Reflections on Historical Leadders
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Reflections on Historical Leaders

May, 2016

Dr. Rick Pointer
Professor of History, Westmont

One of the gifts of being a college professor is having your students teach you new things. And this year has been no exception. Each fall our senior history majors take a capstone seminar in which they produce a substantial research paper. Students explore topics across many places and times, opening up new worlds for themselves and their faculty. By December, after much arduous labor, they complete their projects, present their findings to their peers and teachers, and celebrate having cleared one of the higher hurdles of their academic life. And then in the spring, one of them, thanks to the generosity of former Westmont history professor, Paul Wilt and his wife Doris, is awarded a substantial prize for having written the finest paper.

This year’s winning essay is a study of Abigail Scott Duniway and her longstanding efforts in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Oregon to gain passage of an equal suffrage amendment to the state constitution. A tireless advocate not only for women’s voting rights but for broader measures of equality between the sexes, Duniway’s life and work offers a number of noteworthy lessons in leadership. Most obviously, they show that persistence pays off.

After seeing Oregon almost become the first state in the Union to give women unrestricted suffrage in 1872, Duniway had to endure many more legislative defeats before finally accomplishing her aim in 1912. Her perseverance in the cause is surely admirable. But Duniway’s story turns out to be a bit more complicated than that, for ironically much of the delay in Oregon’s granting women the right to vote may be attributed to Duniway herself. Her personality, strategies, and wider goals as often handicapped as aided the state suffrage movement. More than once, her uncompromising stances and advocacy of more sweeping reforms put off enough would-be supporters to doom her legislative efforts.

If politics is the art of the possible, sometimes leadership means putting yourself and your own agendas aside. Yet leadership also requires vision and Duniway was nothing if not a visionary. Her radical ideas proved too progressive for her own day – what historians call the Progressive era – but a century later they have become part and parcel of what it means to give women in America a full measure of equality: legal rights to hold property, equal pay for equal work, unlimited educational and employment opportunities, taxation with representation, and much more.

In a year when we are likely to see one of our nation’s major political parties put forward for the first time a female nominee for president, overlooked and all-but-forgotten leaders for women’s rights like Abigail Scott Duniway are worth noting. It’s good we have students around to teach us what we should know.