On June 6, 1870, Charlotte Emily Olney French (1828-1897), after a debate with the election judges, casts her vote in a Washington territorial election, the first woman to do so. Six more women at her Grand Mound precinct in south Thurston County also vote that day. Eight women at the Black River precinct a few miles north get the news and add their votes for a total of 15 approved ballots by women. The women base their arguments on recently enacted legislation sponsored by Edward Eldridge (1828-1892), a Whatcom County legislator, which strikes the word "male" from the voting laws. French's sister, Mary Olney Brown (1821-1886), and others try to vote in Olympia but are turned down.
A Family of Activists
Charlotte French, who also went by her middle name, Emily, and her sister Mary Brown had both come west from Iowa by wagon in the 1850s. They were two of 12 Olney siblings, most of whom eventually settled in Washington and Oregon territories. Brown's husband was already known in Iowa as an abolitionist, and her family was active in civic affairs. Referring to Brown and her fellow pioneer suffrage supporter Abigail Scott Duniway (1834-1915), one of the editors of the History of Woman Suffrage imagined their trip west three decades after it took place:
"What ideas were revolving in these young minds in that long journey of 3,000 miles, six months in duration, it would be difficult to imagine, but the love of liberty had been infused in their dreams somewhere, either in their eastern homes from the tragic scenes of the anti-slavery conflict, or on that perilous march amidst those eternal solitudes by day and the solemn stillness of the far-off stars in the gathering darkness. That this long communion with great nature left its impress on their young hearts and sanctified their lives to the best interests of humanity at large, is clearly seen In the deeply interesting accounts they give of their endeavors to mould the governments of their respective territories on republican principles" (History ..., 767).
The actual trip was less poetic. Brown and her husband, Benjamin, known as B. F. Brown (1815-1893), lost two of their five children to disease along the way. The Browns stopped first in Portland, Oregon, and then settled near Olympia in Thurston County, where they sold fruit-tree grafts from her brother Cyrus Olney's (d. 1870) pioneering nursery near Portland. B. F. Brown also partnered with Charlotte's husband, G. W. French (d. 1908), to build the first commercial wharf in Olympia.
"I Was Fully Committed"
Brown, who was described in her obituary as "a woman of more than ordinary intellectual endowments and a zealous advocate for many of the modern measures of reform" ("Mary Olney Brown"), credited territorial legislator Edward Eldridge with the first official impetus to give women the vote in Washington. "At the session of 1867, mainly through the efforts of Edward Eldridge of Whatcom county, an act was passed giving 'all white American citizens above the age of twenty-one years' the right to vote" (History ..., 781).
Eldridge said he had purposely left out the word "male" in order to open the vote to women, and Brown felt a duty of follow up. She wrote to women around the territory and urged them to vote in the next election, but "I was looked upon as a fanatic and the idea of a woman voting was regarded as an absurdity. The law seemed to be in advance of the people" (History ..., 781). Brown persevered, bolstered by the support of her husband, who told neighbors that he believed she had as much right to vote as he did.
She decided to test the matter herself and attempt to vote in the 1869, a stance she publicized in essays and letters. She later wrote:
"A fearful hue and cry was raised ... Some of the papers deprecated the idea that 'a woman should unsex herself by dabbling in the filthy pool of politics.' But I was fully committed. The law had been on our statute books for nearly three years. If it was intended for our benefit, it was time we were availing ourselves of it" (History ..., 781).
Her experience at the schoolhouse voting place was anticlimactic.
"After watching the sovereign 'white male citizen' perform the laborious task of depositing his vote in the ballot-box, I thought if I braced myself up I might be equal to the task. So, summoning all my strength, I walked up to the desk behind which sat the august officers of election, and presented my vote. When behold! I was pompously met with the assertion, 'You are not an American citizen; hence not entitled to vote.' The great unabridged dictionary of Noah Webster was opened, and the definition of the word citizen read to me. ... Waiting a moment, I said, 'The definition is correct. A citizen of the United States, is a person owing allegiance to the government; but then all persons are not men; and the definition of citizeness is a female citizen. I claim to be an American citizen, and a native-born citizen at that; and I wish to show you from the fourteenth amendment to the constitution of the United States, that women are not only citizens having the constitutional right to vote, but also that our territorial election law gives women the privilege of exercising that right'" (History ..., 782).
"A Woman of Energy and Influence"
Brown was denied despite her analysis. However, her sister and fellow activist, Charlotte French, continued the campaign the next year at her Grand Mound precinct in south Thurston County a few miles north of Centralia (Lewis County). Brown wrote:
"My sister ... began talking the matter up ... And, being a woman of energy and influence, she soon had the whole neighborhood interested. With the assistance of an old lady, Mrs. Peck, she planned a regular campaign. By the programme the women were to get up a picnic dinner at the schoolhouse where the election was to be held, and directly after, while the officers of election were in good humor (wives will understand the philosophy of this), they were to present their votes" (History ..., 784).
The "old lady" was Mercy Peck, whose husband Washington Peck was among the election inspectors.
After the meal and an accompanying conversation about the 14th Amendment on that election day, June 6, 1870, "the judges, as well as everyone else, were in the best of spirits," and French cast her ballot without a protest, followed by six more women, including a 72-year-old Mrs. [Delilah] Sargent, who "said she thanked the Lord that he had let her live until she could vote" (History ..., 784).
Women at the Black River precinct at Littlerock, about five miles north, had sent a supporter to Grand Mound on horseback. Once the women's votes were accepted, he galloped back with the news, as Brown described:
"The moment the man rode in sight of the school-house he swung his hat, and screeched at the top of his voice, '"They're voting! They're voting!' "The teams were all ready in anticipation of the news, and were instantly flying in every direction, and soon the women were ushered into the school-house, their choice of tickets furnished them, and all allowed to vote as 'American citizens'" (History ..., 784).
Mary Brown, accompanied by Jane Wyllie Pattison, Jane Wylie, and Susan Dofflemyer, also attempted to vote in Olympia that year. Dofflemyer's husband, Isaac, showed up and took her away, and the remaining three women were denied.
The next year, the territorial legislature voted to deny Washington women the vote until the U.S. Congress approved it nationally, although "tax-paying women" ("Countdown ...") were permitted to vote in school elections after 1877. Women won the right to vote in Washington Territory in 1883, but the right was rescinded by the Territorial Supreme Court in 1888. Women of Washington did not regain the vote until 1910, a full 40 years after Brown, French, and their compatriots had paved the way, but still 10 years ahead of the U.S. 19th Amendment establishing woman suffrage nationwide.
Brown and French both stayed active in community work. They were founding members of the Women's Club of Olympia in 1883 and participants in its study topics and community projects. Brown also took up "the water cure" and became known as a doctor, using alternate applications of hot and cold water to treat her patients. When she died at age 65, her obituary noted her "trenchant pen," often used to promote racial and sexual equality and said "many of her essays have aided very materially in shaping popular sentiment towards woman's enfranchisement" ("Mary Olney Brown").
French, who divorced her husband for desertion in 1879 (he promptly remarried), moved to Montesano in the 1890s, where she died at age 69. Besides a daughter and son, she left "a host of acquaintances to mourn the loss of a good, kind, affectionate woman, who shirked no duty in life and contributed her full share towards the development of the western wilds into a civilized home for herself and others" ("Charlotte Emily Olney French"). Her obituary did not mention her role as a political strategist and early voter.