Pioneer Profiles – October 2016
Where many states seem to be making voting as difficult as possible, Oregon keeps making it easier. Residents who are U.S. citizens can register to vote by mail or online. If they are not registered voters, they are automatically registered when they obtain or renew an Oregon driver’s license. And then registered voters have a three week window to return their ballots by mail or in a drop box—no standing in line on a weekday, possibly before or after work, to have a say in their government.
But even with the removal of multiple impediments to voting, close to one-third of eligible Oregon voters fail to exercise their voting privilege in general elections; half to two-thirds choose not to do so in primary elections. And Oregon ranks fifth in the nation in voter turn-out!
Josephine Martin Plymale would be appalled! She was active in the hard-fought battle that women and minorities have waged to participate in determining the future of our country.
Born in Missouri in 1845, Josephine was in many ways a product of her time. From age 10- to 15-months, she lived in a covered wagon while her family crossed the Oregon Trail, settling first in the Willamette Valley and then in Douglas County. When she was 17, she came to Jacksonville as a teacher. One year later, she married William Plymale. She was first and foremost a wife and a mother of 12 children.
And she was no stranger to the hardships that most pioneers faced. The Plymales lost their 17-month-old son, McDonough, in the 1882 scarlet fever epidemic. They lost their home six years later when it burned to the ground in the arson fire that started at a nearby furniture factory. The family escaped with only the clothes on their backs.
However, Josephine also defied the standards of her day. She was a Women’s Suffrage activist, a Temperance activist, a newspaper writer and journalist, a noted speech giver, a candidate for political office, an orchardist, a farmer’s advocate, a member of various civic organizations, and a town clerk.
Perhaps Josephine’s interest in politics was inevitable. She was born into, and married into, families that were heavily involved in Oregon politics. Her father, William Martin, was a representative to both the Oregon Provisional Legislature and the Oregon Territorial Legislature. He was also an Indian Service Agent and later appointed to the Oregon Land Office. Her husband was a member of the Oregon State Legislature. He was also Jackson County Surveyor, Deputy County Clerk, and a Justice of the Peace.
Josephine’s political views frequently did not align with those of her father and husband. They were conservative Democrats; she was a Lincoln Republican.
But her views were also shaped by experience. As a teacher, she was charged with educating Oregon’s youth. However, only half were allowed to determine their future. She could give birth to 12 children but have no say about the country in which they lived.
She was a gifted writer and may have used her journalist’s “platform” to promote her political opinions. Josephine was the Jacksonville correspondent for both the Ashland Daily Tidings and the Oregonian, which gladly published her editorials. She was also a Vice President of the Oregon Press Association and a member of the National Press Association. Her dedication to journalism apparently rubbed off on her family—two of her sons became journalists.
Josephine had been raised on farms, and when she married William Plymale she moved to his family farm and ranch. William concentrated on the livestock; Josephine became the “orchardist.” She was a faithful member of the Grange and the Jackson County Agricultural Society and remained a lifelong advocate of farmers and agriculture.
Her dedication was recognized when in 1875, at age 30, she was asked to give the inaugural address to the Jacksonville Grange. Josephine is described in contemporary records as “a noted speech giver and public speaker.” Two years later, she gave the annual address to the Siskiyou County Agricultural Society in Yreka, California. She gave readings to the Teacher’s Institute, addressed the Legion of Honor, and spoke at reunions of the Pioneer Association.
In 1875, Josephine and her family also moved to Jacksonville where, for the next 15 years, they operated the Excelsior Livery Stable, previously owned by William’s brother. They provided local transportation, driving and renting horses and buggies to customers. Josephine even drove horse teams for clients when needed. She was praised as “a gallant lady pilot, efficient and successful.” Men trusted her with their lives, but not with the vote.
Perhaps these experiences led to Josephine’s involvement with the Women’s Suffrage movement. She was probably active from her early 20s, since at age 30 she was elected a vice president of the Oregon State Women Suffrage Association. Four years later, she was described as “one of the most active workers in the Women Suffrage field whom we have met anywhere.” But when she planned a meeting of women suffragettes at Jacksonville’s Methodist Church, the pastor locked them out. And at one point a violent mob protested against women’s rights in the street in front of the Plymales’ house. The family was afraid to show their faces.
This public demonstration may also have had something to do with Josephine’s involvement with the Temperance movement. Many Suffragettes actively opposed the excess consumption of alcohol—which didn’t sit well with gentlemen who liked their liquor. Josephine was treasurer of the local Branch. Ironically, her husband had at one time been licensed to sell liquor.
Undaunted, in 1892, Josephine officially filed for the position of Jackson County Recorder. However, her name never appeared on the ballot. A newspaper article responded to her candidacy with the following comment: “If you never ask for an office you will never be refused one.”
One year later, she obtained the position of committee clerk for the legislative assembly of the Oregon State Legislature and two years later was again employed as clerk for the senate chamber. Josephine took her two youngest daughters with her to Salem to give them a taste of politics and to learn how laws were made. She also served as the interim Jacksonville Town Clerk when the regular clerk was absent.
Josephine died in 1899 at the age of 54 after “weeks and months of the most intense suffering” from an unnamed illness. She never did realize her political ambitions or the right to vote.
But her daughters did. Oregon finally gave women the right to vote in 1912—eight years before the United States afforded them that privilege.
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