Chronicling Women's History at the Oregon State Archives

Article excerpt

RESEARCHERS FROM all walks of life regularly access the records held by the Oregon State Archives. Along with state-and county-level vital records representing marriages, divorces, and deaths, the State Archives holds records from state agencies such as the Departments of Forestry, Agriculture, and Corrections as well as records created by the Oregon State Legislature and by Oregon's governors and secretaries of state. The State Archives, established in 1945 and funded in 1947, preserves and provides access to the permanently valuable records of Oregon government, authorizes the disposition of the public records, and provides advice and assistance to state agencies and political subdivisions on a variety of public records issues. The records at the State Archives show how Oregon's government has worked to acknowledge, manage, and resolve issues affecting its citizens and includes material documenting women and their lives from Oregon's territorial times to the campaigns for woman suffrage and election to the highest offices in state government through to the present day. Although we do not have personal papers or diaries of women who worked to achieve the vote, our records include petitions to the Provisional and Territorial governments, election records, and proclamations documenting women's efforts for suffrage as well as records of women's property and pensions, records of state commissions and agencies related to women, and administrative records from women who rose to the ranks of agency director, secretary of state, and governor.

Here, we offer just a few examples of records held by the State Archives that demonstrate how Oregon women worked to gain support for their right to own property, to achieve equal suffrage, and eventually to become major players in Oregon government.

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Prior to the passage of the Women's Separate Property Law in 1859, married women in Oregon did not have legal ownership of their property. (1) Husbands had the right to control and dispose of their wives' property and wages. If a woman was widowed, she generally was left without a means of support for herself or any children she may have had. The 1859 Oregon Women's Separate Property Law provided all married women with a process through which they could establish control of their own property and protect that property from being used to pay their husbands' debts. Married women who sought to hold property separate from that of their husbands could register their property with the county clerk of the county in which they lived. Subsequent legislation in 1866, 1878, and 1880 expanded married women's rights to their property. (2) The State Archives holds a number of Married Women's Separate Property Registers that list and describe married women's assets, such as home furnishings, livestock, land, food, and liquor. (3)

The passage of separate married women's property laws helped some Oregon women but did little to protect the property of married women who did not register their separate property or widows, many of whom were still left without a means to support themselves and their families after the death of a husband.

The Oregon Pension and Relief Records document the financial assistance that counties provided to widows, mothers, dependent children, orphans, the elderly, and those who were indigent. (4) The years and content of the county records held at the State Archives vary. The Baker County applications for widows' pensions, for example, document the years 1913 to 1936, while Marion County's widows' pension records span 1913 to 1918, and Linn County records include widows' pension applications from 1913 to 1937. The assistance that the Pension and Relief Fund provided served as a basic social safety net, primarily for women and children who were unable to support themselves due to the loss of the male head of household. Many women who were widowed and were not left any financial support relied on this financial assistance to survive. …