I’ve come to realize my grandmother had an enormous impact on my life, though not in the way you’d expect. Born in 1885, Jessie Harrison Snively Campbell was raised to promulgate the standards of her patrician ancestors, who traced their footprint in the New World back to the 1600s. Late in his life, my father admitted my grandmother didn’t approve of me. I was too outspoken and (thus) headed for trouble.
I’ve spent the week sleuthing about my grandmother, background for a memoir I’m writing about my father. In my self-indulgent fantasy, I wanted to demonstrate that she believed in the value of women in the same way that I do: that they are just as intelligent, have at least as much to offer society as men; that they have the right to fulfill their ambitions, to being heard, to earning a wage commensurate with their talents. In other words, I was examining my grandmother’s life through a feminist lens.
When I discovered that my grandmother’s mother, Elizabeth Harrison Martin Snively, helped found the Women’s Club of Yakima in the late nineteenth century, I thought I was on to something. Women’s clubs were one of the primary tactics used by the suffrage movement, and the Yakima club was affiliated with the Washington State Federation of Women’s Clubs, which played an important role in the movement. In 1919, the year that the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was approved, Yakima’s women’s club presented a program — “history in the making” — on Elizabeth B. Phelps, who had served as vice president of the National Woman Suffrage Association when it was founded.
In my great grandmother’s 1937 obituary, it was noted that the Yakima women’s club started as an afternoon card club, but it was decided that women could play cards in the evening and use the meetings to “increase their knowledge.” Hmmm. Hardly the stuff of firebrands.
The West did play a critical role in securing the vote for women. In 1910, Washington was the first state in 14 years to modify its state constitution to give women the vote. That momentum propelled the movement in Oregon and then California.
In 1910, my grandmother was 25 and, for another year, still living under her father’s roof. Her father, a prominent attorney, had been the Democratic candidate for governor in 1892. Suffrage must have been discussed at home, but to what extent did my grandmother have an opinion or voice it?
Five days before the election, the Yakima Morning Herald quoted a prominent suffragist as saying, “The way men vote next Tuesday on this matter will depend largely on the light in which they regard their wives. If they consider the women they have married fairly intelligent human beings, capable of thinking for themselves on matters of general interest and welfare, if in a word, they consider them helpmates, equally responsibly with themselves for the success of the homelife and the family prosperity, they will vote ‘yes’ and no question about it.”
The day after the election, November 9, 1910, the Yakima Morning Herald trumpeted election results across the top of the page:
Democrats Gain Control of Five States
LOCAL OPTION ELECTION LEAVES NORTH YAKIMA IN “WET” COLUMN BY PRACTICALLY SAME MAJAORITY AS YEAR AGO ALTHOUGH MANY OTHER CITIES VOTE REVERSE
The “local option” referred to the prohibition of alcohol.
The lead story began:
“What have you heard?”
“The entire east has gone democratic.”
“To h__l with the entire east. Is she wet or dry here?”
And there is the story of the election day interest in North Yakima Tuesday.
The same paper carried its first story about voting rights four days after the election:
WOMEN HAVE OPPORTUNITY
To Demonstrate That Confidence Shown in Them by Men Is Not Misplaced
DON’T KNOW WHETHER TO BE PLEASED OR NOT
Activity in Legislation Will Probably Work Itself Out Along Lines Affecting Welfare of Children and Home
Here, finally, were the results: the change to the state constitution was approved by a two-to-one margin, a landslide.
This was what caught my eye:
“There had been little suffrage agitation here, practically none of the women’s organizations… coming out pronouncedly for it, though there were individual suffragists in their ranks… [M]ore men voted for suffrage than against; this, too, when in many cases the men asked their wives how they would vote and were told to vote against it.”
I could imagine my great grandmother and grandmother among the women protesting that women needn’t vote.
I grew more offended as I read on:
“…[T]he vote on the suffrage amendment reflects greater credit on the fair-mindedness of the men than on the public spirit of the women. At one or two club meetings held since the returns were in, it was hard to discover whether the women were pleased or not. There is still talk, and among intelligent women, too, of the duty of the home, and the unwomanliness of going to the polling places.”
And then came the veiled threat:
“If the women go to extremes of impractical reform, the men will soon feel that the confidence was misplaced. If they take the matter rationally and quietly, making their points slowly and intelligently, they will not only get what they are after, but the admiration and support of their fellow voters as well. In matters pertaining to the welfare of the children and the home, in measures for the sanitation and beautifying of the cities, and in the cleanliness and freedom from adulteration of the food supply, they are pretty sure to meet little opposition, and these are the lines along which the women will naturally work. It isn’t likely they will be out after the offices.”
As long as women remained obsequious, stuck to “women’s issues,” and didn’t steal opportunities for public office from men, things would be dandy.
So why do I credit my grandmother for shaping my life? My grandmother stayed with my grandfather for over four decades before she finally divorced him. From the very beginning of their marriage, he maintained a second household with his mistress. He bullied his sons and my grandmother. According to my cousin, my uncle begged her to leave. Divorce wasn’t impossible even when she married; four were reported in the paper on her wedding day. In 1910, one woman won the “immense verdict” of $16,000 against her in-laws for alienation of her former husband’s affections. The plaintiff alleged they turned her husband against her.
I don’t know if my father ever spoke to his mother directly about her marital situation. What I do know is what he did when raising his own daughter. He made sure I had marketable job skills so that I would never be trapped in a loveless marriage.
Copies of The Yakima Republic/Daily Republic, the Yakima Morning Herald and The Yakima Democrat were accessed on September 15, 2015, at the Washington State Library in Tumwater, Washington.