Duniway isn't the only great woman of Oregon history
Other pioneering Oregonians worthy of having bridges and mountains named after them include attorney Mary G. Leonard, historian Frances Fuller Victor and physician Bethenia Owens-Adair.
By Finn J.D. John — April 3, 2016
Pioneering Oregon journalist and women’s suffrage advocate Abigail Scott Duniway has been much in the news over the last few years — most recently in connection with a plan to replace the statues representing Oregon in Washington, D.C., with statues of herself and Chief Joseph.
The honor, of course, is much deserved. But a newcomer to the state, looking at headlines, could be excused for assuming Duniway is the only important female character in Oregon’s history. In recent years, nearly every time an opportunity has come up to honor a great Oregon woman, Duniway’s candidacy has seemed to suck all the air out of the room.
But if you look past Duniway’s towering figure, you’ll find a remarkably robust cohort of strong, accomplished women, going all the way back to the beginning of the state — women who defied a culture that sought to force them into a meek, subservient role and who bring to mind the bumper-sticker slogan that “well-behaved women rarely make history.”
With that in mind, here are a few suggestions of great women from Oregon history whose names might be mentioned next time the chance comes up to name a bridge or mountain after an important and overlooked historical figure:
Mary G. Leonard, J.D.
First licensed female attorney in the Northwest
Mary Leonard is one of the great misunderstood and underrated figures of Oregon history, probably because of the whiff of scandal that followed her throughout her life. She came to Oregon as a sort of mail-order bride to marry an unpleasant old man named Daniel Leonard.
The match lasted just two years before they split up. But before the divorce was final, someone murdered Daniel with a small-bore pistol. Mary, accused of having done it, was chucked in the county jail and left there for months while the case dragged on.
In the county joint, she met all manner of women whom 1880s society considered disposable — girls disowned by their fathers after having been seduced and “ruined” by fast young rakes, girls fleeing from abusive homes, girls who’d run away seeking adventure, and more — all now reduced to prostitution and petty theft to survive. As she later explained to Abigail Scott Duniway in an interview for Duniway’s newspaper, Leonard determined that if she ever got out, she would dedicate her life to helping those girls.
She did get out, was acquitted of the murder, and inherited her late almost-ex-husband’s estate. True to her word, she moved immediately to the worst neighborhood of Portland and opened a boardinghouse for at-risk women (a boardinghouse that a later historian would boorishly refer to as a “côte for soiled doves”). Seeing how helpless her clients were in the face of what passed for justice in that era, she undertook to study law and became the first licensed female attorney in the Northwest, then made a professional career of helping the helpless in court — offering a free drop-in consultation office hour every day.
Late in life, Mary Leonard suffered from some sort of progressively worsening mental disorder that ruined her health and professional reputation and culminated in her dying, alone and penniless, in a hospital bed in 1912.
Frances Fuller Victor
The “Mother of Oregon History”
Frances Fuller Victor was a dime-novel author who moved to Oregon with her lovable-but-incompetent husband, Henry Victor. While Henry, a retired Navy engineer who’d just been awarded a big bonus by the Navy, got busy burning through the money with ill-advised business schemes, Frances learned that no one was actually writing a real history of Oregon. Accordingly, she set about doing it, traveling all over the state and talking to doddering pioneers and Native Americans, saving dozens of stories from the early 1800s from vanishing forever.
After Henry had squandered with hopeful recklessness all his Navy money, Fuller Victor took a job writing for Hubert Howe Bancroft. Bancroft blithely appropriated all her unpublished research and put her to work as a contract writer, creating what should have been her life’s masterwork to be published under his name. She resented it bitterly, but it was, in a real sense, the price of her life; she and Henry were now separated and she had to support herself somehow.
Fuller Victor lived just long enough to still be alive when Oregon’s historical community belatedly realized what a treasure she had given it. In 1899 she was named an honorary founding member of the Oregon Historical Society, and the Oregonian conferred the title of “Mother of Oregon History” upon her in 1901. She died the following year.
Bethenia Owens-Adair, M.D.
First female physician in the West Coast states
Bethenia Owens-Adair’s life story is straight out of a Horatio Alger novel. Married at 14 to an amazingly lazy man, she tolerated him for four years before taking their 2-year-old son and moving out. Then, after returning to school, Bethenia worked her way up from nothing, taking whatever grueling piecework jobs she could get and saving every nickel she could. After half a dozen years of this, she had enough money tucked away to start a dressmaking and millinery business in Roseburg. By the time her son was ready for college, she was making enough money to send him off to the University of California at Berkeley.
She was now a successful businesswoman, and most people in her position would have stopped there. Not Bethenia. In 1870, she headed east to a college of “Eclectic Medicine.” A year later, she was Dr. Bethenia Owens.
Again, she had reached a position where most people would have stopped. Again, she didn’t. Eclectic medicine was not mainstream, but it had been the only program she could get into as a woman. To her, it was a stepping-stone to a “real” medical degree. After some trouble, she found a place at the University of Michigan, and in 1880 matriculated as, you might say, a double doctor.
Owens-Adair’s legacy today is tainted by her enthusiasm, as a physician, for eugenics and forced sterilization. It’s entirely possible that without her advocacy, Oregon wouldn’t have had a forced-sterilization program for Gov. John Kitzhaber to apologize for in 2002. But while we shouldn’t minimize the harm that was done, eugenics was a respected and mainstream belief back in the Edwardian era, especially for physicians, and it’s not really fair to judge her by our modern standard.
We’ll continue this round-up of great women of Oregon history in next week’s column.
(Sources: Aldrich, Myrna. “Oregon’s First Woman Lawyer,” With Her Own Wings, ed. Krebs, Helen. Portland: Beattie, 1948; Friedman, Ralph. In Search of Western Oregon. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 1990; Martin, Jim. A Bit of a Blue: The Life and Work of Frances Fuller Victor. Salem: Deep Well Pub., 1992)