Monday, January 9, 2012

pioneer feminist

Josephine Martin Plymale in about the 1870s, at the
time she was most active as a Women's Suffrage Activist.
Photo courtesy Southern Oregon Historical Society
My great-great-grandmother Josephine Martin was a fascinating woman and an early feminist.  She was born in 1845 in Missouri and crossed the Oregon Trail with her family in 1846, spending the formative age of 10 months to 15 months living in a covered wagon.  The family settled in Oregon where they lived in Lafayette (1846-1851), Winchester (1851-1859), Roseburg (1859-1861) and Myrtle Creek (1861-1862).  In about 1862 (at about 17 years old), Josephine left her family and moved to Jacksonville, Oregon, where she became a school teacher.  She also lived briefly in Josephine County, Oregon. She was married to William Plymale in 1863.  They lived on a farm in what is now Medford, Oregon from 1863 to 1875.  Between 1875 and her death in 1899, they lived in Jacksonville, Oregon.

Josephine "Josie" was first and foremost a wife and mother of 12 children. She was also 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 school teacher, a member of various civic organizations, and a town clerk employee.

Women's Suffrage Activist
Josephine was documented as being an activist of the Women's Suffrage movement, but her specific contributions are not known.  In 1875, she was elected as a vice president of the Oregon State Women Suffrage Assocation. In 1879, she was described as "one of the most active workers in the Women Suffrage field whom we have met anywhere."  At some point during the 1870s, Josephine had acquired use of her church (Methodist) for use as a meeting for women's suffrage activists, but was later locked out by her pastor who got wind of the scheme.  Later, a scene was described where Josephine and her husband were too afraid to leave their house because of a violent mob in the street that was protesting against women's rights.  Most of Josephine's involvement in the women's suffrage movement probably took place in the 1870s, when the movement began to gain momentum in Oregon.  Women did not gain the right to vote in Oregon until 1912, many years after Josephine had died.

Josephine was also an activist of the Temperance movement, which was against the excessive consumption of alcohol.  In 1885 and 1886 she was treasurer of the local branch of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. In 1885 she was described as having "always been an active and able advocate of the temperance cause."  Apparently, the Temperance and Women's Suffrage movements went hand-in-hand during that time period. Ironically, her husband had at one time been given a license to sell liquor.

Her later actions also show that Josephine was a dedicated advocate for farmers, journalists and educators.
Josephine was born into, and married into, families that were heavily involved in politics in Oregon.  Her father, William Martin, served as representative in the Oregon Provision Legislature from 1848-1850 and then as a representative in the Oregon Territorial Legislature from 1850-1852.  Later, he had the political offices of Indian Service Agent (early 1850s) and Receiver of the Land Office (1856-1861). Josephine's husband, William Plymale, was an elected member of the House of Representatives of the Oregon State Legislature from 1874-1875. He also had the political office of Jackson County Surveyor (1865-1873), Deputy County Clerk (1860s-1880s), and Justice of the Peace (1880s-1904).

The surviving records infer that Josephine held the opposite political values of both her father and her husband.  Through most of her adulthood, her father and husband were Democrats whereas Josephine was a Republican (which tended to be the more liberal and progressive party of the time). In August 1888, Josephine named her youngest son after Benjamin Harrison, a Republican who was elected president of the United States three months later.

In 1892, Josephine entered the candidacy under the Republican ticket for election as Jackson County Recorder.  Apparently, the suggestion that she would consider running for office was unprecedented.  In a newspaper article, her candidacy declaration was responded to with: "That is right, Sister Plymale; if you never ask for an office you will never be refused one."  Unfortunately, she dropped out of the race or was denied inclusion by her own party.  In May 1892, the Republican Part of Jackson County instead officially nominated her nephew, Robert Armstrong, for that position (Robert later lost the election). 

In 1893, Josephine was a committee clerk for the legislative assembly of the Oregon State Legislature in Salem.  Later, in 1895, she again traveled to the State Legislative Assembly in Salem where she "was employed in the senate chamber" and brought her two youngest daughters, Emma and Marie, with her.
In 1898, Josephine performed the duties (copying records) of the Town Clerk of Jacksonville, while the clerk was absent. As part of that job, she became a notary. 
Josephine Martin Plymale, c. 1880s
Photo courtesy Southern Oregon Historical Society
Journalism and Writing
Most sources agree that Josephine was a gifted writer. She put her talent to use as a journalist. From the 1870s until the late 1890s, Josephine was a correspondent and writer for at least two newspapers: the Ashland Tidings (in Ashland, Oregon) and the Oregonian (still the major newspaper of Portland, Oregon).  Her newspaper writing that I have seen includes editorials and obituaries. In 1885, she was hired as an editorial writer for The Prohibition Star newspaper.  She was also a vice president of the Oregon Press Association and a member of the National Press Association.  Her dedication to the newspaper industry must have rubbed off on her family because two of her sons (William and Louis) also became journalists and worked for newspapers.

Aside from her journalism, Josephine was also a gifted writer in other ways.  She did a large amount of freelance work; writing essays and tributes. 
Public Speaker
Josephine has been described in contemporary records as a noted speech giver and public speaker. A few of her documented speeches are: In 1875 she gave the inaugural address to the Grange in Jacksonville. In 1877, she gave the annual address to the Siskiyou County Agricultural society in Yreka, California. In 1879, she gave a reading at a meeting of the Teacher's Institute in Jacksonville.  In 1880, she gave a speech at the Legion of Honor in Jacksonville.  In 1896, she gave the Occasional Address at the reunion of the Oregon Pioneer Association.
Josephine was raised on farms for the entirety of her childhood and youth.  When she married William Plymale in 1863, she immediately moved with him to his family's farm and ranch.  Southern Oregon is famous for its fruits (notably pears) and the Plymales had some kind of fruit orchard along with their stock farm and ranch.  On the family farm, we can assume that her husband was the better stock raiser while Josephine was the better orchardist.  Although they only farmed for about 12 years, Josephine remained a lifelong advocate of farmers and agriculture.

Josephine was a faithful member of the Grange and the Jackson County Agricultural Society.  At various times she was publicly thanked for delivering pears to fellow citizens.
Other Involvements
Josephine was a lifelong member of the Methodist Church.  She was also a dedicated member of various civic organizations including the Madrona Lodge Order of the Eastern Star (female version of the Masons) and the Ruth Rebekah Lodge (female version of the I.O.O.F. - the "Odd Fellows").   Josephine was especially prominent in the Rebekah Lodge, and served as its General Secretary, which required her to travel throughout Oregon state.  In 1890, she was elected as a delegate to the organization's national convention in Topeka, Kansas; but it is unknown if she made the trip. Additionally, she was a member of the Southern Oregon Pioneer Association and the Oregon Pioneer Association.

For a short time period in her youth (from about 1862 to about 1863), she taught school in Jacksonville.  Although she only taught for a short time period, the stint must have made its mark on her students, because more than 30 years later she was said to have "rendered very valuable service to the young people who were growing up around her."

In 1875, when Josephine and her family moved to Jacksonville, Oregon, they took over the Excelsior Livery Stable business, located in the city center (the business has previously been owned and operated by William's brother Sebastian Plymale).   They successfully operated the business for about 15 years, where they provided transportation for fellow citizens by driving and renting out horses and buggies to paying customers.  Josephine assisted with this business enterprise and must have been quite good with horses.  She herself even drove horse teams for clients on occasion.  She was described on one occasion by a customer as a "gallant lady pilot proving efficient and successful at her business."
In the summer of 1882, a scarlet fever epidemic struck the area and three of Josephine's children were infected with the dangerous disease.  Sadly, her youngest son, McDonough, aged 17 months, died from the dreaded disease, but her other children recovered.

In Jacksonville, Josephine and her family lived next to a furniture factory.  At 3:30 am on September 18, 1888, a fire erupted in the furniture factory and soon engulfed the Plymales' home and it burned to the ground.  Josephine and her large family (which included one-month old baby Benjamin) managed to escape in the middle of the night with only the clothes on their back.  After this, they purchased a house across the street that had been owned by the owner of the furniture factory.

The surviving sources suggest that despite all of Josephine and William's civic involvement and accomplishments, they were never very wealthy and suffered from financial hardship.  When her husband William died in 1904, their house was nearly repossessed because of nonpayment of their mortgage.

Josephine became ill in December 1898 and suffered from an undocumented illness (a "complication of diseases") for 6 months until her death on June 16, 1899, at the age of 54.  Her illness was described as "weeks and months of the most intense suffering."
The Plymale Cottage in Jacksonville, Oregon, where
Josephine lived from 1890 to 1899.
Clearly, Josephine must have possessed a high amount of energy, motivation, passion and courage.  She defied the standards of her day which required women to be meek and subservient.  In her time, she went up against her father, her husband, her pastor and her community, while still managing to maintain respect and dignity.

In spite of all of her above achievements, Josephine was first and foremost a wife and mother.  Surely, the domestic duties of a housewife and mother of 12 children required huge amounts of energy and devotion.  She and her husband were also dedicated to the education of all of their children.  Even though they were Methodists, they sent their children to Catholic school, which they considered to be the best school in town.  At least 6 of their children eventually went to college.

In 1884, when her mother died, Josephine paid for a headstone for her mother's grave, even though her father and most of her siblings lived much closer than she did.

Josephine must have had a fiery and charismatic personality.  In 1879 she was described as "sharper than lightning."  Descriptions at her death in 1899 included; "she was always ready with a pleasant or witty expression under the most irritating circumstances," "the vexations incident to rearing a large family never soured her naturally cheerful disposition," "she was always indulgent and affectionate," and "she had a kind word for every child that she met."  In spite of all that, she was described by her granddaughter (who was born many years after she died) as merely "a bad mother." She must not have been too bad of a mother though, because three different granddaughters were named after her. 
My descent from Josephine:
Josephine L. Martin md. William J. Plymale
- Benjamin H. Plymale md. Vera V. Merriman
-- Ben T. Plymale md. Patricia J. Bixby
--- Barbara Plymale md. Randy Wadleigh
---- Ryan Wadleigh


  1. What an amazing women and life. I am not sure I could have survived all she had to go through in her life. You did a wonderful job of recounting her story. I visited the Plymale grave site and her home in Jacksonville last Summer. I had no idea about our relatives in Jacksonville until the last year. I grew up in Medford and my family never mentioned this side of the family growing up. Such a shame.

  2. I portrayed Josephine Plymale 4 years ago in the annual October "Meet the Pioneers" in Jacksonville's pioneer cemetery. Your blog on Josephine was a primary source for the information on her life and my portrayal. Thank you!