Equality, Politics, and Separatism: The Papers of Feminists in the University of Oregon Libraries

Article excerpt

THE HISTORY of women in Oregon is reflected and preserved in the telling documents they left behind. From the pioneer women who came to the West with their families on overland trails to the activists who mounted a spirited fight for suffrage, from the lesbians who migrated to Oregon to establish separatist communities on the land to the groups and organizations of women who continue to push for equality and political empowerment, Oregon women have left a record of their aspirations, their struggles, and their successes.

Primary sources--the letters, diaries, photographs, reports, meeting minutes, and other original documents that are the raw stuff of history --allow us to discover and interpret the stories of women in Oregon, both as individuals and in purposeful groups. Many libraries across the state hold manuscript collections that reveal the broad scope of that history. Special Collections and University Archives in the University of Oregon Libraries is one such repository, with extensive holdings of manuscript collections relating to women's history. Three clusters of collections at the university offer researchers an opportunity to examine and compare the lives and work of women at different points in Oregon's history, women who all were passionately engaged in the struggle for full equality and citizenship but whose means and purpose were divergent. Abigail Scott Duniway, a pioneer woman, mounted a determined effort to gain voting rights for women in Oregon. During a second wave of feminism in the mid to late twentieth century, women activists sought empowerment by expanding their political rights and participation as Oregon citizens. Also in the later twentieth century, a cohort of women in Oregon formed separatist communities on the land, where they retreated from dominant male culture and politics and followed their own ideals of equality and citizenship.

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Among the many earlier pioneer documents in the collections at the University of Oregon are numerous overland trail diaries, memoirs, and reminiscences written from the early 1850s to the early 1860s. Over twenty were written by women. They reflect typical experiences on the trail: excitement or reluctance to make the journey, fear of the unknown, inexperience in many matters, routine hardships or unanticipated difficulties along the way, and wonder at natural beauty. While women's diaries include more accounts of domestic chores and concerns and men's writings include more accounts of wagon train management and operation, many historians agree that their descriptions of the journey are fundamentally alike. Both women and men generally recorded practical issues such as concerns for the health and safety of family and interest in the new landscape that unfolded before them. (1)

Nevertheless, the content of the diaries varied from writer to writer, offering valuable insight about personal experiences. Some entries are terse, noting only distance traveled, location, and availability of fuel and game. Others add abundant detail about the experience, as did Abigail Scott Duniway's entry about her family's trip from Illinois to Oregon in 1852:

June 3d. Traveled according to our guides about 19 miles. We found the roads very sandy, in the afternoon. In [one] place the bluffs came up very near to the river, and I ascended on horseback to the top of the highest one that we could see from the road, and there saw, indeed a romantic spectacle; The Platte below me flowing on in peaceful music, intersected with numerous islands covered with timber, when no other timber could be seen, The emigrants wagons cattle and horses on the road in either direction as far as the eye could reach, the plain below in which all this living, mass was moving contrasted strangely with the view on the other side of where I was; There nothing could be seen but still higher ranges of bluffs or rather sand hills ... of these hills the ground was in most places almost covered with a kind of flower while the seed of which exactly resembles our buck-wheat while the flower in shape, size and color exactly resembles the common touch-me-not. …