On July 30, 1909, Dr. Cora Smith Eaton summited Mount Rainier, along with a group of fellow suffragettes, and planted a “Votes for Women” pennant.
A year later, women in Washington were finally granted the right to vote, making it the fifth state in the nation to extend the vote to women. It took another ten years before women’s suffrage went national with the ratification of the 19th amendment. Smith Eaton, a charter member and first secretary of local climbing organization The Mountaineers, was not new to women’s suffrage or challenging the status quo.
She was born in Rockford, Illinois, in 1867, and her family eventually moved west to the Dakota Territory, settling in Grand Forks. There, she graduated in 1889 with the University of North Dakota’s first graduating class. Once earning her medical degree at Boston University, she returned to North Dakota where she became the first licensed woman physician in the state.
Her commitment to women’s rights started early, partly in thanks to her mother, Sara Smith. Together, in 1890, they became the first women to vote in Grand Forks, thanks to the North Dakota constitution which had granted women the right to vote in school elections. Cora and her mother cast their ballots in a special local election to establish an independent school district in the town, a vote, and an experience, that cemented her commitment to women’s rights.
Eventually Smith headed further west, setting up her medical practice in Seattle in 1896. There, she married Dr. Robert Eaton, becoming Cora Smith Eaton. Besides practicing medicine, she quickly became involved in the local outdoors community, exploring the wild landscapes around her. Mt. Rainier beckoned, as did the craggy Cascades and Olympic ranges looming nearby. Eventually she took up mountain climbing.
As a young organization, The Mountaineers hosted excursions to explore the peaks of Washington, and with them in 1907, Smith Eaton was a part of the second ascent of the East Peak of Mount Olympus, the first woman to do so. Not only did she bring her climbing prowess, but she put her professional skills to use too, offering medical advice to fellow climbers.
Writing in the first volume of The Mountaineer the organization’s official publication, in an article dedicated to first aid in the outdoors, she noted, “To be a good mountaineer is to be good in emergencies, and it is surprising how much a layman can do, whatever the accident, in the way of first aid. Every difficulty yields to common sense and a cool head.” It wasn’t just the Washington wilderness that she explored—Smith also traveled to Yellowstone in 1902 with a group called the “sagebrushers” as they independently made their way through the park, camping in canvas tents along the way.
She would go on to successfully climb all six major peaks in Washington, and her commitment to women’s suffrage was always with her. In the register on top of Glacier Peak, after her name, she wrote “Votes for Women.”
In the summer of 1909, Smith Eaton’s passion for the outdoors and women’s suffrage converged, when Seattle hosted the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. The suffrage movement was strategic, and the National American’s Women’s Suffrage Association held its 41st annual convention at precisely the same time, ensuring heightened attention to the cause as millions flocked to Seattle.
As part of the exposition, The Mountaineers organized its third annual outing: an expedition up Mount Rainier. In its journal Progress, the National American Women’s Suffrage Association announced the following: “Among the many attractive side trips which may be taken, one of the most alluring is the ascent of Mount Rainier. The Mountaineers’ Club will take its annual outing on this peak July 17 to August 7. The dunnage will go by a pack train of horses, the Mountaineers on foot, through the flowery meadows, and in and out of the rugged canyons, the trip reaching its climax in an ascent to the summit by the way of the White Glacier.”
A ticket for the expedition was $40.The mountain offered a symbolic way for the women to prove the point that they deserved equal rights, as a climbing expedition helped to show that the women were physically strong and capable.
Smith Eaton was well-versed in the requirements of the mountain, and therefore a perfect advocate for the expedition and her accompanying suffragettes. She had contributed to the Mountaineer’s Chapter of the Washington Equal Suffrage Association’s Washington Women’s Cookbook that same year. Here, she wrote an extensive list—the “Women’s List for the Mountains”—that was used by the suffragettes who joined the expedition. The “tramping suit,” recommended that they all wear, consisted of “bloomers or knickerbockers,” “short skirt, knee length, discarded on the hard climbs,” “wool waist or jumper,” and finally a “sweater or heavy coat.”
On July 30th, on a clear but windy day, the expedition reached the summit. The Seattle Times reported that “some of the men had to be ‘revived with snow’ but that none of the women gave out.”
Finally at the summit, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific flag was planted at Columbia Crest and the “Votes for Women” pennant, which had been carried up by Smith Eaton, was fastened to the same staff. The words and wishes of the suffragettes flew high, over 14,000 feet above sea level.
After a short time, the winds increased and snapped the staff in half, but the flag was placed inside the crater, and it remains there to this day, covered by snow, ice, and the memory of a movement and the women that changed the course of mountaineering history. Smith Hall, a residence at the University of North Dakota, is named for Dr. Smith Eaton.