By Joyell Nevins
Clara Petra Wold and her sister Emma were powerful women in the College Equal Suffrage League and the successful state campaign for woman suffrage in Oregon. Later, they and sister Cora joined the National Woman’s Party in pressing for a federal amendment to win the right to vote for all American women.
Clara was born in Los Gatos, Calif., on November 12, 1890, to Ivoe and Mary Wold. Ivoe was born in Norway, and was related to both the dramatist Henrik Ibsen and Norway’s poet laureate Jonas Lie. Her family moved to Eugene, Oregon, soon after. Clara had five siblings - Emma, Jean, Cora, Gaeta, and brother Irving.
Although her father died when Clara was young, her mother was known for being a proud supporter of education and a compassionate woman to those in need. Clara grew up in a household that prized education and spending time together. Many of her siblings became teachers, and they maintained close relationships with each other as they grew older.
Clara graduated in 1903, from Eugene High School. She went back to teach there after graduating from the University of Oregon in 1907. Clara also taught at Washington High School, was a custodian and then manager at libraries in Portland, and served on several women’s boards and civic leagues planning celebrations and charity events.
After her librarian career, Clara worked at the Oregon Journal and then served as assistant editor at the Portland Spectator. In July 1917, she was a speaker at the Oregon State Editorial Association Convention on the topic “Are Women to Have Their Chance in Journalism?”
Near the end of 1917, she moved to New York to continue her study of literature and art. It was in New York that she met her husband Norman Matson. They married in 1919.
Before their marriage, Clara spent a significant portion of time in Washington D.C. as editor of The Suffragist and supporter of the National Woman’s Party (NWP). Clara was arrested multiple times and incarcerated for her picketing activities.
According to Clara’s account, written for Portland’s August 25, 1918 Sunday Oregonian, on her first morning in the nation’s capital on August 6, 1918, she was one of 48 NWP activists handing out pamphlets in front of the White House. Then they paraded with banners to Lafayette Square, and some stepped up onto the statue to speak against the Senate’s delay in passing the suffrage amendment.
Once the protest turned to speaking out for democracy though, the police moved in. The same police officers who had assisted Clara and several other women up onto the statue steps were now arresting them. And the next morning in court, Clara was charged with both “congregating/speaking in a park” and “for climbing the statue.” This was the arresting officer’s charge, even though the United States attorney told the suffragists he would need a week to find a charge against them. As Clara wrote, “one week in which to find a charge for 48 arrests already made!”
Then on August 12, 1918, Clara and sister Cora were among 26 activists arrested again for picketing and congregating in Lafayette Square. Tried and convicted, like the others, Clara chose jail over the assessed fine. She was sentenced to 15 days in jail (it is unclear if Cora was sent to jail), and released on August 20 after six days of hunger striking. She was confined to bed, but reported to be “not seriously ill.”
On October 14, 1918, she was among suffragists arrested when they tried to enter the Senate’s chambers. This time, they were released after the Senate had adjourned.
When she traveled home later that month to vote in the November election, the October 31 Morning Oregonian reported that she said, “it’s incongruous for the President to question the loyalty of the Republicans, when they gave him more votes on almost all the big war measures than the Democrats. . . . These majority leaders who are 'backing’ the President are doing nothing now to get the two votes needed to carry through the suffrage vote for which he asked. We hold his party responsible. You can say for the Woman's party that it has not dropped opposition to Mr. Wilson. He could do much toward getting the votes needed."
In November 1918, Clara and ten other suffragists were arrested again in the nation’s capital for “protesting against adjournment of the Senate without establishing the same democracy here as we have established in Europe,” despite an assurance from Oregon senator Charles McNary two weeks before that women would no longer be arrested for picketing the Capitol. She said she was thrown down the Capitol steps and that her arm was badly wrenched.
On February 9, 1919, she was arrested for participation in effigy-burning in front of the White House and sentenced to another five days in jail. Before her passport was revoked a week prior to the arrest, Clara had been one of several women scheduled to sail to France to join National Woman’s Party members petitioning the President during his overseas travels.
By August 1919, she was back in Oregon, calling for the Oregon legislature to ratify the suffrage amendment. In the governor’s chambers, she was reported by the Sunday Oregonian to have broken down in tears and said “I have gone without bonnets, dispensed with food, shunned entertainment and given practically all of my surplus money to the cause of suffrage and it is hard to think that we are to be delayed in reaching our goal because of obstacles placed in our path."
In the 1920s, Clara went abroad as correspondent for the International News Service and the Cosmopolitan News Service. Her husband Norman, who also served as a foreign correspondent, was with her when she passed away unexpectedly in 1923 in Vienna, Austria.
Historic Oregon Newspapers. University of Oregon Libraries. Web. December 2015 and January 2016.
Specific newspapers mentioned:
The Sunday Oregonian. (Portland, Ore.) 1881-current, August 25, 1918, Section One, Image 15
Morning Oregonian. (Portland, Or.) 1861-1937, October 31, 1918, Image 18
“New York Times (1857-1922); Aug. 13,1918 and Aug. 21, 1918.” ProQuest Historical Newspapers. ProQuest. Web. Accessed through University of Dayton October and November 2015.
National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C.; NARA series: Passport Applications, January 2, 1906 – March 31, 1925; Roll #: 685; Volume #: Roll 0685 – Certificates: 59500-59749, 25 Jan 1919-27 Jan 1919.