'Babies can't vote'
“I never fear the men,” Marian said. “It’s the women I look out for.”
Marian Towne was on her way to Salem to represent Jackson County in the Oregon House of Representatives. It was 1915, and Towne was Oregon’s first woman legislator, elected by 339 votes over her Republican challenger.
Born in the Applegate Valley near Sterling in December 1880, Towne’s staunch independence and Democratic leanings were inherited from her father, William Frank Towne. William was a Maine “Yankee” who left home at 14 for a life at sea, traveled the world, then jumped ship in San Francisco and, stricken with “gold fever,” headed for Oregon.
When the fever finally broke, he married and settled in Phoenix, where he opened a store and served as the town’s postmaster for 24 years.
By 1908, 22-year-old Marian was already Jackson County’s deputy clerk, working through the county books during the day in Jacksonville and, at night, studying law at home.
“I want to earn more money than I can in a clerical position,” she said, “and I can do it by practicing law.”
One reporter noted that, “At an age when most young ladies are studying matrimony, this charming young lady wants to hang out her shingle as a counselor at law. Why? — is a mystery.”
Marian left to study law at the University of Michigan, but returned home when her father died in August 1909. She and her sisters carried on their father’s store, and Marian continued working in the county clerk’s office and also opened an insurance business.
When the women of Oregon got the right to vote in 1912, Marian, still deputy clerk, was reading and filing bills passed by the Legislature. She thought she could do better and decided to run for office.
Because she was a woman, and also a Democrat in a Republican-dominated county, hers was an uphill, bare bones, personal campaign. It cost her only $40.
“During my campaign,” she said, “I never made a speech. Speeches count for nothing. I devoted practically all my time to a house-to-house canvas, meeting and conferring with the women who conduct the homes in my vicinity. Sometimes, I met the men as well and secured their view and opinions.”
Nearly three-quarters of all homes in her district got a knock on their door.
“I let them know who I was and what I wanted, but I never once asked bluntly for votes. I trusted the fact that the more friends I made the more votes I would get. The only promise I made in my entire campaign was a doorbell for every home where I calloused my knuckles rapping on the door.”
A reporter asked if she kissed the babies of all the possible voters. “I did not,” she calmly said. “Babies can’t vote.”
A few of the men in the Legislature didn’t mind a woman working there, but most of them did. One of the most outspoken was Speaker of the House Ben Selling, who ordered fresh flowers on her Legislative desk every morning.
“I wasn’t sure,” she said, “if he did this out of kindness or to indicate all a woman legislator was good for was to tend flowers and look beautiful.”
Upon the arrival of Oregon’s first woman legislator in the House chamber, Marian said she was “bothered” by just one thing. With a big laugh, she said, “Here beside my desk is this cuspidor [spittoon]. I’m going to have it changed for a footstool.”
The footstool came in handy for the 5-foot-tall woman. When she received the honor of standing and offering the customary motion to adjourn each session, she stood on her footstool, looking nearly as tall as all of the men.
“Footstools are great dignifies,” she said. “They make one feel almost stately.”
In her single term in office, Marian fiercely fought for better education and fearlessly lent her energy for and against each legislative proposal. In just a few weeks, her speeches and determination earned her sincere praise from other legislators.
“Marian Towne,” said one, “is a woman of much charm and personal attractiveness, a keen sense of humor, and she has a mind distinguished by its originality and alertness.”
Marian wasn’t troubled when she lost her re-election bid in 1916. “I shall always have the distinction of being the first woman elected to the Legislature in Oregon,” she said. “Others will be elected later, but still, I shall always be the first.”
Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at email@example.com.