DeVoe, Emma Smith (1848-1927)

  • By Laura Arksey
  • Posted 12/27/2005
  • Essay 7588
Emma Smith DeVoe was a major figure in the American woman suffrage movement and a Republican Party activist. Although she spent the bulk of her political life in Washington state, she was also a paid suffrage worker on the national level, helping to bring about woman suffrage in Washington in 1910, and the Nineteenth Amendment granting the vote to all American women in 1920. The guiding principle of her campaigns was: “Always be good-natured and cheerful” (Ross-Nazzal, “Emma Smith DeVoe,” 76). Her efforts in Washington state were both effective and controversial. The 1909 conventions in Seattle of the Washington Equal Suffrage Association (WESA), of which she was president, and the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), for which she was a paid organizer, brought to a head the controversies with the Eastern Washington clubs led by Spokane’s May Arkwright Hutton (1860-1915). Despite what some considered DeVoe’s heavy-handed leadership style, her overall contribution to the suffrage movement was extraordinary. After ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, DeVoe entered Republican Party politics, eventually rising to leadership positions on the state and national levels.

Early Years

Emma Smith DeVoe was born in Roseville, Illinois, on August 22, 1848.  In 1856, as a child of eight, she and her family attended a speech by suffragist Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906). When Anthony asked all in favor of woman suffrage to rise, at first Emma was the only one in the audience to do so. Then gradually a few adults rose to their feet. Afterwards her father, Birdsey Smith, (himself an abolitionist), praised her courage and told her that “she should continue to stand up for her convictions, regardless of what others may think” (Ross-Nazzal, Diss., 15). DeVoe became an accomplished musician, teaching privately and, briefly, at Eureka College in Eureka, Illinois.  

In 1880, Emma Smith married John Henry DeVoe, an agent for the Chicago and Alton Railroad. He would prove to be a staunch supporter of her suffrage work. They moved to Huron, Dakota Territory, where both Emma and John DeVoe campaigned for moral reform, temperance, and statehood for the Dakotas, as well as woman suffrage. Under the mentorship of Susan B. Anthony, who campaigned in Dakota Territory, staying with the DeVoes and making their home the headquarters of the suffrage campaign, Emma honed her skills as a public speaker and her image as a feminine, non-confrontational advocate. But, despite the efforts of Anthony and DeVoe, an 1890 South Dakota campaign failed, and women of the state did not achieve the vote until 1918.

Professional Organizer

In 1895 the National American Woman Suffrage Association formed a committee under Carrie Chapman Catt (1859-1947) that began hiring organizers to establish suffrage clubs in states that lacked them.  DeVoe, who more than met the committee’s requirement that its organizers be well dressed and ladylike, was hired and dispatched to Idaho.  In her speeches (often enhanced by her beautiful singing voice), she emphasized the prevailing view of natural differences between men and women, including women’s more peaceful nature.  Thus she argued that women voters would improve the chances for peaceful solutions to international conflict. Her attractive appearance, genteel methods, and articulate message were well received and, with Oregon’s Abigail Scott Duniway (1834-1915) and others, she helped Idaho women gain the vote in 1896.

Her next field of endeavor was Oregon, where a 1906 suffrage campaign was building upon years of work already done by Abigail Scott Duniway.  DeVoe’s speeches and parlor meetings were popular with the upper and middle classes, and she even won over a few of the immigrants traditionally opposed to woman suffrage.   However, the liquor interests opposed woman suffrage in Oregon and elsewhere: They were well aware that the zealous suffragists in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) would use the ballot to fight the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages.  The liquor interests’ opposition to woman suffrage was among the factors that defeated it in Oregon in 1906.  The women of that state did not gain the vote until 1912.

The Washington Suffrage Movement

In 1905, Mrs. DeVoe and her husband had moved to Tacoma. In the fall of 1906 she became president of the Washington Equal Suffrage Association while still on the paid staff of the NAWSA.  By the time of her arrival in Washington, she had given speeches and organized clubs in 28 states and territories.  She found the state’s woman suffrage movement to be languishing, notwithstanding its distinguished past. 

As early as 1854, Seattle pioneer Arthur Denny (1822-1899) had introduced an unsuccessful suffrage bill in the Territorial Legislature.  Then, from 1883 to 1888, women in the territory had been allowed to vote.  Subsequently, Susan B. Anthony, Abigail Scott Duniway, and others had worked unsuccessfully for the re-enfranchisement of Washington women.  Beginning in 1906, DeVoe spearheaded the revival of the state’s suffrage movement.

DeVoe and earlier American suffrage leaders had always emphasized the “still hunt” -- a quiet and non-confrontational effort to influence key men and women -- as the best method of achieving their goals.  But DeVoe was pragmatic and believed that the Washington campaign required a change in tactics.  Without abandoning her essentially feminine approach and appearance, she added posters, a publicity bureau, mass rallies, bands, parades, stump speeches, and publicity stunts. 

Conflict within the Movement

Ironically, the Eastern Washington leader, May Arkwright Hutton of Spokane, flamboyant in dress and far less ladylike in demeanor than DeVoe, continued to uphold the “still hunt” approach and opposed the change to these more aggressive methods.  Hutton also was among those who spoke out against paid organizers. This opposition shows a chilling of formerly warm relations and mutual regard between Hutton and Devoe. In fact DeVoe had once urged Hutton to take over as Washington president, which Hutton declined. Furthermore, in a 1908 letter to Harriet Taylor Upton, treasurer of the NAWSA, Hutton had declared: “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” (Ross-Nazzal, Diss., 130).

As the 1909 convention approached, many clubs joined Hutton’s resentment of DeVoe’s ironhanded control, especially her requiring local chapters to sign pledges of support for her as president of the WESA before the election. Hutton’s leadership of the DeVoe opponents was one of the factors precipitating Hutton’s expulsion from the state organization. The WESA denied seating to the “insurgent” clubs, as they were called in the press, and DeVoe was re-elected.

At its 1909 national convention, held from July 1 to 6, immediately following the state meeting, the NAWSA under president Anna Howard Shaw (1847-1919) seated the quarreling Western Washington and Eastern Washington clubs but denied both a vote. Furthermore, the national organization confronted DeVoe, requiring that she either reconcile the opposing clubs or relinquish her position and salary as an organizer.  She chose the latter option.  Yet her contribution to the national convention had been significant.  To bring delegates to Seattle, DeVoe had been instrumental in organizing a “Suffrage Special” train, with well-known suffragists giving rear platform speeches along the way.  She had also arranged for a Suffrage Day at the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition being held in Seattle. 

DeVoe Proceeds

The setback in her national role did not diminish DeVoe’s efforts on the state level, and she lobbied the Washington State Legislature to a put a woman’s suffrage amendment on the November 1910 ballot.  She was especially effective in forming supportive coalitions among such organizations as the Washington Federation of Women’s Clubs, the Grange, and the Washington State Federation of Labor.  She convinced the Woman's Christian Temperance Union to go about its work quietly so as not to further inflame the liquor interests against suffrage. 

She organized governors in the four Western suffrage states, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Idaho, to lend their support through a Washington advisory council.  She traveled the state encouraging women to use a personal grassroots approach to win over to the suffrage position husbands, families, friends, neighbors, grocers, doctors, etc.  The publication of a cookbook demonstrated that women would not abandon their traditional domestic roles if allowed to vote. These efforts by DeVoe and others, including May Arkwright Hutton, helped to pass the 1910 woman suffrage amendment to the Washington state constitution.

In January 1911, DeVoe was a prime mover in the founding of a new organization, the nonpartisan National Council of Women Voters (NCWV), often referred to as a forerunner of the League of Women Voters.  Composed of women delegates appointed by the governors of the now five Western suffrage states, it met in Tacoma concurrently with the final meeting of the Washington Equal Suffrage Association.  Its purpose was to assist non-suffrage states in their efforts, to help the newly enfranchised women use their votes intelligently, and to work for increased political and economic opportunity for women.  May Arkwright Hutton and her followers felt that this organization was a ploy to advance the political ambitions of Emma Smith DeVoe and that her election to its presidency was rigged.  Meanwhile, meeting at the same time but in a different location, the Washington Equal Suffrage Association was formally dissolved. 

Over the next years, as president of the National Council of Women Voters, DeVoe worked concurrently for state-by-state suffrage and for a national woman suffrage amendment.  Her position gave her access to politicians in high places, who courted her for support, while she sought their cooperation with the woman suffrage movement.  She worked closely with both Republicans and Democrats, including Washington’s Democratic governor, Ernest Lister (1870-1919), who solicited testimonial letters in support of the movement from governors of all the suffrage states.  Upon Lister’s death in office in 1919, the Republican lieutenant governor, Louis F. Hart (1862-1929), succeeded him.  DeVoe pressured Hart relentlessly to call a special session of the legislature to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment.  Washington was the second to last state to do so, with DeVoe occupying a seat of honor during the ratification vote on March 23, 1920.   

Last Years

Now feeling free to align herself publicly with a political party, DeVoe became an active Republican.  In 1920 she was the only woman chosen as a presidential elector at the Republican state convention.  The same year, she began writing a column for the Tacoma News Tribune: “The Viewpoint of a Republican Woman” that party leaders felt swayed voters of both sexes to their candidates.  She organized Republican Day at the Western Washington Fair in Puyallup, at which the Washington State Republican Party opened a temporary headquarters. 

She supported Hart’s re-election for governor and soon was appointed vice chairman of the Washington State Republican Party.  DeVoe sought a national post in the Republican Party and in 1923 was appointed to the Committee on Policies and Reform of the Republican National Committee.  In the 1924 presidential election, she worked to elect the Republican candidate, Calvin Coolidge. 

Emma Smith DeVoe died in Tacoma on September 3, 1927, at age 79, mourned in newspaper headlines as a “Mother of Woman’s Suffrage” (Ross-Nazzal, “Emma Smith DeVoe,” 82).  In 2000 she was elected to the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York.

Sources: Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Woman Suffrage Crusade, 1848-1920” (by Mildred Andrews), “Hutton, May Arkwright” (by Laura Arksey), and “Emma Smith DeVoe is elected president of the Washington Equal Sufffrage Association in 1906” (by Priscilla Long), (accessed December 22, 2005); 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; Cora Smith King, “Washington” in History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 6 ed. by Ida Husted Harper (New York: National American Woman Suffrage Association, 1922), 673-686; T. A. Larson, “The Woman Suffrage Movement in Washington,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly Vol. 67, No. 2 (April 1976), 49-62; Jennifer Ross-Nazzal, " 'Always Be Good Natured and Cheerful': Emma Smith DeVoe and the Woman Suffrage Movement" (Ph.D. diss., Washington State University, 2004); Jennifer Ross-Nazzal, “Emma Smith DeVoe: Practicing Pragmatic Politics in the Pacific Northwest,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly Vol. 92, No. 2 (Spring 2005), 76-83; Dale Soden, “The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in the Pacific Northwest: the Battle for Cultural Control,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly Vol. 94, No. 4 (Fall 2003), 197-207. 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.
Note: This essay was corrected on March 5, 2015.

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