6 Oregon at the Turn of the Twentieth Century


Oregon was a land of promise for settlers who came from the Eastern and Southern states of America. Official and popular discourses framed the West as a land of limitless opportunity. It was a narrative that had resonance in American nationalism. The idea of opportunity aligned with the making of the West and within popular imagination it was periodically viewed as a place of refuge for those suffering economic hardship, or political and religious persecution such as Russian Jews who established the New Odessa commune in Roseburg, Oregon.  The acolytes of Oregon Fever professed people could start anew in Oregon, enjoy the fruits of the earth, live off the land, and claim their legacy. Frederick Jackson Turner and other American historians from the turn of the twentieth century perpetuated the cultural discourse of an unsettled “primitive and savage” West eagerly awaiting for the march of progress and development by a civilized society. They prophesied a golden age of rugged frontier individualism and industrialization conquering nature and unlocking its vast riches and resources. Not all American intellectuals shared a vision of authentic diversity nor the pioneers who came to work in the extractive industries of Oregon. Diversity was rejected for an assimilationist worldview based on 100% Americanism. But with immigration American identity underwent a seismic shift that resonated through the West and Oregon. There was no longer one racial stock who could claim supremacy over American progress and development. This erosion of the dominant group triggered cultural and social clashes in the modernization of Oregon during the twentieth century.

From the middle of the nineteenth century many workers and their families came to Oregon. As immigrants arrived in America, many were willing to “brave the conditions” of the West similar to the rugged pioneers of the frontier. Many came to Oregon to work in the extractive industries of timber, mining and European-styled agriculture, incentivized by private industries like the railroads that were subsidized by the federal government through millions of acres in public land grants. The menial laborers of the “modern era” were part of a new frontier of economic growth and expansion. Frontier ideals of individualism and personal advancement clashed with dependency inherent in working for wages breaking the phantasmic vision of self-reliant pioneers who lived off the land, prospering from their own blood, sweat and tears. Promoters of western opportunity and the rewards out West gave people the idea they were entitled to those successes.

Manifest Destiny and Oregon Fever took on a new narrative fueled by promotional pamphlets put forth by the railroad industry and real estate speculators, and immigration bureaus that cast their labor recruitment nets into Eastern and Southern Europe. The Union Pacific Railroad distributed a pamphlet called The Wealth and Resources of Oregon and Washington which continued the message from the pioneer days that Oregon was a land bonanza ready for the taking by settlers. The Union Pacific told prospectors, “[The Pacific Coast Real Estate Company’s lands] have been selected and classified, and embrace some of the finest lands in the State now open to settlement…the country is in process of rapid development. This open and extensive region offers unequalled opportunities for colony settlements.”[1]

Colony settlements were part of the speculative wave of a real estate boom furnished by generous land grants obtained by the railroads from the federal government and financed by banks. Settlers could establish themselves within forty miles of railroad access, enabling distribution and shipping of commodities and resources across the country. Land grants from the federal government were beyond generous in scope, and the continual annexation of Native lands were part of those claims. The Umatilla Indian Reservation near the town of Pendleton agreed to have their land portioned off in severalty whereby they would retain 120,000 acres, and the remainder was granted to the federal government to be sold off to investors like the Union Pacific Railroad and its real estate affiliates. The Union Pacific sought to establish farming families by which 148,000 acres were to be sold from the Umatilla Reservation, and gave outlandish promises to incoming settlers that they would become wealthy. “A very large portion of this is fine agricultural land, and the remainder valuable for timber and pasture. Any one person can buy only 160 acres of agricultural, and 40 acres of timber land…Remember now the man who comes here and exercises the same frugality…will in five years be well off and in 10 moderately rich.”[2]

The Union Pacific pamphlet reported agricultural yields so vast and abundant in size that it boggled the imagination. Oregon was conveyed through a utopian vision as a place that had virtually no unemployment or labor unrest. Immigrants came to the Northwest guided by misinformation they had faithfully digested from salesmen and propagandists. Migrants continued to arrive into the state thinking they had arrived in a land of Eden. A clash between unrealistic expectations and harsh reality brought to life radical movements and violence, and encouraged the growth of progressive politics and social reforms. Oregon, still carrying the frontier worldview, went through a difficult social and economic transition from a rural-agrarian to an urban-industrial based economy.

 New Odessa Commune

The New Odessa commune, named after the port city in Ukraine, was a colony settlement established near Roseburg that ushered in the changing face of immigration into Oregon and the United States. Under the reign of Czar Alexander III, Russian Jews of Kiev and Odessa succumbed to waves of violent pogroms during a period of increasingly rabid Anti-Semitism. The czar was a reactionary politician who blamed the Jews for the assassination of his father Czar Alexander II. In 1882, a group of Russian Jews from Odessa sought to establish agricultural colonies in America, and to escape violent persecution of their people. They were called Am Olam or The Eternal People a reform-minded organization shaped by a socialist utopian vision. There were other Russian Jewish groups also looking into establishing agricultural communities in North Dakota, Louisiana and Connecticut as well. About sixty members of Am Olam found their ideal spot near Glendale in southern Oregon.

Am Olam’s emblem was a plow and the Ten Commandments, they were socialists dedicated to common property, shared work, harmony and brotherhood. Henry Villard, the Oregon railroad magnate, suggested they build their commune between Roseburg and Ashland. He also promised to arrange transport for the entire group. On March 8, 1883, the commune settled on 768 acres which included part of the present-day City of Glendale. In remembrance of their former homes in Odessa, Russia, they called their new home on Cow Creek, New Odessa. As many as 65 people lived on the commune, and a Communal Hall was built alongside a farm and outbuildings. They spoke Russian and wore traditional eastern European clothes.

One of the challenges for the group was that they were inexperienced in agriculture. Their neighbors helped them plant their first crops. Within their communal home, married couples had private rooms and everyone else slept in a large room upstairs in the Communal Hall. They established a large community garden and were mostly vegetarian. There was a disproportionate amount of men to women in the community by 1884. Funds were raised for essentials and farm payments, and they sold timber to the Oregon and California Railroad for ties and fuel. There was harmony in the first year the commune was established. They had a little library of philosophical works and its favorite form of entertainment was discussion and debate.

But New Odessa would not last very long broken apart by political divisions leading to the commune’s demise. They had invited an older charismatic non-Jewish émigré from Russia named William Frey, to join the commune. He became a polarizing force, and fifteen followers left with him to London. A fire destroyed the library in 1885, and some of the younger members were searching for a return to the world of learning, careers and marriage. In 1887, the commune was declared bankrupt and some members moved to New York. By 1888 the land was foreclosed and returned to its original owners.[3] The commune at New Odessa signifies two larger trends within Oregon history, the gradual acceptance and integration of Jewish people within the community, and how different self-appointed leaders of utopian communities took root on Oregon soil such as Rajneeshpuram in Wasco County, or hippie communes that blossomed across the state during the 1960s.


Populism and Labor Unrest  


Financial panic swept through the United States, including Oregon in 1893. Similar to the Panic of 1873, it was marked by the collapse of railroad overbuilding and shaky financing, setting off a series of bank failures and the collapse of 15,000 businesses, including two of the country’s largest employers. Many Portland businesses were going bankrupt, and about 4 million were unemployed nation-wide. Since the state social welfare system did not exist yet, charities were completely strained to the breaking point. Farmers were not adequately paid for their products and were being gouged by prohibitive shipping rates on the newly established and politically dominant railroads. Oregon’s economy was mostly situated in the agricultural sector with the exception of Portland and a few other cities. Racial tension continued in Oregon during the depression of 1893. Anxieties over job competition swelled and resulted in the burning of the city of La Grande’s Chinatown in northeast Oregon and the expulsion of its residents by a white mob.

Labor union prospects dimmed during the mid-1890s as the depression undercut their bargaining power. Many workers were disenfranchised and impoverished and sought out populism as a political cure to their ills. Unemployed workers of Portland resorted to street work to pay their rent. Some unemployed men joined Jacob Coxey’s army of protestors to demand that the federal government act immediately and address their grievances. Such jobless men became known as “Coxey’s Army” named after the Ohio businessman Jacob Coxey, who organized a movement to protest the widespread lack of jobs and encouraged monetary reorganization and government sponsored public works projects. Coxey and his “army” called for a “march in boots” to petition Washington D.C. to meet its demands. Coxeyism was similar to the Populist and the Grange movement among Oregon farmers, who insisted that the state had an obligation toward its unemployed citizens, and every citizen had “a right to face up to their boss” and petition the government for a redress of their grievances. Portland rallies enlisted several hundred members.

American populism developed during the latter part of the nineteenth century and held the idea that the common people were oppressed by an elite class. In Oregon, the farming sector and the Granger movement protested against the unfair business practices of the railroad industry. The ideas of populism merge with political ideologies like liberalism or conservatism. Coxey’s Army was situated politically with a developing liberalism that the government is obligated to support the well-being of individuals. Also within this vision is the people have a voice to create political change and reform society. Critics in Oregon, depending on their political ideology and social class, saw populists as “opportunistic demagogues who also appealed to nativism and fears of conspiracy to build support.”[4] Governor Sylvester Pennoyer seized upon populist appeal and nativist antipathy toward Chinese immigration. He was a populist whose views aligned with the Knights of Labor and viewed Asian immigration as an existential threat to Oregonians. Pennoyer agitated support for the common worker and was critical of the business establishment but ironically was an intricate part of the corporate elite. Critics of Pennoyer referred to Coxeyites as “lowest grade Populists” and chastised politicians like him who stirred up turmoil to win over voter’s in the ballot box.[5] The Oregonian newspaper seized upon the idea that the Coxey Army was a corrupting influence from California shipping its undesirable elements to Oregon.[6] Social class issues blurred criticism of Pennoyer and Coxey populism as woven from the same fabric. Pennoyer was an ethnic nationalist advocating for a racially monochromatic Oregon whereas Coxey was a wealthy man and an exceptionally rare individual who fought for unemployed workers.

Oregonians formed their petitions in boots for Coxey’s Army at train stations in Ashland, Roseburg, Cottage Grove, and Salem. Many people of Portland sympathetic to their cause, provided food for Coxey’s army. During their stay in Portland, the protestors were camped at Sullivan’s Gulch in Northeast Portland (which is now occupied by the light-rail train and Interstate 84), where five hundred additional men joined their ranks. Harvey Scott, the editor of The Oregonian, scathingly referred to “Coxey’s Army” as “tramps” and “beggars”, but in reality the Army, according to observers, were well-mannered and disciplined and posed no threat to the city of Portland.[7] The conservative press viewed the Coxeyites as “the lowest grade of Populists,” such as Harvey Scott:

“The American tramp is the product of the American system of indiscriminate almsgiving … The Coxey army shows us what the effect has been. The national vice of indiscriminate almsgiving has fastened upon us the national disease of professional mendicancy, organized and inclined to demand rather than supplicate relief from want and salvation from work.”[8]

The Coxeyites made their way to Troutdale where they took over the telegraph office and the train station. When the Coxey Army successfully occupied the train station, the federal marshal urged the Multnomah County sheriff to respond to protect private property there. The Union Meat Company, together with merchants in Troutdale, supplied meat, flour, and potatoes to the men and allowed them to live in vacant homes. The Coxeyites seized a train in defiance of a federal injunction and headed eastward. Their train was stopped in Arlington, Oregon and five hundred were taken into custody and brought back to Portland. Several other armies of unemployed men made the journey to Washington D.C. and when Coxey’s army arrived at the nation’s capital, Jacob Coxey was arrested for walking on the grass in front of the Capitol Building. Although Coxey’s proposal for government jobs was radical for its time, it gradually became part of American federal policy that established a partnership with state government to improve roads for the fledgling automobile and trucking industries. Later President Dwight Eisenhower enabled the federal government to subsidize the development of the interstate highway system which made transportation and the flow of commerce more efficient.

William S. U’Ren: Father of the Oregon System

A People’s Party was formed in the Pacific Northwest and they aligned with Jacob Coxey’s vision: government ownership of the railroads and utilities, and supportive policies for farmers. They anticipated the Oregon System by calling for the initiative, referendum and recall, and the direct election of U.S. Senators. The initiative and referendum, which would be known as the Oregon System, helped accomplish several reforms: women’s suffrage, Prohibition, improved working conditions, and stronger regulation of corporations. Reformers began advocating for the system in the 1880s. As the Populist movement was gaining momentum in the Plains states, U’Ren hoped to make constitutional changes to Oregon laws. William S. U’Ren felt the initiative and referendum were protections against the passing of any revolutionary laws. He forced state legislators to initiate legislation by petition and subject new laws to referendum (which many states have adopted since). The initiative amendments in the Oregon State Constitution allowed registered voters to place on the ballot any issue that amends the Oregon Constitution or changes to the statutes. The referendum permitted registered voters to reject any bill passed by the legislature by placing a referendum on the ballot. U’Ren also created the Voter’s Pamphlet which contained proposed amendments and measures with official supporting and opposing arguments that were, and still are, distributed to every registered voter in Oregon.

U’Ren and his fellow radicals founded the People’s Power League. It was said Oregon had two legislatures, one at the capitol and “one under William S. U’Ren’s hat” according to Harvey Scott of The Oregonian. These reformers sought to make the capitalist economic system more humane and fair. Once in place the Oregon System was a tool of moderate, not radical reform. U’Ren drove legislation like the Corrupt Practices Act, the presidential primary, the direct election of senators, and the recall, which other states adopted. William S. U’Ren was feared by many politicians  in the state of Oregon. In an editorial in the Oregonian in 1906, by Harvey Scott, editor of The Oregonian, commented on U’Ren’s presence in Oregon politics:

“In Oregon, state government is divided into four departments: the executive, judicial, legislative and William S. U’Ren…and it is still an open question which exerts the most power. Mr. U’Ren has boldly clipped the wings of the executive and legislative departments, and when he gets time will doubtless put some shackles on the Supreme Court…the indications are that Mr. U’Ren outweighs anyone, and perhaps all three of the other departments.”


black and white photograph of William Simon U’Ren
William Simon U’Ren: founder of the Oregon System


The Corrupt Practices Act was an effort allied with Jonathon Bourne, Jr. that targeted political corruption by limiting expenditures by corporations to influence political campaigns. It was patterned after Britain’s Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act of 1883 which criminalized bribing of voters and placed limits on campaign expenditures. Each candidate running for office was limited to spending fifteen percent of their salary in their primary campaign, and ten percent in the general election. U’Ren was determined to change public participation in Oregon government. Later in historical memory, he was referred to as “Oregon’s modern Thomas Paine.”[9] Perhaps it is a historical exaggeration, since U’Ren and Paine share very few similarities in their background, but both supported natural rights, and the idea that government should represent the interests of the people. Paine was a product of Enlightenment thinking and the abdication of monarchical rule in America, and U’Ren was a product of reformist Populism, but both sought to improve the lives of the common man. The populist movement would fade, but the reform movement grew stronger and empowered U’Ren’s intentions, with him famously stating he would “go to Hell for the people of Oregon.”

William S. U’Ren was a strong proponent of the single tax which was the most contentious legislative issue at the time. The single tax involved government appropriation of all “unearned” increases of land values. Tax revenues would have been directed to fund state government, encourage development and break up the concentration of wealth in landholding. “Single taxers” believed inequity in landholding was the primary cause of poverty and inequality in the United States. The intention of the single tax was to simplify the tax system by removing all the other forms of taxation. Charles Erskine Scott Wood and Will Daly were advocates of the single tax crusade. Single taxers believed property ownership would reduce poverty, political corruption and unearned wealth. “Single taxers” thought it was unjust for speculators to purchase land and then hold it idle, waiting to cash in only after others had improved their nearby properties and increase the value of their own land. For the single taxers, appreciation in the value of landholdings belonged to the public and should be collected as a tax. According to single taxers, the tax dollars would be enough to support government, and it would force speculators to sell their land, enabling more people to own property.

Political corruption was another target of U’Ren’s efforts. He objected to the practice of buying out voters, bribery, and intimidation of delegates attending political conventions. He was also concerned about the amount of influence wielded by lobbyists at the State’s Capitol. The standards of political morality had, in some cases, devolved into openly lewd behavior; this was particularly true of the legislature. “Members were brought on the floor so drunk that it took two sober men to get them to their seats…It was not unusual for members to retire for a season…to recover after a term in the Oregon legislature”[10] Most legislators who were successfully elected to the Oregon Senate did so through their “gentleman agreements” with the wealthy businessmen involved with railroads, oil, textiles, iron and steel, mining and sugar.

Despite the best efforts of lobbyists representing the industrial sector, U’Ren curbed the political grasping of the timber and transportation barons. Many within the railroad industry had deep influence in the transportation sector in Oregon. For example, Ben Holladay of the Southern Pacific Railroad had a large home in the town of Seaside for entertaining Oregon legislators, Henry Villard with the Northern Pacific, Edward Harriman with the Union and Southern Pacific, and James Hill of Great Northern were also “hospitable for their benefit”. Harriman regarded Oregon as his private estate boasting, “I have eastern Oregon bottled up and I’ll pull the cork when I’m ready.”[11] Railroad developers and operators showed little interest in the public, and neither did the public’s representatives in the legislature. Judge Henry McGinn told the Republican Club in Portland in 1909 that he had never seen an honest election in Oregon under the old system. It was well known that  homeless and unemployed Oregonians were paid as much as $2.50 to vote for specific candidates, and many qualified citizens were kept from voting by the police, who were part of the effort to deny voters access to the polls.


The practice of obtaining land under false pretenses had been going on since the arrival of the first setters of Oregon, ostensibly framed for the benefit of small homesteaders.[12] Under the Timber and Stone Act, huge areas of land were bought by timber companies through real estate agents like Stephen Douglas Puter. He and other agents rounded up “dummies” to file private homestead claims on tens of thousands of acres of valuable federal timber lands given to the Oregon and California Railroad. Every claim was for 160 acres and timber land could be sold for a profit. Lumbermen and their agents were operating throughout the West, but only Oregon cracked down on this practice. While Puter was considered the kingpin of the operation, several Oregon politicians benefitted from the scheme, including U.S. Senators John H. Mitchell and Binger Hermann.  According to Puter, “our idea was to locate as many persons as possible in a township under the homestead law, and to furnish them the money with which to make final proof and cover incidental expenses, to have them deed the land to us at a price agreed upon in advance.”  The State Land Office indicated in their records a great deal of speculation in lands of the Indian reservations; the Klamath, Umatilla, Siletz, and Warm Springs reservations together lost approximately 133,564 acres of land through these alleged settlers under the Homestead Act.

The Republican Party of Oregon fell in influence after 1905 as a direct result of exposures to land fraud trials, and their own internal strife. Puter fled to Berkley, California with his family, and was indicted that same year. He co-wrote the book Looters of the Public Domain in collaboration with Horace Stevens a former land office clerk. Puter confessed his role in the land fraud scheme and pointed out others who had a role in the scandal. Portraits of collaborators and incriminating documents were provided which was later used in court. He served as witness for the prosecution who successfully brought charges against Senators Hermann, Mitchell and John Williamson along with other prominent Oregonians and federal officials.


Photograph of Stephen Douglas Puter, sitting in front of a typewriter at a desk
Stephen Douglas Puter writing Looters of the Public Domain in his jail cell.

The politicians involved in the scandal were indicted under U.S. Revised Statutes that states “no senator or representative in the employ of the government shall receive or agree to receive any compensation for any services rendered.” American constitutional law prohibits members of Congress from receiving emoluments or remuneration for their performed services. According to Stephen Puter, “John Mitchell who had so long controlled political affairs of the state with such supreme autocratic power,” tried to cover up his involvement in the scandal. Mitchell accepted a $2,000 bribe from Puter. The Senator was a close associate of Ben Holladay of the Southern Pacific Railroad, and worked with him in controlling the legislature. He was sentenced to six months in Multnomah County jail in Portland and imposed a fine of $1,000, pending appeal. Mitchell died soon after sentencing, perhaps due to complications from a tooth extraction, though many feel it was from the stress of the exposure from a dose of Oregonian “muckraking,” and the national exposé of an elected leader with racial proclivities like Mitchell, who was an anti-Asian crusader during his political career.[13] The movement for direct legislation after the Land Fraud Trials was looked on by an increasing number as a cure all for government illness.

The direct election of senators is the most important instance of the nation following Oregon’s lead when it comes to election reform during the Progressive era. The Oregon System was a widely discussed topic in muckraking journals during the early part of the twentieth century, and was just one manifestation of a nationwide liberal movement to make elections, and the legislative process, more democratic. U’Ren could only reach so far into his democratic vision for Oregonians and in turn, for Americans. One of the bills he proposed that did not successfully pass was one that would have made it virtually impossible to be unemployed. The purpose was to provide for every citizen at all times an opportunity for voluntary, cooperative and self-supporting employment in producing the necessities and comforts of life. The work and products would have been for the benefit of members of a United States Volunteer Workers’ Executive Department and their families. This can be seen as an early model of New Deal style policies that would create federal departments and organizations to coordinate labor and enable completion of massive public works projects such as the Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams on the Columbia River of Oregon.


Another impactful legacy of the Progressive Movement in Oregon was the extension of the political franchise, or the right to vote to women. Western states passed women’s suffrage in their state constitutions earlier than the Nineteenth Amendment was enacted in the Federal Constitution. The progress for women’s suffrage was much more sluggish in the eastern states, and nearly non-existent in the American south. One of the first states to give women the right to vote was Wyoming in 1869. The history of women’s suffrage in Oregon dates back to the formative years of the Oregon State Constitutional Convention in 1857. One of the provisions it carried was on suffrage and elections in Article II Section 2: “In all elections, every white male citizen of the United State of the age of 21 years and upwards who shall have resided in the state during the six months immediately preceding any such election.” In other words, you had to be white and male in order to vote in Oregon. When the report on Suffrage and Elections was being considered by the Convention, in the Committee of the Whole, David Logan moved to strike out the word male in Section 2.[14] This would have resulted in giving women the vote, but the motion failed to carry, and women remained disenfranchised for several more decades. African American men gained their voting privileges in 1868 when the 15th Amendment of the United States Constitution nullified the restrictions imposed by Oregon’s Constitution. Many officials in Oregon opposed the ratification of the 15th Amendment, and it was not officially ratified by the state until 1959.

National figures in the American suffrage movement, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, pushed for the inclusion of universal suffrage, or unrestricted voting rights for men and women in a Constitutional amendment. Congressmen Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the Radical Republicans in the House, presented petitions signed by Anthony and Stanton advocating for universal suffrage or the right to vote for men and women to be included in the Civil War amendments. According to the historian Eric Foner, Stevens was not an advocate for women’s suffrage unlike other Radical Republicans. Perhaps if he had backed a voting amendment that included women then this would have impelled states to abide to federal law, but for Stevens, he was primarily focused on establishing equality before the law for all citizens in the United States, not women’s suffrage.


Photo of Abigail Scott Dunniway as she is voting. A man seated behind her turns to watch her
Abigail Scott Duniway voting

One of the greatest and most influential activists for women’s suffrage in Oregon was Abigail Scott Duniway.[15] Her sustained suffrage agitation began in 1871 after facing bitter disappointment when women were not granted the right to vote in the Fifteenth Amendment. That same year, Duniway moved from Lafayette, a small town in the Yamhill Valley, to Portland, Oregon, and started The New Northwest, a newspaper embracing women’s suffrage and equal economic and social rights for women. At the time, the renowned suffragettes Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were traveling on a speaking tour through the West Coast. Duniway invited both of them to come to Portland and Anthony accepted her invitation. Anthony arrived by steamship into Portland, and used the city as her base. Duniway and  Anthony along with the Oregon State Equal Suffrage Association wanted to air their grievances in public speeches in Portland, but soon they discovered “no church was open to us anywhere, and the old Orofino Theater was our only refuge.” The group established the Multnomah County Woman Suffrage Association at the Orofino Theater. From Portland they continued their lecture tour into Salem where Duniway and Anthony camped at the Oregon State Fair. There was no assembly hall, so they held an open-air meeting “under the shade of the pavilion”. Eventually they travelled to The Dalles and Walla Walla, Washington on their lecture circuit.

Duniway then became the president and founder of the Oregon State Equal Suffrage Association (OSEA) in 1884. On their letter head it stated, “Women pay taxes, women should vote,” a harkening back to the American Revolution when the Stamp Act Congress jump-started the rebellious cause of the colonists declaring “no taxation without representation.” Duniway had “favorable mention” of Bethenia Owens-Adair of Roseburg, a devoted social reformer and one of the first female physicians in the state of Oregon (she will be mentioned later in this chapter). Owens-Adair arranged a meeting at the Douglas County Court House on behalf of the OSEA. Duniway was a gifted orator and writer, but often struggled with building coalitions with other reformers. At one point, Owens-Adair and other members of the OSEA asked Duniway to step down as president of the group stating her stubborn attitude was impeding the progress of the organization. Eventually the Oregon State Equal Suffrage Association succeeded in getting suffrage on the ballot in 1884, but 72 percent of the electorate rejected it. The OSEA pursued similar arguments in their Declaration of Principles as the Women’s Social and Political Union of the British suffrage movement: “The mother half of the people is rated in law with idiots, insane persons and criminals from whose legal classification we are looking to you, voters of Oregon, to release us, your wives…” Suffrage narrowly lost by a margin of 2,000 votes. Duniway formed a rift with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) who supported prohibition and women’s suffrage. She blamed the temperance movement for the loss, and feared well-financed brewing and liquor interests associated suffrage with prohibition. Rather than building an alliance with a national organization with far-reaching influence, she was unable to work with the WCTU. She branded its leaders as impractical elitists who had “sat in the sanctuary singing, ‘Where is My Wandering Boy Tonight’, when the little hoodlum was kicking up a rumpus at my suffrage meetings.” Suffragettes in Oregon rarely played the race card of nativist hysteria, unlike other states that sought out to diminish the influence of Southern European voters who were considered “racially inferior”. Instead the suffragettes of Oregon laid the blame on the saloons, brothels, trusts, railroads, career politicians, and the high society women of Portland.

Duniway felt compelled to challenge the status quo as a woman in American society. In her autobiography she stated from an early age, “[she] had been led to believe that women who demanded rights were man haters, of whom I certainly was not one.” Early in her career as an activist, she had a humiliating experience in an Oregon court of law when an attorney told her, “Of course, Mrs. Duniway, as you are a lady, you are not expected to understand the intricacies of the law,” to which she deftly responded, “but we are expected to know enough to foot the bill though.” At the time of the incident, court houses in Oregon were known as “a place for men.” American women were held to limited professional opportunities in nursing and teaching at the end of the nineteenth century. Exposing the contradictions of antiquated Victorian culture that framed women as nurturing educators purveying the values of republican motherhood and the virtues of the domestic sphere, Duniway pointed out that there were over 10 thousand teachers in California schools, and 85 percent of them were women. Among them the teaching of civics was obligatory. If women were not qualified to vote or run for office then, “How can she teach the great truths of democracy…and [at the same time] explain the non-representation of women to clear-sighted boys and girls?” In a campaign letter from May 1906, Duniway stated: “We believe the mothers, wives, sisters and daughters of Oregon are as intelligent and patriotic as women of [other states and nation’s that have passed women’s suffrage]. We appeal to every liberty loving man in Oregon…for all to prove his faith in the mothers and wives of Oregon.” Abigail Scott Duniway’s brother Harvey Scott, the long-time editor of The Oregonian, defended his sister against critics who blamed her for women’s suffrage not getting enough votes in a ballot initiative in 1906:

“This newspaper has not supported, but has opposed women’s suffrage; and it will not take no part in the dispute between women supporters as to why women suffrage was defeated in the recent election. The agitation was begun by Mrs. Duniway and has been carried on by her unceasingly; and whatever progress it has made has been due to her. The progress it has made is an extraordinary tribute to one woman’s energy.”

Duniway was a gifted orator, and in public speeches, she channeled the right to vote as a foundational right to all citizens dating back to the American Revolution. She compared the enfranchisement of women to the last vestige of taxation without representation since women had to pay taxes but had no voice in the political establishment. Confidently she felt a majority of Oregonians would fulfill their civic duty and grant women the right to vote as the “earnest prayer of every patriotic pioneer.” The historical reality for Duniway and the suffrage movement was challenging since women had to appeal to men and their sense of social justice, allowing them permission to have a political voice in Oregon like masters declaring the freedom of their slaves. The right to vote for women was on the ballot in 1908 and again in 1910, but would not pass until 1912. At that point, Washington gave women the right to vote in 1910, and California had the following year. For Oregonians the issue became a “local grievance,” and voters grew impatient.[16] Another factor that made 1912 different from other years, was a greater presence of coalition building and unity that took place between suffrage groups, and the diversity of the movement that extended into the African American and Chinese communities who created equal suffrage leagues.  When women’s suffrage finally passed, Duniway in celebration, spoke in honor of past suffragettes, “Elysian fields! Our dear ones are not dead but risen. We shall surely meet again. Heaven is near us.” Duniway passed away three years later, having been able to live to see her long-awaited goal achieved.


Policing of Sexuality in Portland

The women’s suffrage movement was a critical bookend to the social reforms of the Progressive era and the anxieties of the modern age. Women were entering the public sphere, and sexual codes of conduct were being loosened between men and women, no longer under the pseudo-scientific guise of the Victorian era. While Oregon and America experienced a vast economic transformation, a sexual revolution was transforming the middle and working classes: the flapper girl. During the Victorian era, the middle classes adhered to a strict social code that separated the genders into their respective spheres limiting women’s political and economic power and sexual autonomy. A sexual double standard favored men’s promiscuity and scandalized feminine sexuality as degenerate and amoral. This transcended into the public sphere where men controlled the political stage, but the suffrage movement upended this cultural worldview.

Oregon served as an exceptional example of the social anxieties of the modern age. A sex scandal erupted in the city of Portland, occurring amidst growing concerns of prohibitionist reformers and activists that social vices like gambling, prostitution and “sexual degeneracy” have deteriorated the health and morality of American cities. Owners of properties in which “vice activities” were conducted had profited by an incredible 84 percent to 540 percent return on their investments. Venereal disease accounted for at least 25 percent of all diseases treated by city doctors, without counting any unrelated cases or occurrences treated only with home remedies. The social concerns over sexual vice in the cities is not a new development in the story of Oregon, or for that matter in the frontier societies of the American West. Many women worked as prostitutes in cities, towns, and frontier outposts around the country, serving gold miners, cowboys, lonely bachelors, and unfaithful husbands.

Under public pressure, the city of Portland created a Vice Commission in 1911 to investigate. It was revealed that liquor, gambling and prostitution flourished in part thanks to the “better” families who controlled the city’s economy and politics. In Portland, as in the majority of larger cities in the United States, power was exercised predominately by white men who possessed wealth, social standing and political authority. They constituted “a patrician class” that gained the support of the masses through propaganda and empty promises. This power also historically discouraged newspapers from conducting thorough investigative reporting. In the 1890s, the ever-present Harvey Scott of the Oregonian “absolutely declined” to use his newspaper to help enforce vice laws, admitting that “the persons most concerned in the maintenance of these abuses were the principal men of the city – the men of wealth whose patronage the paper relied and it could not afford to alienate them. It would ruin this paper.”[17]

In response to pressure from the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), Governor George Chamberlain founded the Oregon Social Hygiene Society in 1910, and initially it focused on heterosexual relations. The YMCA promoted physical fitness and disseminated information about medical issues. Their intent was to limit the spread of sexually transmitted infections, combat “social vices” like prostitution and gambling, and prevent childhood immorality. Oregon legislation banned prostitution and  Portland’s “red-light district” was outlawed. As a result, the prostitution industry was driven underground. Few publications in the city of Portland’s history attracted the degree of attention that was afforded the famous 1912 vice report that the commission published. Portland was the only city in the Northwest to create a Vice Commission to curb what reactionary reformers called “morally profligate” behavior.

The concern about the prevalence of vice activities in Portland came to a head when a  nineteen-year-old white male was arrested for a petty crime. During his interrogation, he confessed to belonging to a local homosexual subculture and connected it to other individuals who were involved in similar groups in major cities. More stories of sexual scandal started to roll in by 1913 and the progressive reformers reacted fiercely. Few publications in the city of Portland’s history attracted the degree of attention that was afforded the famous 1912 vice report, and in 1913, after reviewing the report and in light of the recent concerns about homosexual behavior in the city, Governor Oswald West, a Democrat, announced his intention to clean up the perceived moral depravity of Portland. The vice commission investigated for nine months before reporting that Portland contained some 431 establishments devoted to prostitution, and Portland City Council agreed that the public had a right to know who owned the buildings that housed the prostitutes.

Sexual promiscuity and homosexuality were considered unfortunate byproducts of modernism according to social reformers. Homosexuality and the sexual revolution were diagnosed as “degenerate” or deviant behaviors and a moral threat to Western Civilization. The Oregonian warned “certain signs of race decay, or national degeneration…have preceded the downfall of every great empire from Athens to Bourbon France.” Male degeneration would indicate a loss of masculine attributes and a decline into femininity. Degeneracy during this historical time referred to those who were deemed abnormal because they were perceived as deviant according to official and public discourse on sexuality and social mores. Public imagination at the end the nineteenth century came to associate male-to-female cross-dressing and male effeminacy more generally with people of color. Chinese theaters in Portland, Oregon featured men who cross-dressed as women, including the San Franciscan Chinese performer, Lee Hoo. Into the twentieth century, female impersonators became the favorite among audiences. Many performers including Chinese, African Americans and whites, regularly appeared in cross-dress on western American stages.[18]

Social reformers began efforts in the 1920s to strengthen existing laws and promote legislations designed to punish severely those participating in same sex relationships. Local newspapers had been obsessing over reports of same sex affairs among the working class, racial minorities and immigrants, but Oregonians at the time were surprised that the homosexual subculture extended to the white middle class. When newspapers published stories identifying native-born middle class male homosexuals in Portland, many fled the city. Some were arrested in Salem, Medford, Vancouver, Washington, and Forest Grove, Oregon. The American Social Hygiene Society would be used to tackle the problem of the “homosexual subculture”. Governor Oswald West adopted the measure of the American Social Hygiene Society by promoting sterilization as the solution to “sexual degeneracy” in Oregon. Some of the state’s most determined reformers favored the sterilization of people deemed unfit to have children. “Degenerates and the feeble minded should not be allowed to reproduce their kind,” asserted Governor Oswald West. The state’s sterilization law included “habitual criminals, moral degenerates and sexual perverts”, and eventually the “feeble-minded.” Forced sterilizations, the most radical demand of the eugenics movement in the United States, was considered an acceptable solution to many Oregonians at the time.

Bethenia Owens-Adair

A flyer with the title "Human Sterilization" and a photo of Bethenia Owens Adair.
Bethenia Owens Adair and the Eugenics movement in Oregon


The physician, suffragette and social reformer, Bethenia Owens-Adair, adopted a political agenda supporting eugenics and recommended the sterilization of the “feeble minded” or developmentally disabled people of Oregon. Myths were widely accepted that people with cognitive disabilities were oversexed, irrational, prone to violence and a threat to society. In the United States and Oregon, families were told by medical professionals and government authorities that institutionalization of developmentally disabled people was the best solution for their own interests and livelihood since they were not fully accepted in society.[19] Owens-Adair believed that heredity was a directing force of all life, and the inexorable laws of nature must be understood to protect the nation from the unfit and degenerate. It was a Social Darwinist belief the continuation of progress and the preservation of civilization was endangered by “sexual perverts” and members of “inferior races” who allegedly propagated at a faster pace than the “higher races”. As a result of degeneration theory propagated by racial science and Social Darwinists, concluded that homosexuals, “inferior races”, and those with developmental disabilities should be the target of sterilization. The practice of forced hysterectomies and ovariectomies continued well into the 1970s with women of color, particularly Native Americans, African-Americans and Puerto Ricans often targeted. As part of a hardened Malthusian worldview, the justification for performing the operations was the notion that if a woman could not care for herself, the medical establishment was helping them lower the costs of raising more children.[20]


Emma Goldman, prominent socialist and one of the founders of modern American feminism, came to the Rose City to speak in 1915. Before her arrival into Portland she changed the topic of her speech from “The Intermediate Sex: A Study of Homosexuality” to the topic of birth control. Several Portland residents lodged a protest with the mayor since Goldman was a socialist and discussion and dissemination of information on birth control was considered obscene material according to the Comstock Laws. The Comstock Laws were passed under the Grant administration in 1873 in response to reports that soldiers during the Civil War possessed pornography creating a national scandal. Anthony Comstock was an activist advocating for Victorian social mores and chaste sexual behavior. He founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and gained political influence with the passing of anti-obscenity laws colloquially named after him. The Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use, forbade even the possession of any article intended for prevention of contraception. Violations subjected offenders to fines up to $5,000 and/or five years in prison. Portland police arrested Goldman and her colleague Dr. Ben Reitman for the crime of distributing literature on birth control at the Turn Verein Hall in downtown Portland. Goldman was charged for speaking on the topic of birth control while several plainclothes police were among the audience in attendance. Eventually her birth control case was dismissed by Portland Circuit Judge William Gatens who stated, “There is too much tendency to prudery these days.” Goldman was released on a $500 bail provided by Charles Erskine Scott Wood who became a legal advocate of progressive and leftist activists including Margaret Sanger and Marie Equi.


black and white photograph of Dr. Marie Equi
Dr. Marie Equi political activist and defender of sexual autonomy

Another “radical” activist standing up for the reproductive rights of women was Margaret Sanger, who embarked on a seventeen-city lecture tour instructing girls and women on hygiene and sanitation. She began publishing literature in 1911 that spoke frankly about sex, with titles like “What Every Mother Should Know”. She stated to the Oregonian that she had seen the misery of poverty and sickness in her visits to primarily working class and poor families as a nurse stating “poverty and large families go hand in hand”, and she made up her mind to “get at the cause of the trouble.” Sanger was not going to fight the uphill battle against mainstream perceptions of moral degeneracy. Instead, she tried to argue that birth control among couples would enhance the “moral health” of American society and the condition of the working class: “I am of the opinion that a greater knowledge of birth control will raise the standard of morality instead of lowering it and I am making an appeal to the Western women voters to help in my campaign to repeal the puritanical laws [Comstock Laws] as they exist. They are a relic of the dark ages.”

During her visit to Portland, Sanger met with another advocate for women’s reproductive freedom, Dr. Marie Equi. She was an open lesbian and one of the few women who practiced medicine in the state of Oregon providing access to contraception and abortions, which were illegal at the time, to working class women. She was a widely respected caregiver and affectionately known as “Doc”. A wild demonstration ensued the night of June 19, 1916 when Sanger spoke at the Heilig Theatre on Southwest Broadway. Several labor leaders attended the lecture and asked if they could sell copies of Sanger’s pamphlet Family Limitation that evening. Portland police arrested the men that night for “selling and distributing obscene literature” The arrests were not made until a large number of the pamphlets were distributed, and the activists were prepared for police intervention. A crowd of 30 or 40 persons, most of them women, followed the patrol wagon to the police station where policemen barred them outside. “I was selling the books too!” cried one woman.

Sanger left for Washington State to complete that phase of her tour and asked Equi to revise her pamphlet. Dr. Equi was an expert in the field and a member of the Birth Control League. She added an introduction and closing statement to Family Limitation. She brought attention to birth control as an issue for women’s emancipation and the betterment of the working class of Oregon. During Sanger’s trip to Washington, the Portland City Council held an emergency session and declared the pamphlet Family Limitation indecent and obscene. They passed an ordinance making it a crime to distribute the pamphlet.[21] On June 29, local women organized a rally at the Baker Theater in support of the arrested men.  Margaret Sanger and Marie Equi, and two other women distributed pamphlets on birth control until they were arrested and put in jail for the night. On July 7, all seven defendants were found guilty, and Judge Arthur Langguth stated the pamphlet was indecent. He did not take offense to the subject of birth control and saw scientific value in the pamphlet, but felt it should only be read or studied in a more controlled setting like a bookstore or a clinic. “[It] becomes obscene when circulated publicly if it is of a nature calculated to excite lascivious thought in youthful minds.” He then fined the men ten dollars (the fines were later suspended), with no fines for the women. Sanger upon returning from her speaking tour opened a birth control clinic in Brooklyn, New York. Her organization the American Birth Control League would be renamed Planned Parenthood Federation of American in 1942.

Dr. Equi directed her energies towards imperialism and mass mobilization of war support by protesting against America’s entrance into World War I. Since the Spanish-American War, the United States became hyper-militaristic and bore the “White Man’s Burden” and annexed Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines and led the so-called liberation of Cuba. Under the administration of President Woodrow Wilson, the United States clamped down on civil liberties and the freedom of speech and assembly which was primarily directed against people who were opposed to American foreign policy and the communist threat. Wilson walked a fine line between avoiding entrance into a war with Germany and supporting demonstrations for war preparedness as a cultural and political mandate. The American Preparedness Movement was initiated by President Theodore Roosevelt. Under the Wilson administration, fellow Democrats like William Jennings Bryan was opposed to it, and Wilson remained silent on the issue. Dr. Equi spoke out during Patriotic Preparedness Day events in Portland, calling the war an “imperialist” venture of war profiteering for munitions manufacturing and the financial sector. American cities like Portland, with the support of local businesses, hosted a War Preparedness Day in Portland. On June 3rd, 1916 a War Preparedness Parade was held that night in the streets of downtown Portland to a mass of spectators estimated at 20,000 people. Equi driving her automobile onto the parade route with an American flag mounted on the front of her car and on the side of her vehicle unfurled a banner proclaiming “Prepare to Die, Workingman – JP Morgan & Co. Want Preparedness for Profit – Thou Shall Not Kill.”[22] She was physically assaulted by local attorneys in the parade who felt her actions were unpatriotic and treasonous. She and two men were arrested but later released. Charles Erskine Scott Wood defended Equi in court and rationalized the public speeches she made against the preparedness movement. Wood was an advocate for radical leftists and progressive thinkers during his career as an attorney. He defended both Equi and Sanger, and maintained friendships with them. Wood served in the United States military with General Oliver Otis Howard and recorded Chief Joseph’s surrender speech in the Wallowa country of Oregon, and became personal friends with the leader of the Nez Perce tribe. Wood was disillusioned by the Nez Perce affair and the government’s treatment of Native Americans. He pursued a career in law defending the freedom of speech of reformers and activists during the turbulent phase of the federal government’s suppression of civil liberties in the early twentieth century.



black and white photo of Charles Erskine Scott Wood
Charles Erskine Scott Wood


In court, Wood felt the government wanted to try Dr. Equi for her speeches because Americans were not only emotionally aroused by war, but pointing out her association with the Socialist Party before a jury, would inflame them and make a conviction more likely. For Wood, “that was the Government’s deliberate purpose.”[23] During his comments, he described the scene of preparedness events as jingoistic displays of imperial bravado:

“Fences, walls, windows, hotel lobbies and banks were decorated with posters inspiring fear and hate. Fear hate and intimidation was the purpose of every headline and news item and editorial in the great press and of every “Liberty” loan campaign. Truth was suppressed and lies deliberately and knowingly published, atrocities that never happened, fears of invasion foolish and groundless. Falsities fostered by Government because bonds must be sold and soldiers conscripted till finally sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage” German pancakes “Victory” pancakes, and American noodles refused to eat German ones. This was the atmosphere: the news rigidly censored, and books on the war were prohibited.”[24]

When the United States entered World War I in the spring of 1917, Equi was bitterly disappointed with President Wilson, and officials in both parties thought American involvement in a European war was a terrible mistake, especially the Republican wing of Progressive senators Hiram Johnson and George Norris. The United States Congress passed into law the Espionage and Sedition Acts which criminalized American citizens who spoke out against the war. Critics and historians viewed these acts as a form of coercive patriotism. One of the more famous historical figures who was incarcerated for violating this law was the leader of the American Socialist Party, Eugene Debs. He was arrested in Canton, Ohio for speaking out against the war, and Dr. Equi was also indicted under the Espionage and Sedition Acts for making an anti-war speech, and charged with sedition in 1918.[25] The Sedition Act gave the government power to remove people who posed a security threat to the United States, but it also stamped down the influence of socialism on American soil. Her defense lawyers felt federal investigators demonized her because she was a lesbian and seen as “morally degenerate”. Previous to her incarceration, Dr. Equi had been living with Katherine “Kitty” O’Brennan an Irish nationalist and journalist. Officials had wiretapped her home and office. During her trial the prosecution objectified Equi as the “unsexed woman”, and referred to the doctor as “her kind.” She served part of her one year sentence at San Quentin Prison and was later pardoned by President Woodrow Wilson.



The movement to “clean up Portland” and improve the moral health of Oregonians would pose as an obstacle to reforms in birth control, and created legislation that barred “sexual deviance.” Concerns over moral degeneracy influenced the passing of laws barring sodomy. Oregon House Bill 145 barred sodomy, and described it as equivalent to bestiality: “Every person who shall commit sodomy, or the crime against nature, either with mankind or any beast, shall, on conviction be punished.” Governor Oswald West advocated for sterilization of homosexual men after the exposé by the Portland Vice Commission. Governor West put homosexuals in a category apart from murderers and thieves who were permitted to work on road crews around the state, but recommended that homosexuals be kept in isolation while in prison. In his mind, politically backing sterilization bills would put the protocol into effect to prevent homosexuality from spreading. For Eugenicists and social reformers focused on homosexual relationships, “emasculation” was “an effective remedy”, implying that discipline could, and should, be used to change peoples’ sexual identity. In 1913, the State Legislature passed the Oregon Sterilization Act with little debate from legislators. For the first time in the history of Oregon, the people who society represented as homosexual, or of an “undesirable class” were singled out for state-sanctioned sterilization.

Later that year William S. U’Ren and Charles Erskine Scott Wood formed the Anti-Sterilization League along with influential physicians, clergy and societal elites. The League and critics of sterilization felt the Oregon Sterilization Act was “cruel and inhuman”. Wood thought the bill was dangerous and anti-democratic, “I disapprove of the law because it accomplishes nothing, may be an engine of tyranny and oppression and is ROT.” Portland reformer, Lora Little, was the vice-president of the organization. Little was an ardent crusader against orthodox medicine, and brought a populist approach to health care reform. Little thought the medical profession was tyrannical and was an antivaccine agitator. She desired to put the medical profession on trial, and thought a “necessity for open, uncompromising hostility toward the [medical] profession as a whole,” was necessary for health care reform in Oregon.[26] She used the legislative power of the Oregon System, the initiative and referendum measures, and collected signatures for a voter referendum on the sterilization bill of 1909. Little was blunt about her opinion on Eugenics, “Eugenics laws are asked for by persons who think they can set themselves apart from their kind and make themselves dictators over their less fortunate fellows.”[27] In the next few years, more legislation was passed to promote sterilization, and accepted procedures were expanded to include castration. The 1917 bill “To Prevent Procreation of Certain Classes in Oregon” created the Oregon State Board of Eugenics, empowering the Board to conduct hearings about patients at state institutions. This is precisely what the Anti-Sterilization League feared that secret surgeries could be planned by a small handful of officials with no oversight of the process. The Oregon State Board of Eugenics also gathered data to identify ethnic and racial minorities, people from working class backgrounds, and the developmentally disabled.

By 1920, two Oregon sterilization laws were on the books. However, both were declared unconstitutional by the Circuit Court of Marion County in 1921, and the decisions were not appealed. Bethenia Owens-Adair campaigned for new eugenics laws in 1922. Owens-Adair is considered the person most responsible for promoting sterilization. She believed the scientific and systematic sterilization of the “mentally deficient” would improve the (white) race. In a letter to the Oregonian she stated, “The greatest curse of the race comes through our vicious criminal and insane classes.” She proposed legislation requiring mental and physical examinations before marriage. Owens-Adair argued for a Eugenic Marriage Law that would determine the fitness of couples to enter into marriage contracts. If either were deemed “unfit” then one or both would have to be sterilized to receive a license. She proposed vasectomies for men and salpingectomies (removal of the fallopian tubes) for women. On the other hand, for rapists, “sodomists” and other “perverts”, she advocated for castration. In 1923, the Oregon legislature passed a new sterilization law that was later amended but remained  law until revisions were made in 1967.

Governor Walter Pierce signed the nation’s second sterilization bill allowing sterilization of the “feebleminded” and criminally insane residing in state institutions. He was a long-time advocate for eugenics. As a state senator, he supported the sterilization of the “unfit” when legislation went into effect in 1917 and 1919. Pierce saw sterilization as a necessary means to birth control since the children of working class families were ignored by Americans and that put unnecessary strains on welfare and social services. In defense of birth control, he stated the law:

“deals with human lives and if the country as a whole had as much regard for the welfare of mothers and children as they do for the proper rearing of hogs, there would not be six million children in the United States on public relief and the mother deprived of the legal right of securing proper medical information regarding the deferring of bringing children into the world during her period of ill health or economic stress.”[28]

Among the residents of Oregon who had been sterilized were abandoned children living in state institutions, people with epilepsy, and “wayward” teenage girls. Meeting minutes of the State Board of Eugenics reflect the casual discussion of, and justifications for, the sterilization of inmates and residents of state institutions. The 1923 sterilization law gave the State Board of Eugenics draconian powers, with part 8450 of the law stating,

“It shall be the duty of the State Board of Eugenics to examine into the innate traits, the mental and physical conditions, the personal records, and the family traits and histories of all persons so reported so far as the same can be ascertained…then it shall be the duty of said board to make an order directing the state health officer to perform or cause to be performed upon such person a type of sterilization as may deemed best by such board.”

The prejudices promoted by the Eugenics movement also influenced Dr. R.E. Lee Steiner, superintendent of the Oregon State Hospital and a council member of the State Board of Eugenics, who emphasized the need for sterilization as a public health concern, “No one now doubts the possibility of inheriting tendencies to mental and moral weakness and to physical frailty.” In the U.S. Supreme Court case of Buck v. Bell in 1927, the court ruled that sterilizations were constitutional. Justice Holmes, as part of his closing arguments, stated that “Three generations of imbeciles is enough.”

The Oregon Youth Authority discovered that at least 100 teenage girls were forcibly sterilized while they lived at the state training school for delinquent girls before 1941. The girls sterilized ranged from delinquents to runaways to those who had simply misbehaved or were considered “wayward”. Until reforms in 1967, sterilization was often used as a condition of release from state institutions or to punish people who acted out. In the early 1900s intelligence as perceived by social class, education, income and race became the primary focus of the Eugenicists. For fifty years five men ruled as the Board of Eugenics in Oregon. Their prejudices, personal opinions, political affiliations, economic status, and gender governed the lives of thousands of powerless Oregonians.

Eugenics was embraced by many in the mainstream public, and became a spectacle where superior genetics were judged and showcased at county fairs and other arenas. Better Baby Shows were celebrated across Oregon and the winners’ photos were displayed in  newspapers giving an appearance similar to livestock shows. A Eugenics contest was held at the Multnomah Hotel in 1913 and featured first through third prize winners in three categories. County fairs were especially popular for baby contests right next to the stock and vegetable contests. A Eugenics baby contest was held at the Yamhill County School Fair in McMinnville in 1913. The Oregon State Fair sponsored a Eugenics contest as well. Winners of the Oregon State Fair Eugenics contest went on to the International Eugenics Contest held in San Francisco. John D. Rockefeller, Theodore Roosevelt, and Andrew Carnegie were the major financiers of the American Eugenics Society, which was officially established in 1926. The organization proposed to sterilize 92,400 individuals in the United States within the next year. Scientists rose up to oppose the movement and bring common sense to the subject, but the practice continued with government support into the 1970s.

            Sterilizations and the Developmentally Disabled

Sterilizations were performed at the Oregon State Hospital, Eastern Oregon State Hospital in Pendleton, and the Institution for the Feeble Minded in Salem. The Oregon State Institution for the Feeble-Minded was opened in 1907, later to be renamed Fairview Hospital and Training Center in 1965. A pamphlet distributed by the Institution for the Feeble Minded stated that, “feeble-minded children living with a family of normal children is both a detriment to the sisters and brothers and a handicap to himself. Living in the company of his own kind he is far more contented for the reason that he is quite unable to compete with those mentally superior, and various problems are presented as a result.” For the Institution and the prevailing thought on the health of the race, “the segregation of the feeble-minded” was necessary and important for the health of Oregonians.[29] The Anti-Sterilization League was strongly opposed to segregation of developmentally disabled people. Compulsory sterilization became a part of the protocol for patients in state institutions. According to the Institution for the Feeble-Minded, those with “feeblemindedness” could procreate and according to Board of Eugenics findings, this would “produce a child or children having an inherited tendency of feeble mindedness and who would probably become a social menace or ward of the state.”[30]

Section 1 of chapter 354 of the General Laws of Oregon, 1917, was amended in 1920 to read: Those who are “by reason of feeble-mindedness, is criminally inclined, or is unsafe to be at large, or may procreate children, cause such person to be brought before him at such time and place as he may direct” to the county judge for placement. Two physicians and the county judge would thereby appoint the applicant to the Institution for the Feeble-Minded for “indeterminate detention.” In the case of sterilization, the Board of Eugenics was a board comprising the State Board of Health, the superintendents of Eastern Oregon State Hospital, Oregon State Hospital, State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and the Oregon State Penitentiary. Essentially, the State Board of Eugenics was a synthesis of the Oregon criminal justice system and the state’s mental health services. All cases appeared in person in front of the State Board of Eugenics and, before any operation was performed, written consent was obtained from a parent or a custodial guardian. The State Board indicated the urgency of sterilization of developmentally disabled people as a necessary public health and safety concern: “Sterilization of a feeble-minded person is for the protection of society from the acts of such person, or from the menace of procreation by such person and not in any manner as a punitive measure.” Many people who underwent the medical procedure certainly felt it was punitive as revealed later in newspaper articles.

By 1929, more than 300 residents in the Oregon State Institution for the Feeble Minded had been sterilized, for the “protection of society” according to a manual. Medical logs registered pages of sterilization procedures among tonsillectomies and dental surgeries. “Those recommended for sterilization are nearly always patients at the state mental hospital or Fairview (Oregon State Institution),” the state Board of Health Director told the Oregon Journal in 1960. Oregon did not officially abolish its State Board of Eugenics, later called the State Board of Social Protection, until October of 1983. State legislator John Kitzhaber pushed for the termination of the sterilization program. In response to the termination of the program between 1987 and 1988 a nonprofit contractor in Portland shredded hundreds of documents of the Board of Eugenics work at the request of the state, according to employees at the Portland Habilitation Center. The shredding of the last twenty years of Board of Eugenics records was in violation of a state law. Mary Beth Herkert of the Oregon State Archives stated, “Nobody here would have ever scheduled those things for destruction.” From 1960 until 1983, the destruction of historical documents, an unfortunate trend in world history, was suspicious considering the legal implications and victims seeking judicial retribution. In December 2002, Governor John Kitzhaber apologized on behalf of the state for the forcible sterilization of over 2,600 Oregon residents between 1917 and 1981. Oregon was one of thirty-three states that passed sterilization laws in the United States, although scholars have noted it was one of the few states where the policies were met with public opposition.

The Progressive period in the history of Oregon was an era of social and political reform, an opening for direct democracy among its citizens, and a time of protest for autonomy and human agency. In the spirit of reform, a positive attribute of Progressive ideas promoted the self-determination of peoples, but at times their ideas were limited by ignorance. Part of the essence of the Progressive movement was to push humanity towards enduring change and elements of perfection in the age of modernity. Like the myth of Icarus, in the strive for perfection, people forget their own flaws and limitations. Nevertheless, the Progressive era should be recognized for bringing positive changes to many Oregonians. While the Progressive agenda had completed some of its goals, tensions arose over the presence of immigrants partly stoked by political demagogues and propagandists.

The next period in Oregon history will look into the World War II era as a period of growth and change, and a fight against nativist hysteria that sought to cordon off the politically and socially marginalized. The spirit of reform endured and brought attention to discrimination practices in the labor markets and residential sectors of Oregon. The state experienced rapid industrial growth and urbanization with the onset of World War II. The mass mobilization of the war effort brought tens of thousands to Oregon, and limited job opportunities opened up for African-Americans and other minorities in war industries. Oregon gradually embraced its diversity through struggle, protest and awareness.



























[1] Union Pacific Railway Company, Wealth and Resources of Oregon and Washington, the Pacific Northwest, A Complete Guide Over the Local Lines of the Union Pacific Railway, (CN Miller, 1889) p. v

[2] Ibid., p. 46.

[3] Steven Lowenstein, The Jews of Oregon, (Jewish Historical Society of Oregon: Portland, 1987), p. 89

[4] Peterson del Mar, p. 120. There has been a resurgence of global populism especially among the far-right in many nations and has entailed a grievance culture against liberal elites. Many of today’s populists are prone to unfounded conspiracy theories and have cultivated a subculture in social media circles such as QAnon and 8chan.

[5] Voeltz, Herman, “Coxey’s Army in Oregon, 1894,” OHQ, Vol. 65, No. 3 (Sep., 1964), pp. 263-295

[6] From this point, a political precedent was established in the mentality of some Oregonians that the migration of peoples from California was a potential threat, danger, and unwanted presence in the state. Simmering populist-minded animosity had resurfaced during the tenure of Governor Tom McCall who stressed Oregon did not need more people living in the state (but they could visit as often as they wish). Californians are scorned even today. They are seen as the cause of gentrification and the escalation of real estate prices. Automobiles have been vandalized by anti-California fanatics on the streets of Portland.  The Oregonian, July 12, 2017.

[7] Lansing, Jewell: Multnomah: The Tumultuous Story of Oregon’s Most Populous County, (Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, 2012) p. 33

[8] The Oregonian, April 12, 1894, p. 4.

[9] The Oregonian, Oct. 6th, 1946. Others like Richard Neuberger likened the reforms instituted by U’Ren and the Oregon System as equal in significance and importance as the Oregon Trail.

[10] William S. U’Ren: Oregon Voter, January 15th, 1916.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Scott Reed: William S. U’Ren and the Oregon System, Bachelor of Arts Degree, Princeton University, 1950.

[13] The Progressive period in American history is remembered for its efforts with labor reforms and journalist exposés by Lewis Hine and Upton Sinclair who were known as muckrakers because they brought out issues like child labor and corporate corruption in American society. Muckrakers helped bring legislative change to American politics like the Food and Drug Act. After people read Sinclair’s The Jungle, Americans were horrified by the lack of hygienic and health safety in the meat packing industry.

[14] Oswald West Papers: “Woman Suffrage in Early Oregon,” Box 1 MSS 589.

[15] During the presidential election of 2016, there were many Americans who considered repealing the Nineteenth Amendment, women’s ability to exercise their right to vote, as potentially great idea.

[16] Jensen, Kimberly. “‘Neither Head nor Tail to the Campaign’: Esther Pohl Lovejoy and the Oregon Woman Suffrage Victory of 1912.” Oregon Historical Quarterly 108:3 (Fall 2007), 350-383.

[17] Boag, Peter: Same Sex Affairs: Constructing and Controlling Homosexuality in the Pacific Northwest(University of California Press: 2003) p. 158.

[18] Boag, Peter: Redressing America’s Frontier Past, (University of California Press: Berkeley, 2011)

[19] Near the end of the twentieth century, Americans started to learn that hospitals and institutions were no longer a safe haven or equitable housing option for people with developmental disabilities. Exposures rippled through the newspapers that conditions were squalid with abusive caretakers who violated the residents. Fairview Training Center experienced uprisings from the residents, but the press maintain relative silence about them during the 1960s.

[20] Thomas Robert Malthus wrote an essay in the eighteenth century on the principles of population. His theory states that higher population numbers will exhaust natural resources, and curbs in human reproduction are necessary for the survival of societies. Malthusian theory was a foundational tent of the ideas of the Social Darwinists. They sterilization as the “amelioration of the human race,” and later it was adopted as a solution to the perceived economic dependency of the welfare state.

[21] Helquist, Michael: “Lewd, Obscene and Indecent”: The 1916 Portland Edition of Family Limitation,” Oregon Historical Quarterly , Vol. 117, No. 2, Regulating Birth (Summer 2016), pp. 274-287

[22] There is historical truth to her argument implicating John Pierpont Morgan the banking magnate as gaining profit from the war. Morgan had significant portions of investment tied to British markets, and he was a critical force in pressuring the American government to participate and engage in World War I. Not everyone was excited about this war since America had rested on a tradition of isolationism, and waves of European immigration made national ideological conformity of the war effort more difficult for lawmakers. Senators of the Midwest like George Norris and Hiram Johnson demanded taxes be placed on war munitions industries since it was they who were making excessive profits in his mind. The Oregonian, June 3rd, 1916.

[23] Julia Ruutila Papers, MSS 250 Box 2, Oregon Labor Press, 1918.

[24] Ibid.

[25] As a result of the Espionage and Sedition Acts and the ensuing Criminal Syndicalism Acts, police in Portland organized a “Red Squad” to conduct surveillance and harassment of radicals. This police group stayed through the 1970s.

[26] Robert D. Johnston, The Radical Middle Class : Populist Democracy and the Question of Capitalism in Progressive Era Portland, Oregon (Princeton University Press, 2006) p. 199-203.

[27] Dinane Goeres-Gardner: Inside Oregon State Hospital, A History of Tragedy and Triumph (History Press: Charleston, South Carolina, 2013) p. 133.

[28] Schwartz, Gerald: “Walter M. Pierce and the Birth Control Movement,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, Winter, 1987.

[29] General Information State Institution for the Feeble Minded, pamphlet, 1929. OHS Archives.

[30] Ibid.


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Oregon’s History: People of the Northwest in the Land of Eden Copyright © by Athanasios Michaels is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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