Emma Smith DeVoe: The Suffragist Who Wouldn't Back Down
by David Jepsen
When Emma Smith DeVoe was eight years old, she heard Susan B. Anthony speak on women’s suffrage (voting rights). When Anthony asked for all those in favor of women voting to stand, DeVoe was the first in the audience to rise to her feet.
DeVoe stood up for women’s rights for the rest of her life. A paid organizer for the National Woman Suffrage Association, DeVoe spearheaded movements in Dakota territory, Idaho, and Oregon prior to moving to Washington. When she and her husband moved to Tacoma in 1906, she was named president of the Washington Equal Suffrage Association.
How Did She Do It?
DeVoe understood the importance of building coalitions with labor, men’s groups, and the Grange Association. She used polls to determine where every voter stood on the suffrage question. Many of the campaign’s more high-profile strategies, such as publishing cookbooks, organizing women’s days, and blanketing neighborhoods with posters were introduced by DeVoe. Before Devoe, the suffrage campaign took a low-key approach, emphasizing one-on-one lobbying with legislators, mayors, and other pockets of influence.
In 1909, the national suffrage association held its convention in Seattle. To bring delegates in, DeVoe organized a "Suffrage Special" train, with suffragists giving speeches from the rear platform along the route. She also arranged for a Suffrage Day at Seattle's 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition.
I think if we had raked the nation with a fine-tooth comb we could not have found Mrs. Emma Smith DeVoe's equal as an organizer, state president and presiding officer, wrote Spokane’s May Arkwright Hutton, vice president of the WESA.
Yet it was Hutton with whom DeVoe would soon conflict. The women's styles were very different. DeVoe was ladylike, good-natured, and cheerful, while Hutton was gaudy and sometimes vulgar. More importantly, the two leaders disagreed over strategy. Hutton and her Eastern Washington contingent did not agree with DeVoe’s more public tactics.
The differences between DeVoe and Hutton led to a major split in Washington’s suffrage movement, but it did not deter them from their ultimate objective. Thanks to their tireless efforts, Washington voters approved a constitutional amendment on Nov. 8, 1910, legalizing women’s suffrage. It was only the fifth state to do so. The 64% yes vote is a telling measure of the thoroughness of the campaign and DeVoe’s leadership efforts.
Mother of Woman’s Suffrage
After success in Washington, DeVoe dedicated herself to the national campaign and the passage of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. She became a fixture in state and national politics for the remainder of her life. She died in Tacoma, Washington on September 3, 1927, at age 79. The Tacoma News Tribune called her the Mother of Woman's Suffrage. In 2000, she was elected to the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York.
Copyright © 2007-2009 Washington State Historical Society
Like many women of the era, Emma Smith DeVoe collected clippings and political ephemera in scrapbooks like the one shown above.
click to zoom >
This ribbon from the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition commemorates Women's Suffrage Day.
click to zoom >