Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Mrs. Emma Smith DeVoe, 1849-1927
By Claire Rudolf Murphy
Independent historian, Spokane, Wash. and
Samantha Sulit, undergraduate, University of California, Berkeley
State and National Suffragist Leader, Republican Party Activist
For thirty-nine years in over 28 states and territories, Emma Smith DeVoe campaigned for women's suffrage. Her contributions to the movement are extraordinary, especially in the state of Washington.
Emma Smith was born on August 22, 1849 and grew up in the village of Washington, Illinois in an orthodox Baptist family. As a child her parents supported and cultivated her talent for music. At age nineteen she joined the faculty of Eureka College in Eureka, Illinois, and served as chair of the Music Department. In 1879 Smith married J. H. DeVoe and they moved to Huron, Dakota Territory. There they both campaigned for women's suffrage, along with temperance, and statehood for the Dakotas. In 1889, she filled the office of assistant State superintendent of franchise for the Woman's Christian Temperance Union of South Dakota. From this position, she gained public notice and developed public speaking skills. She gave speeches at conventions, which spread her fame throughout the State as a public figure for equality of the sexes. She started her speeches with the statement, "There is nothing in the Constitution of the United States that should prevent women the right of franchise."
When Susan B. Anthony campaigned in the Dakota Territory in 1889, she stayed with the DeVoes and their home became the headquarters for the suffrage fight. Anthony also mentored DeVoe, helping her hone her public speaking skills. In 1889 North and South Dakota became states and both launched suffrage campaigns. Despite the tireless efforts of Anthony and DeVoe, the 1890 South Dakota suffrage referendum failed, and women there did not achieve the vote until 1918.
In the spring of 1891 the DeVoes moved to Harvey, Illinois, where DeVoe immediately organized a suffrage society. It became the largest local club in Illinois. In 1892 she lectured throughout Iowa on behalf of the Iowa State Equal Suffrage Association. In 1895 the National American Woman Suffrage Association began hiring well-dressed and ladylike organizers to establish suffrage clubs in states lacking the vote. DeVoe signed on and was sent to Idaho. In her speeches, often enhanced by her beautiful singing voice, she emphasized the natural differences between men and women, especially women's more peaceful nature. Women voters would improve the chances for peaceful solutions to international conflict, she told audiences. DeVoe, along with Oregon's Abigail Scott Duniway and Idahoans like May Arkwright Hutton, helped Idaho women win the vote in 1896.
By 1905 DeVoe had organized clubs in 28 states and territories. That year she and her husband moved to Tacoma, Washington. The next year DeVoe assisted Abigail Scott Duniway in the Oregon campaign. Her speeches at parlor meetings were especially popular with upper and middle class audiences. But liquor interests helped defeat the amendment and Oregon women did not gain the vote until 1912.
In the fall of 1906 DeVoe was elected president of the Washington Equal Suffrage Association. Many supporters had lost interest after the defeat of the women's suffrage law in 1898 and suffrage clubs had dissolved. DeVoe retooled Washington campaign tactics, adding posters, a publicity bureau, mass rallies, bands, parades, stump speeches, and publicity stunts. She also turned to the women's clubs for support. By 1908, membership in the Washington Equal Suffrage Association jumped to 2,000, and 75 new suffrage societies were formed. These clubs were instrumental in circulating petitions, conducting poll list canvasses, and raising money.
Spokane suffragist May Arkwright Hutton and DeVoe launched the first stage of the Washington campaign, successful passage of a suffrage amendment in the state legislature in February 1909. That year DeVoe also invited the National American Woman Suffrage Association to hold their national convention in Seattle as part of the Alaska-Yukon Pacific Exposition in July 1909. This increased interest in the 1910 Washington State suffrage referendum.
The campaign met with little resistance, even from the saloon lobby. Overcoming their differences over strategy and tactics, DeVoe and Hutton again worked together. DeVoe directed efforts in the western half of the state and Hutton led forces on the eastern side with her headquarters in Spokane. On November 8, 1910—over twenty years after the Territorial Supreme Court had last taken away Washington women's right to vote—male voters ratified the amendment 52,299-29,676. Every county voted in favor, with support coming from all political parties and across all demographics. The Washington victory broke a 14-year hiatus in state suffrage victories and propelled the national movement out of the doldrums.
In January 1911 DeVoe helped found the nonpartisan National Council of Women Voters (NCWV), a forerunner of the League of Women Voters. The new organization assisted non-suffrage states in their efforts, helped newly enfranchised women use their votes intelligently, and worked for increased political and economic opportunity for women. As the first president of the NCWV, DeVoe worked closely with both Republicans and Democrats to pass state suffrage laws and a national women's suffrage amendment. In March 1920 she pressured Governor Hart to call a special session of the Washington state legislature to ratify the 19th amendment. DeVoe occupied a seat of honor during the ratification vote when Washington State became the second to last state (35th) to approve the amendment.
DeVoe was then free to enter partisan politics, joining the Republican Party, and rising to state and national leadership positions. She was the only woman chosen as a presidential elector at the 1920 Washington State Republican Convention. DeVoe died in Tacoma on September 3, 1927. In 2000 she was elected to the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York.
Historylink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History: "Woman Suffrage Crusade, 1848-1920" (by Mildred Andrews), online at http://historylink.org/File/5662; "Hutton, May Arkwright," (by Laura Arksey) online at http://historylink.org/File/7547; "Emma Smith DeVoe is elected president of the Washington Equal Suffrage Association in 1906," (by Priscilla Long), online at http://www.historylink.org/File/2621.
Horner, Patricia Voelle, and Cora Smith King. "Washington" in History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 6, edited by Ida Husted Harper, (New York: National American Woman Suffrage Association, 1922), 673-686.
Jepsen, David, "Emma Smith Devoe: The Suffragist Who Wouldn't Back Down," (Washington State Historical Society, 2007-2009). Accessible online at http://archive.is/xqYQ
Larson, T. A. "The Woman Suffrage Movement in Washington," Pacific Northwest Quarterly Vol. 67, No. 2 (April 1976), 49-62.
Mead, Rebecca. "Votes for Women!" Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Winter 2010-11), 5-11.
Ross-Nazzal, Jennifer. "'Always Be Good Natured and Cheerful': Emma Smith DeVoe and the Woman Suffrage Movement," (Ph.D. diss., Washington State University, 2004).
Ross-Nazzal, Jennifer. "Emma Smith DeVoe: Practicing Pragmatic Politics in the Pacific Northwest," Pacific Northwest Quarterly Vol. 92, No. 2 (Spring 2005), 76-83.
Soden, Dale. "The Woman's Christian Temperance Union in the Pacific Northwest: The Battle for Cultural Control," Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol. 94, No. 4 (Fall 2003,) 197-207.
Willard, Frances E. and Mary A. Livermore, eds. American Women - Fifteen Hundred Biographies with over 1,400 Portraits: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of the Lives and Achievements of American Women During the Nineteenth Century, Vol. I. (New York: Mast, Crowell & Kirkpatrick, 1897), 239. [LINK]
Photo of Emma Smith Devoe
Smith Devoe, Emma. Richards Studio Collection (TPL-8717), Tacoma Public Library, Tacoma, Washington. http://www.historylink.org/File/7588