Alaska's Suffrage Star
Alaska Women and the Vote
in the 1910s and 1920s
In 1913, local and national activism resulted in Alaska women citizens becoming eligible voters. That year, Alaska joined nine states that allowed women to vote. Suffragists across the country celebrated the addition of Alaska’s star to the suffrage flag.
Women reformers and voters affected social and political change in Alaska in the 1910s and 1920s, often inspired by national movements enacted at the local level.
But suffrage was far from complete. Women’s suffrage in Alaska was limited to women citizens, who were mostly white women. Federal law held that Alaska Natives were not US citizens until 1924. The history of suffrage shows that voting rights advancements have been limited, fragile, and reversible.
The national suffrage movement and congress open the door for Alaska women
Beginning in the 1840s, American women and their male allies engaged in campaigns at the local, county, state, and national levels to expand the American electorate to include women. The first suffrage successes were in the Rocky Mountain west beginning with Wyoming (1869), Utah (1870), Colorado (1893), and Idaho (1896). After a period of no additions, there was a rush of suffrage campaign successes in Washington (1910), California (1911), and Oregon, Arizona, and Kansas (1912). Suffrage was a topic of debate, activism, and conversation around the nation, and especially in the west.
At that time, Alaskans demanded that Congress allow Alaska to form a territorial legislature. In 1912, Congress debated the Second Organic Act. Congressmen offered two suffrage-related amendments to the bill. The first would immediately enfranchise white Alaska women, but it was defeated. The second allowed Alaska’s territorial legislature to extend the right to vote to women if the legislature so chose—and it passed. Congress created the Territory of Alaska and opened the door for suffrage in Alaska.
“Another Star is Coming,” celebrated a headline in the suffragist newspaper, The Woman’s Journal.
Nellie Cashman Miner and Entrepeneur
Sixty-eight-year-old Nellie Cashman (1845-1925) operated the northern-most gold placer mine in the world when she strode into the polling place in Nolan, Alaska on August 13, 1912 and cast her ballot. She became the first woman known to vote in an Alaska-wide election. It would still be another year until Alaska women could legally vote.
It is unknown if Nellie knew of the suffrage amendment that Congress included in Alaska’s Second Organic Act or if she simply asserted her right to vote by practicing it. Either way, this successful gold miner, boarding house operator, entrepreneur and philanthropist also became Alaska’s first known woman voter.
Nellie, an expert miner, was also savvy about the many ways to profit from mining towns. From Nevada, to the Cassiar District in British Columbia, to Tombstone, Arizona and Dawson City, Yukon, Nellie’s successful restaurants, grocery and outfitting stores, boarding houses, and mining claims made her one of the most famous stampeders of the era.
She moved to Fairbanks in 1904 and started placer mining in Nolan Creek on the Koyukuk River in 1905. She spent the last 25 years of her life mining above the Arctic Circle. Nellie made fortunes many times over; she gave these fortunes away repeatedly. Nellie saved miners suffering from scurvy on the Stikine River and raised money for the first hospitals in Dawson City and Fairbanks.
Mobilizing the Territory
White male Alaskans voted for twenty-four white men to represent them in the First Territorial Legislature in 1913. However, confidence across Alaska was high that this would be the last election that excluded women from voting based on their gender.
Women in Alaska seized the moment. Women in Knik and Seward collected signatures for a petition that urged the legislature to enfranchise women. Women in Skagway hosted Congressional Delegate James Wickersham and insisted upon the enfranchisement of women.
At the national level, the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA)> a advocated for enfranchising Alaska women. NAWSA sent all new Alaska legislators letters addressing the “five good reasons why the Alaska Legislature should vote for woman suffrage.” Some of the legislators needed no convincing—they were already suffragists. This included Representative Arthur Shoup of Sitka, who consulted with NAWSA on drafts of a suffrage bill.
Some newspaper editors across Alaska voiced support for suffrage. “Let the Women Vote,” voiced a headline in the Alaska Daily Empire. “Nine states now have woman suffrage including some states wherein a few years ago the idea had no support,” wrote the editor of The Progressive in Petersburg, “Now why not Alaska join in[?]”
Cornelia Jewett Hatcher Temperance Leader
Cornelia Templeton Jewett Hatcher (1867-1953) was a reformer and women’s rights advocate who served as editor of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union’s (WCTU) newspaper, The Union Signal, before moving to Alaska.
In 1909, Cornelia rode the so-called Suffrage Express train to Seattle with national suffrage leaders to attend the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition and assist with Washington State’s suffrage campaign. Afterward, she traveled to Alaska, where she met Robert Lee Hatcher. His discovery of quartz gold in the Talkeetna Mountains became the basis for Independence Mine.
The Hatchers lived in Knik on Cook Inlet when Alaska’s first territorial legislature convened in Juneau in 1913. Cornelia, a seasoned suffrage campaigner, wrote a petition to the legislature asking for the enfranchisement of women and spearheaded gathering signatures. Cornelia’s petition was delivered to the legislature along with another petition with 400 signatures from her WCTU colleagues, Fanny Pedersen, Ida Green and Ada Brownell, from Seward.
After the woman’s suffrage bill passed in Alaska, Cornelia directed an Alaska-wide campaign against alcohol. In 1916, the women and men of Alaska went to the polls and voted to prohibit the sale, manufacture, barter, or exchange of intoxicating liquors in the territory effective January 1, 1918. By a two to one vote, Alaskans outlawed liquor prior to implementation of national prohibition with the Eighteenth Amendment in 1920. Alaska’s Bone Dry law was in effect until May of 1934.
First bill ever passed by Alaska Territorial Legislature gives women the vote
On March 3, 1913, Alaska’s first legislative session began in Juneau. That same day, Washington, DC witnessed the Woman Suffrage Procession, a theatrical parade that attracted over 100,000 spectators. Organized by the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) Congressional Committee, the parade occurred the day before the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson. The parade signaled the beginning of a new era in suffrage activism—one directed towards achieving a federal suffrage amendment.
In Juneau several days later, Representative Shoup introduced House Bill 2: To Extend the Elective Franchise to Women in the Territory of Alaska. It passed both the Territorial House and Senate without controversy.
On March 21, 1913, Governor W.E. Clark signed the bill. The first bill ever passed by the Alaska Territorial Legislature gave female citizens equal voting rights based on the qualifications established for male voters. All voters had to be over 21 years of age, Alaska residents for one year, and American citizens. Alaska Natives were not American citizens, so few Alaska Native women could vote.
Lena Morrow Lewis Socialist
The old order is passing away. Behold all things are becoming new. —Lena Morrow Lewis
Lena Morrow Lewis (1868-1950) was a nationally known lecturer, suffragist, and Socialist. During her five years in Alaska, Lena lived in Fairbanks, Juneau, and Anchorage and traveled across the territory as an organizer, educator, and socialist candidate for political office.
Lena served as the first woman elected to the Socialist Party’s National Executive Committee and convinced the party to support votes for women across the nation. By the time she arrived in Alaska in 1912, Lena had spent decades promoting temperance, woman suffrage, and socialism.
In Alaska, Lena edited four different newspapers, taught courses in parliamentary procedure, organized events for women to hear from political candidates, and taught women about “the art of voting.” She even started a school of economics for children.
Lena was a moderate socialist respected across Alaska. However, the rise of socialism in the territory was snuffed when Election Day was moved from August to November, preventing the miners and fishermen who left the territory for the winter from taking part in the Alaska election. Moreover, a $4 poll tax was imposed on men. Power shifted to moderate middle class white Alaskans.
Alaska’s Socialist Party nominated Lena as their candidate for Alaska’s Congressional Delegate in 1916, making Lena the first woman in Alaska to run for federal office. She received 10% of the vote. General interest in socialism in Alaska had already peaked. World War I and charges of sedition quieted remaining enthusiasm.
The history of suffrage is a history of exceptions and systemic racism. For example, HB 2 brought the vote to white women. The history of suffrage is also a history of reversals. After Native Americans were acknowledged as citizens following the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, the Alaska Legislature passed the Alaska Voters Literacy Act in 1925 to prevent voting by people who could not read or speak English.
|1913||Alaska Territorial Legislature passes House Bill 2, allowing women citizens the right to vote in Alaska.|
|1915||Alaska Territorial Legislature passes Senate Bill 21, allowing citizenship for Alaska Natives who undergo a complicated process to prove abandonment of tribal relationships and customs.|
|1920||The 19th Amendment to the Constitution is ratified, guaranteeing the right to vote regardless of sex. Alaskans did not vote on the amendment because Alaska was not a state. The League of Women Voters is founded that same year.|
|1923||Alaska women are allowed to serve on juries.|
|1924||Congress passes the Indian Citizenship Act, allowing citizenship for Native Americans.|
|1925||Alaska Territorial Legislature passes Alaska Voters Literacy Act, requiring that a person must speak and read English to vote, thereby disenfranchising non-English speakers and many Alaska Natives.|
|1931||Congress passes the Cable Act, freeing women from the citizenships of their husbands. Before then, a woman lost or gained citizenship based on the nationality of her husband.|
|1943||Magnuson Act grants citizenship to Chinese Americans, allowing them to vote.|
|1950||The Anchorage chapter of the League of Women Voters is founded. The League of Women Voters Alaska is established in 1967.|
|1965||The Voting Rights Act eliminates poll taxes, literacy tests, and other barricades set up to exclude African Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans from voting.|
|2013||US Supreme Court strikes a portion of the Voting Rights Act so that states with histories of voter discrimination no longer need federal approval to change election laws. Strict voter ID laws, the closing of polling places, and purging of voter rolls ensue.|
Tillie Paul Tamaree Educator and Tribal Historian
Matilda “Tillie” Khaalyát’ Kinnon Paul Tamaree (1864-1955) was a Tlingit woman of the Teeyhittaan Raven clan of Wrangell, Alaska and a teacher, translator, tribal historian, and activist. She founded the New Covenant Legion, a Christian temperance organization that turned into the Alaska Native Brotherhood. She also created a Tlingit dictionary.
In 1922, a Tlingit man named Charlie Xhadanéik’ Shéiyksh Jones attempted to vote at the local polling station in Wrangell but was turned away. Most Alaska Natives were not citizens, but Charlie had underwent a naturalization process to become a United States citizen.
Tillie insisted that Charlie had every legal right to vote and walked him back to the polling station. Tillie could not vote because she was not an American citizen, but Charlie entered and voted in Tillie’s presence. Election officials had them arrested shortly thereafter.
Charlie was charged with illegal voting and perjury, Tillie for “inducing an Indian not entitled to vote to vote at an election.” Although both were briefly imprisoned and had to pay legal fees, Charlie was found not guilty on both counts and Tillie’s case was dismissed.
In 1924, Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act, finally granting American citizenship to American Indian and Alaska Native men and women who were born in the United States.
Impacts of Suffrage in Alaska
In 1914, women across Alaska voted in local and territorial elections. Political parties campaigned on platforms that included issues important to women.
Women’s clubs bloomed across Alaska, including the Alaska Native Sisterhood. Women in Fairbanks and Juneau started civic clubs to learn about voting and to meet political candidates. These clubs focused on education, volunteerism, and increasing engagement in voting and politics.
Women helped elect non-partisan candidates across the territory. Moreover, legislation important to women passed, such as a women’s property bill and the right to serve on juries. In 1916, Woman’s Christian Temperance Unions of Alaska achieved a successful referendum vote to prohibit the sale, manufacture, barter, or exchange of intoxicating liquors effective January 1, 1918. Congress made Alaska’s law “Bone Dry” by making it illegal to possess liquor in Alaska.
Women also ran for political office. In 1914, Mary A.C. Gibson of Ketchikan ran as an independent candidate to Alaska’s House. She campaigned to expand the rights of women. In 1916, Lena Morrow Lewis ran for the Congressional Delegate seat. Neither candidate won. It was not until 1937 that a woman, Nell Scott Chadwick, served on the Territorial Legislature. Senator Lisa Murkowski became the first Alaska woman elected to federal office in 2004 (she was appointed to a vacated seat in 2002).