Feminism was not a recognized term during the early statehood years in California, but the idea of equal rights matured with the state. While the 1849 California Constitution Convention gave the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness exclusively to men, it did afford a "wife" the right to own property separate from her husband, which at the time was considered a progressive notion. Women did not have the right to vote and were subject to gender-specific labor rights that differed from men's. Non-white married women were excluded from even the limited rights of the wife.
Luckily for California, Marietta L. Stow displayed a combination of brassiness and bravery as she campaigned for equal rights in the state. As a lecturer, she became a major voice demanding equal rights for shop girls. Upon the death of her husband in 1872 (and the end of her status as a wife), the courts denied her inheritance of $200,000, whereupon she began a crusade for probate reform that culminated in her first book, Probate Confiscation, which attacked the idea that women's rights arose from their status as wives.
Stow was also a politician, which at the time was a professional choice that proved isolating. Politics was controlled by the major parties (Republican and Democratic), which did not extend membership to women. So rather than trying to influence the existing parties, Stow elected to buck the system. As a member of the radical Greenback Party, Stow ran for the office of San Francisco school director in 1880. Two years later, she entered the race for California governor as a member of the Women's Independent Political Party. Her platform of "anti-monopoly, anti-ring, and anti-Chinese" messages were not enough to make headway with voters.
It was not until 1884, when Stow ran for vice president of the United States representing the Equal Rights Party, that she entered the national consciousness. Joined by presidential candidate Belva Lockwood of Washington, D.C., she championed a platform focused firmly on suffrage as its foremost cause.
National suffrage leaders, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Abigail Duniway, objected strongly to the Equal Rights Party entering the national election. They thought this act subjected the fight for suffrage to ridicule as newspapers derisively portrayed the candidates and their cause. They also felt that this foray splintered the movement, the goals of which Anthony was trying to champion within the context of the parties. Citing the refusal of the Republican Party to consider suffrage as a plank in the party platform and the precedent of women rulers throughout history, Stow, Lockwood, and the Equal Rights party went forward. They hoped to become the "the entering wedge" that would open the door to women's suffrage.
Marietta Stow died in 1902, nine years before women received the right to vote in California.
- Students analyze the development of federal civil
rights and voting rights.