Washington State Constitutional Convention delegates frame constitution stipulating that voters must be male, but append separate woman suffrage and Prohibition amendments on August 17, 1889.

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 10/05/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5503
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On August 17, 1889, delegates to the Washington State Constitutional Convention in Olympia tack two amendments, one for woman suffrage and the other for Prohibition, onto the ballot by which voters will decide whether or not to ratify their new state constitution.  The ballot also asks voters to decide which city should be the new state's capital.

Washington's Constitutional Convention

Since July 4, 1889, elected delegates (all male) to the constitutional convention had been wrestling to shape a constitution that would serve Washington when the United States Congress conferred statehood. The constitutional convention would ultimately sit for 52 days, concluding on August 24, 1889. The question of whether or not woman suffrage should be incorporated in the document was discussed at intervals between August 9 and August 15, 1889. A voter-approved constitution was one of the conditions Congress had established as being necessary for statehood. 

The delegates received petitions from many groups representing a wide variety of public interests -- from woman suffrage, to alcohol prohibition, to limitations on the powers of corporations, to regulations concerning how cities could be governed.  A 1909 history states:

"Before the delegates were ready to begin their work a large number of petitions, memorials and communications of various sorts, containing suggestions as to what the Constitution should and should not provide for, had reached the capital and were awaiting attention ... . It was plain from these that some portion of the community at least had but a very indefinite idea of what a Constitution was or should be" (Snowden, p. 389).

Women's Right to Vote

Woman suffrage (women's right to vote) had been a contentious subject during Washington's entire territorial period.  Most recently, on August 14, 1888, the Washington Territorial Supreme Court had ruled woman suffrage (hard-won in 1883, and chipped away at subsequently) unconstitutional. 

A powerful businessmen's lobby also maintained that female suffrage might prejudice the United States Congress against granting Washington statehood, since women were denied the vote on the national level. This risk was real. At the time Washington was granted statehood, only in Wyoming Territory did women enjoy full suffrage, having been granted that right in 1869. When Wyoming became a state on July 10, 1890, women there were able to retain their right to vote, facing down threats from the United States Congress in order to do so.  Keeping that right required that two-thirds of Wyoming's male voters approve that state's constitution with suffrage intact -- a level of support Washington suffragists did not have at the time of statehood.

Local-option prohibition was also outlawed by the Territorial Supreme Court in 1888, although a modified version of the local-option law was later re-instated. The issues of prohibition and suffrage went hand in hand.  Many (although by no means all) suffrage proponents also advocated temperance. People against prohibition feared that women, once empowered to vote, would outlaw or restrict access to inebriants.

The History of Woman Suffrage, Volume 4 (published in 1902) recounted anti-suffrage prejudice among the convention delegates: 

"A convention opposed to equal suffrage was elected, and framed a constitution excluding women.  A friend of the present writer talked with many of the members while the convention was in session.  He says that almost every lawyer in that body acknowledged, in private conversation, that the decision by which the women had been disenfranchised was illegal. 'But,' they said, 'the women had set the community by the ears on the temperance question, and we had to get rid of them.'  One politician said frankly, 'Women are natural mugwumps [a chronic objector or reformer], and I hate a mugwump" (p. 1098).

Edward Eldridge and His Effort

At least one delegate, Edward Eldridge (b. 1829) of Whatcom County, was an ardent suffrage supporter.  On August 12, 1889, the article of the proposed constitution discussing voting came before the entire convention.  The History of Woman Suffrage, Volume 4, described Eldridge's effort: 

"In a long and able argument Mr. Eldridge reviewed the recent decision of the Supreme Court and made an eloquent plea for justice to women.  Substitutes granting women Municipal suffrage [the right to vote in city or town elections], School Suffrage [the right to vote in school board elections],  the right to hold office, the privilege of voting on the constitution, all were defeated.  Finally a compromise was forced by which it was agreed to submit a separate amendment giving them Full Suffrage, to be voted on at the same time as the rest of the constitution, women themselves not being allowed to vote upon it" (p. 970).

  The Journal of the Washington State Constitutional Convention 1889 also described Eldridge's plea to his fellow delegates on behalf of the suffrage cause: 

"Eldridge was the only speaker. He called for democracy in the Constitution and for the delegates to live up to their pledges for women's suffrage.  He said that the Supreme Court had under consideration the question of the territory's right to grant equal suffrage under the Constitution and he thought that until a decision was given, women should have the right to vote. By unanimous vote, the delegates allowed Eldridge to speak over the time limit and he continued for nearly an hour" (p. 635). 

The delegates may have listened, but the motion lost.

The language for the ballot was decided on August 17, 1889.  It read:

1. For the Constitution    Against the Constitution

2. For Woman Suffrage Article    Against Woman Suffrage Article

3. For Prohibition Article  Against Prohibition Article 

4. For the Permanent Location of the Seat of Government (Name of place voted for)

The Impossible Takes a Little Time

Suffragists tried to rally the vote, but with no money and little time to organize, there was little they could do to press their cause to male voters scattered throughout the state. 

On October 1, 1889, the territory's male citizens ratified the proposed constitution (which explicitly defined eligible voters as male) by a margin of four to one. They defeated both the Prohibition and suffrage amendments. The vote on Prohibition was 19,546 for, and 31,487 against. The vote on suffrage  was 16,521 for, and 35,913 against.  On November 11, 1889, U.S. President Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901) signed the bill admitting Washington to the United States. 

Under Territorial rule, only legislative action would have been required in order to enfranchise women (or take other similar actions).  Under the new state constitution, enacting woman suffrage required a two-thirds majority legislative approval and a statewide election majority.  Not until November 8, 1910, did women in the state of Washington secure the right to vote.

Washington's Capital

On the question of where the capital should be located, Olympia received 25,490 votes, North Yakima 14,711, Ellensburg 12,833, Centralia 607, Yakima City (now Union Gap) 314, and Pasco 130. The ballot proposition stated that the winning city must receive a majority vote, however, necessitating a run-off.  Washington voters were slated to choose between the top three finishers in the next general election. 

On November 4, 1890, Washington voters spoke and Olympia was designated the state capital with 37,413 votes. 


Mildred Tanner Andrews, curator, Votes for Women Exhibition (Bellingham: Whatcom Museum of History and Art, 1993); T. A. Larson, "The Woman Suffrage Movement in Washington," Pacific Northwest Quarterly Vol. 26, No. 2 (April, 1976), 55; Shanna Stevenson, Women's Votes, Women's Voices: The Campaign For Equal Rights In Washington (Tacoma: Washington State Historical Society, 2009); The History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 4, ed. by Susan B. Anthony and Ida Husted Harper (Rochester, New York: Susan B. Anthony, 1904), 967-981; Clinton A. Snowden, History of Washington: The Rise And Progress of and American State Vol. 4 (New York: Century History Company, 1909), 385; Norman H. Clark, The Dry Years: Prohibition and Social Change in Washington, revised edition (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988), 34; "Wyoming: The Equality State," Women of the West Museum website accessed October 4, 2010 (http://theautry.org/explore/exhibits/suffrage/suffrage_wy.html); The Journal of the Washington State Constitutional Convention 1889 ed. by Beverly Paulik Rosenow, with Analytical Index by Quentin Shipley Smith (Seattle: Book Publishing Company, 1962); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Ellensburg loses its bid to become state capital on November 4, 1890." (by Paula Becker), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed October 8, 2010).
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