Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Ada Wallace Unruh, 1853-1931

By Julia Thompson, Holocaust Center for Humanity, Seattle, WA

Ardent Christian Temperance suffrage activist of Oregon

Ada Wallace was born in Valparaiso, Indiana in 1853 to John H. Wallace and Lucy Ann (Pierce) Wallace. Following Ada's marriage to Albert Unruh in Philadelphia, the couple moved to Kansas around 1874, where she quickly got involved in the local Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The organization was thereafter an integral part of her life and work, and its mission of prohibition the lens through which she saw the need for woman suffrage. In 1887, the Unruhs moved further west to Portland, Oregon, where she continued her work with Christian temperance and suffrage.

In 1894, Unruh and another Oregon WCTU leader Maggie Eaton, traveled to several remote locales in eastern Oregon and established four union chapters. Their efforts took on a literal missionary bent when they started one of these unions at Warm Springs Indian Reservation, and it grew to 150 members within a year. This chapter reported that Unruh had made a significant impact using the following rallying message: “whisky steals away our brains and our money; so long as whisky remains among us we will have a drunken people, and that means a lost nation.”

Unruh was also involved with Oregon's state Equal Suffrage Association. Already in the 1880s, a power struggle had emerged in the woman suffrage movement between the temperance/prohibition advocates and others. It became apparent that the “still hunt” suffrage strategy would not have the broad pull needed to advance the movement's goals. Remaining an avowed proponent of Christian temperance and prohibition, Unruh thus took an opposing point of view to an increasing number of her counterparts in state leadership. While Abigail Scott Duniway, a prominent suffrage activist who lived most of her life in Oregon, turned away from the temperance movement and its tactics, Unruh only intensified. This set up a bitter contest within the Oregon Equal Suffrage Association about how to advance the movement. November 1906 brought the state's association together for a meeting, and in response to the Duniway faction, a group of dissidents presented a leadership slate with Unruh as president, which did not win.

Instead, between 1909 and 1916, Unruh was the president of Oregon's WCTU, remaining heavily active in their mission to promote dry, “pure” lifestyles, and aiding women and children in need. After five failed ballot initiatives to extend the right to vote to women in Oregon, the campaign in 1912 finally succeeded. This is attributed at least in part to increased collaboration between various factions – including the WCTU partnering more with suffrage proponents and groups of different opinions. Unruh and several other Oregon WCTU spent countless hours during the state campaign advocating for the cause. 1912 also saw the WCTU's national convention in Portland, and thus Unruh had a large role in planning and organizing this event. In 1913, Unruh embarked upon a prescient experiment for her time: she attempted to live on the average American woman's wages for a year, which was four dollars a week -- the equivalent in 2019 of $103.47. Unruh found this prohibitively difficult, indeed impossible, to live on, and posited that there was a “logical relationship between hunger and lack of moral courage.” This foray of Unruh's into broader social ills of the day, beyond temperance, mirrored the changes within the WCTU that occurred since its founding. In 1918, Unruh attempted her first and only political campaign, running as part of the Prohibition-National party for a seat in the Oregon House of Representatives, and lost. In 1920, the year of national woman suffrage, Unruh successfully petitioned to restart the Prohibition party's existence in Oregon.

Later in her life, Unruh was a major supporter of the Oregon WCTU's group home for children in Corvallis, the Children's Farm Home. This institution was established in 1922 and expanded in 1926. Unruh lived in Portland for the remainder of her life, and passed away at 78 in June 1931.


“Ada Wallace Unruh.” Her Hat was in the Ring! U.S. Women who Ran for Political Office Before 1920. June 1, 2019.

Additon, Lucia H. Faxon. Twenty Eventful Years of the Oregon Women's Christian Temperance Union, 1880-1900. Statistical, historical and biographical. Portraits of prominent pioneer workers (Portland, OR: Gotshall, 1904).

Crawford, Helen, ed. Oregon Woman's Christian Temperance Union: Ninety Years. Portland, OR: The Union, (1973).

Edwards, Wendy J. Deichmann and Carolyn De Swarte Gifford, eds. Gender and the Social Gospel (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2003).

Jensen, Kimberly. “Woman Suffrage in Oregon.” The Oregon Encyclopedia. Oregon Historical Society. May 1, 2019. June 20, 2019.

Lake, Randall A. “Oregon State Equal Suffrage Association - November 17, 1906.” “She Flies with her own Wings:” the Collected Speeches of Abigail Scott Duniway (1834-1915). June 1, 2019.

Madden, Sara. “Dr. Esther Pohl Lovejoy and Prohibition, 1920.” Oregon Women's History Consortium. June 28, 2019.

“Mrs. Ada Unruh, Leader in Women Affairs Died Tuesday, Portland Home.” The Athena Press. June 5, 1931.

"Pedigree Resource File," FamilySearch. Entry for Ada /Wallace/ file (2:2:2:MMQ9-CMN), May 12, 2011. June 30, 2019.

Soden, Dale E. “The Woman's Christian Temperance Union in the Pacific Northwest: The Battle for Cultural Control.” The Pacific Northwest Quarterly 94, no. 4 (Fall, 2003): 197-207.

"United States Census, 1870," FamilySearch. > June 7, 2019, Indiana > Porter > Valparaiso, ward 2 > image 11 of 15, NARA microfilm publication M593 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.). June 30, 2019.


Ada Wallace Unruh as pictured in Twenty Eventful Years of the Oregon Woman's Christian Temperance Union, 1880-1900, page 94. Full citation above.

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