Abigail Scott Duniway died in 1915, fifty years before I was born. All too soon I'll be fifty years old. When I consider her life now, knowing the compression of time, I'd say we almost crossed paths, both of us living in Portland, Oregon only a handful of decades apart.
On a winter Sunday my daughter and I, along with a poet named Joseph Lease, went to visit her grave in Portland's Riverview cemetery. We bent down in the sun and put thin paper to the cool, flat headstone. The air smelled like damp earth. I gave my daughter a pencil.
To rub against a name etched in a stone is a way to come to know that name, beyond merely hearing it. It's to watch the letters come together. I showed my daughter how to hold a pencil sideways, to get the width of the graphite against the page. We ran our pencils over the paper until we saw Abigail Scott Duniway's name emerge in a grey cloud. We let her birthdate and the date of her death appear on the page too, through our sketching, like ghosts coming to the surface.
Duniway, a writer, was the first person in Oregon to publish a book with a commercial press. She was an activist, the "Susan B. Anthony of the West," and founder of the New Northwest, a forward-thinking, liberal, feminist newspaper. Her brother, Harvey Scott, founded the Oregonian, a conservative paper, a voice against feminism, which means against the right of women to vote and control their own finances. When Abigail Scott Duniway's husband passed away young, Harvey Scott gained control of her funds.
We still have his paper, the Oregonian. His statue stands on the top of Mount Tabor, looking over the city.
My daughter discarded a few pieces of paper before she perfected her pencil-holding technique. She lay on the ground, her face close to the headstone. Halfway through a rubbing, she asked, "Who was Abigail Scott Duniway?" She'd heard this all before, but now was ready to take it in.
Duniway once said, "The young women of today, free to study, to speak, to write, to choose their occupation, should remember that every inch of this freedom was bought for them at a great price. It is for them to show their gratitude by helping onward the reforms of their own times, by spreading the light of freedom and of truth still wider. The debt that each generation owes to the past it must pay to the future."
We're doing what we can to remember that.
On the ride home, my daughter asked, "Can we do that sometime again?"
I said, "Of course."