred years ago.

Oregon Suffrage by the Numbers

1912 - Year Oregon Women Won Voting Rights

5 - Number of times suffrage vote failed in Oregon

112 - Number of women who voted in Bend's
first post-suffrage election

6 - That's how many states besides Oregon accorded
women the right to vote by 1912

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