Hutton, May Arkwright (1860-1915)

  • By Laura Arksey
  • Posted 11/16/2005
  • Essay 7547
May Arkwright Hutton is probably the best-known woman’s name in Spokane history. The woman suffrage leader and political activist grew up in Ohio and came west to the Coeur d’Alene mining area as a young woman. First as a saloon cook, then a boarding house owner, she became known as the best cook in the Coeur d’Alenes. There she met locomotive engineer, Levi W. Hutton (1860-1928), whom she married in 1887. Theirs was a classic American rags to riches story. The Huttons and their partners owned the Hercules Mine, which eventually produced enough silver and lead to make them millionaires. In 1906 they moved to Spokane, where Levi diversified into real estate and May became a philanthropist, the prime mover in Eastern Washington’s woman suffrage movement, and an active figure in Democratic Party politics.

Early Life

Contrary to some published sources, May was technically not an orphan, but probably illegitimate  (Montgomery, 9).  Her mother either died or disappeared when May was a very young child, and before she was 10, her father sent her to keep house for her blind paternal grandfather.  She cooked his meals and took him to the political meetings he so enjoyed, where she absorbed much that would shape her adult priorities.  On one such occasion, she met the future president, William McKinley, a young lawyer who expounded his view that women should be granted equal economic and political rights with men.  After the meeting, May and her grandfather lodged him for the night.  Later May would credit her grandfather Arkwright with encouraging her not to place any limits on her aspirations.

After two very brief marriages in Ohio, about which little is known, May Arkwright joined a group of former coal mining families in an 1883 migration to Idaho.  She first worked long hours as a saloon cook in the mining gulches of the Idaho Panhandle, including Wardner Junction (later Kellogg), where she opened her own boarding house. One of the regular diners was locomotive engineer Levi W. Hutton, known locally as Al, whom she met in 1887.  They soon married and moved to a tiny apartment in Wallace, where May managed the restaurant of the Wallace Hotel.  With their combined earnings, the Huttons were able to buy a stake in the, as yet, unproductive Hercules Mine.  Al worked in the mine during spare hours while May kept the meals coming. Photographs showing her in overalls with the men at the mine entrance suggest that she sometimes joined them in the manual labor.

Times Rough and Restless

During the contentious 1890s, the Huttons were pro-union and champions of the underdog in the struggles between the miners and the mine owners, but May was more outspoken than her quiet, genial husband. When the unrest became violent in 1899, masked strikers commandeered Levi and his train at gunpoint to haul dynamite for blowing up the concentrator of the non-union Bunker Hill and Sullivan Mine.  Under the martial law that followed, Levi was swept up with perpetrators of the sabotage, and all were confined in a stockade known as the “bull pen.” 

By relentlessly badgering the guards and the governor's on-site representative, May was able to secure her husband's release.  Hutton was never convicted of any crime, but lost his job with the Northern Pacific.  In 1900, May wrote a novel describing the incident: The Coeur d’Alenes: Or, a Tale of the Modern Inquisition in Idaho.  She later suppressed it by buying up remaining copies.

Striking It Rich

In 1901, a Hercules partner, August Paulsen, hit what proved to be a rich vein of silver and lead.  By the time the Hercules Mine was worked out in 1925, it had yielded almost two million dollars on the Hutton investment.  As mine owners, they were able to move into a larger house in Wallace. 

However, May was not accepted into the society of mine owners’ wives.  Large (more than 200 pounds in her prime), outspoken, and often flamboyantly dressed, she did not fit the ideal of Victorian womanhood.  Her lack of formal education and her working-class origins were apparent. 

Yet she set about educating herself by reading everything she could lay hands on and by joining the Wallace Shakespeare Club. The articulate and persuasive speeches and letters she wrote during her woman suffrage crusade exhibit the success of this self-education. Furthermore, the Huttons hosted such distinguished visitors as the famous lawyer Clarence Darrow and the national suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt in their Wallace home.

Woman Suffrage

Idaho women had gained the vote in 1896, and May Hutton not only voted, but in 1904 entered politics by running as a Democrat for the state legislature.  She came within 80 votes of her Republican opponent, attributing her defeat to the $20,000 the mine owners had raised in his support.  While still living in Idaho, May met the Oregon suffrage leader Abigail Scott Duniway (1834-1915), as well as Emma Smith DeVoe (1848-1927), a professional organizer sent from Illinois to lead the suffrage efforts, first in Idaho and then in Washington. In 1905, Hutton joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association and attended its convention that year in Portland.

When the Huttons moved to Spokane in 1906, May could no longer vote, so she hastened to remedy the situation.  In a letter to a female inquirer questioning the need for woman suffrage, she pointed out the obvious fact that working women were the victims of “taxation without representation” and went on to assert:

 "Women should vote because they have the intelligence to vote.  They should vote because it gives them responsibilities, and responsibilities better fit women for all conditions of life.  Equality before the law gives women a fair chance with men in a question of wages for the same work.  In other words, the enfranchisement of women means a square deal for all" (Powers, 10).

Suffrage Politics

Hutton became first vice-president of the Washington Equal Suffrage Association, of which Seattle-based DeVoe was president.  Concerned about fair treatment for all, not just women, Hutton suggested that the organization propose a plank for the 1908 Democratic Party convention in Denver that would enfranchise “all voters, regardless of sex, race, color ...” (Horner, 29).  Mrs. Devoe received a warning from her husband that the inclusion of race would alienate southern supporters of woman suffrage.  May Hutton attended the Democratic convention, where her views did not become part of the platform, but she received the assurance of labor leader Samuel Gompers that they would eventually prevail.  She returned home to organize Democratic women in support of William Jennings Bryan. 

Until late 1908, relations between May Hutton and Emma DeVoe and between the Eastern and Western Washington suffrage efforts had been cordial.  However, they began to cool as Hutton declared herself and her eastern colleagues to be pursuing a course she felt less apt to arouse antagonism than the poster-waving of the Seattle area women. In a November 1908 letter to Dr. Cora Smith Eaton, treasurer of the Washington Equal Suffrage Association, Hutton wrote:

"[I] have decided that we will conduct our campaign on the east side along entirely different lines than the Seattle women ... .  I have been in politics a great many years and know that the still hunt is the winning hunt ... . You say you are weary of distributing posters ... . We are not, because we didn’t post any in Spokane ... . In my opinion, these posters in the face of the people at this time only arouses [sic] antagonism which we particularly desire to avoid (Horner, 30)."

The “still hunt” must have been a favorite suffrage metaphor, for it is also attributed to Duniway and DeVoe (Larson, 56).

Hutton v. DeVoe

In 1909 relations deteriorated further.  During the legislative session in Olympia, May Hutton was one of the lobbyists intent on getting a woman’s suffrage amendment passed by February, to be submitted to the voters in the November 1910 general election.  As a lobbyist, she was either crucial to getting the bill through the legislature or an obstruction to its passage, depending on the account one reads.  At any rate, her behavior infuriated Mrs. DeVoe and Dr. Eaton, who reprimanded her.  Mrs. DeVoe later said, “Mrs. Hutton nearly ruined our cause ... by her aggressiveness and her peculiar methods” (Larson, 58).

Yet when Washington women at last gained the vote in 1910, May Hutton received accolades from many quarters praising her leadership in the effort, and even, in the words of Oregon suffragist Abigail Scott Duniway, the “ability and tact” with which she carried out her part of the campaign  (Horner, 35). 

Meanwhile, the increasing Eastern Washington membership in the Washington Equal Suffrage Association had begun to threaten the power of the Western Washington chapter.  In time, Hutton wished the state organization to replace DeVoe with Mrs. Homer M. Hill, a former state president.  The resulting antagonism toward Hutton “took an ugly turn when DeVoe’s supporters dug for notoriety or scandal in May’s past and tried to expel her from the state’s suffrage organization” (Pieroth, 7). 

On June 17, 1909, treasurer Eaton wrote to Hutton returning her yearly dues and informing her that she was ineligible for membership because of “your habitual use of profane and obscene language and of your record in Idaho as shown by pictures and other evidence [of] ... your former life and reputation” (Horner, 32). Later in a letter to suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt, Eaton claimed that while in the Idaho mining camps, Hutton had been known as Bootleg Mary and that she ran “a bad house, kept for immoral purposes” (Horner, 32).  These totally unfounded assertions may be the source of lingering rumors that May had been a prostitute during the Idaho boarding house days.

The 1909 Seattle Suffrage Convention

The 1909 convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association was to be held in Seattle July 1-6 to coincide with the year of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition.  The Washington Equal Suffrage Association would meet just prior to the national meeting.  A “suffrage special” train carrying Eastern delegates stopped en route in Spokane, where they were feted by the Chamber of Commerce, given an automobile tour of the “beautiful residence district” and entertained at “an elaborate banquet with Mrs. May Arkwright Hutton, president of the Spokane Equal Suffrage Club, presiding” (Harper, 244). Membership in Mrs. Hutton’s club was by then the largest in the state, and after the banquet the Spokane women boarded the two extra cars the train added to convey them to Seattle.

At its Seattle convention, the state organization refused to seat the Spokane delegation on something of a technicality.  In order to pack the state convention with Eastern Washington delegates, May Hutton had offered a free trip to the Exposition to anyone selling 50 memberships in the Spokane club.  However, she did not turn over to the state organization the new names or dues brought in by this ploy until two days before the convention.  This transgression was the last straw for state leaders already determined to neutralize Hutton’s influence.  Accordingly, with the exclusion of the Spokane delegates, Mrs. DeVoe was again elected president.  The national convention that followed was disgusted with the Washington squabble and, although the competing delegations were seated, they were denied a vote (Montgomery, 10-11).

Differences in class, education, appearance, demeanor and political affiliation undoubtedly contributed to the antagonism between DeVoe and Hutton.  Unlike the feminine, well-educated Republican DeVoe, Hutton was an earthy Democrat who had risen from the working class.  Part of her crusade for woman suffrage was for the benefit of working women, as she said: “the laundry worker, the shop girl, the stenographer, the teacher, the working woman of every type, whose home and fireside and bread are earned by their own efforts” (Horner, 34).  She was mystified by the actual opposition of some privileged, educated women to woman suffrage and challenged them to support it at least for the sake of their poorer sisters.

After the rejection of the Eastern Washington contingent at the Seattle convention, Hutton returned to Spokane to found a new organization: the Washington Political Equality League.  There were now three suffrage organizations in Washington, one led by Mrs. DeVoe, another in Seattle led by Mrs. Hill, and the Spokane group under May Arkwright Hutton. 

An Appeal, Not a Fight

As before, she intended her approach to be persuasive rather than militant.  She made clear her disapproval of the strident and sometimes violent approach of the British suffragists under Emmeline Pankhurst.  Hutton insisted that: “Our campaign in Washington is an appeal, not a fight.  We never allow our workers to be abusive to men” (Horner, 33).

After Washington women received the vote in 1910, May Arkwright Hutton claimed to have been the first Spokane woman to register.  She and another woman, Mrs. F. A. Fassett, were the first two women to serve on a Spokane County jury.  She soon lobbied in Olympia for an eight-hour workday for women.  In 1912, Hutton, along with three other women, were among the delegates to the State Democratic Convention in Walla Walla.  She continued from there as a Washington delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore, where she attracted considerable press coverage.  Despite increasingly ill health, she stopped in Ohio on the way home to give speeches bolstering that state’s woman suffrage efforts. 

Hutton's Last Days

The Hutton’s home in Spokane had been an elegant apartment on the fourth (then top) floor of Levi Hutton’s downtown Hutton Building.  In July 1914, they moved to a mansion they had built, with spacious acreage, at 17th Avenue and Crestline, east of the town center.  Soon realizing the land was more than they needed, they donated a large portion to the city for a park.  The hospitality that had characterized their lives in the Hutton Building continued, with dinners and gatherings for large numbers of guests. 

However, May did not have long to enjoy her new home nor did she live to see woman suffrage become the law of the land.  Her health had been declining for some time, and she soon became seriously ill.  Yet she managed to organize one more effort, Spokane Women for World Peace.  She died of Bright’s disease, a kidney condition, on October 6, 1915, at age 55.

The people of Spokane, rich and poor, united in mourning May Arkwright Hutton.  Somewhat overshadowed in public awareness by her crusade for woman suffrage were the many charities she had supported with both time and money.  Two favorites had been the Spokane Children’s Home and the Florence Crittenton Home for unwed mothers. 

The funeral was held at the Hutton’s house, with the crowd overflowing onto the lawn.  The upper crust of Spokane society, which, like that of Wallace, had largely rejected her, turned out in force.  But so did the poor she had championed and assisted -- Idaho miners, working women, unwed mothers, and other ordinary folk.  The Spokane Daily Chronicle lauded her as “author, suffragist, philosopher, humanitarian and probably one of the best known women in the great northwest ... [who] in Spokane was generally beloved for her charitable and public-spirited activities” (Pieroth, 10).

Sources: John Fahey, The Days of the Hercules (Moscow: University Press of Idaho, 1978); Lucile F. Fargo, "Mrs. Hercules: the Story of May Arkwright Hutton," unpublished typescript, Spokane Public Library; Ida Husted Harper, History of Woman Suffrage (New York: National American Woman Suffrage Association, 1922), vol. 5, 243-244; vol. 6, 673-686; Patricia Voeller Horner, “May Arkwright Hutton: Suffragist and Politician” in Women in Pacific Northwest History ed. by Karen J. Blair (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988), 25-42); Benjamin H. Kizer, “May Arkwright Hutton,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly Vol. 57, No. 2 (April 1966), 49-56; T. A. Larson, “The Woman Suffrage Movement in Washington,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly Vol. 67, No. 2 (April 1976); James W. Montgomery, Liberated Woman: a Life of May Arkwright Hutton (Fairfield, Washington: Ye Galleon Press, 1985); Doris H. Pieroth, The Hutton Settlement: a Home for One Man’s Family (Spokane: Hutton Settlement, 2003) 2-10; Dorothy Powers, “A Voice From the Past: May Arkwright Hutton -- In Her Own Words,” The Spokesman-Review Magazine, March 28, 1976, 6-22. See also: Laura Arksey, "In No Uncertain Terms: From the Writings of May Arkwright Hutton," Pacific Northwesterner Vol. 52, No. 1 (April 2008), 4-46. See also Rebecca Mead, “Votes For Women!” Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History Vol. 24, No. 4 (Winter 2010-11),  5-11.

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