The story of woman’s suffrage in California, like that of the nation, is one of individual women who stepped into leadership roles in their communities and inspired other women to join them. Ellen Clark Sargent arrived in California with her husband in 1852 and quickly began to pursue her political interests. She founded the first suffrage group in Nevada City in 1869. At the same time, she began persuading her husband, Aaron Augustus Sargent, who had become a U.S. Senator, to introduce a 29-word amendment granting women the vote. That amendment was defeated in 1878, but in 1920, the same 29 words resurfaced and became the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote.
On the state level, the California legislature passed a bill in 1893 giving women the right to vote, but the governor vetoed it claiming that female suffrage was unconstitutional. Three years later suffrage supporters, while continuing an alliance with Republicans, unions and prohibitionists, took the issue directly to the people as a referendum. It was defeated by a vote of 137,099 to 110,355, with southern California counties voting in support and Alameda and San Francisco counties voting no, partly as a result of influence from liquor distillers and saloons. As a result of this defeat, suffragists knew where their support and their opposition lay. They used this knowledge to begin another campaign. In 1910, the California Republican Party platform officially adopted progressive reforms, including universal suffrage, for the upcoming statewide election.
Mary Keith, president of Berkeley Political Equality Society in 1902, inspired women to keep fighting after the 1896 defeat. She lectured, recruited suffragists, and personally lobbied state politicians. Through her leadership, more and more women were inspired to become publicly active. They joined women’s clubs, which had been established all over the state. Many of these clubs, initially formed for socializing and self improvement, turned their attention to suffrage, becoming one of the essential ingredients for the movement’s ultimate success.
After being left out of the original organizations working towards universal suffrage, black women began to form their own women’s clubs in Oakland and Los Angeles in 1895. Naomi Bowman Talbert Anderson spent much of her adult life in the Midwest before moving to California in 1895. While raising her family and working as a hairdresser, Anderson lectured, wrote poetry and newspaper articles, supporting temperance and advocating women’s rights. As a result, she received praise from Susan B. Anthony for her work promoting the suffrage movement in San Francisco.
Maud Younger, another suffragist in San Francisco, became involved in reform work. Unlike her middle and upper class colleagues, Maud Younger worked as a waitress and a union organizer in San Francisco. She also helped found the Wage Earner’s Equal Suffrage League in 1909, representing working women in her suffrage work. One of the more colorful suffragists, Miss Younger became recognizable from her women’s parade float pulled by six horses, which she drove herself. In 1915, Alice Paul, suffragist leader of the National Women’s Party, tapped Maud Younger to be her lieutenant in the campaign for national suffrage.
At the same time, other were working to oppose the efforts of the suffragists. Mrs. Mary Casewell and Mrs. George S. Patton (mother of the WW II general) were leaders of California’s anti suffrage association, and for every strategy and publicity point scored by the suffragists, they countered with the opposite. They attacked suffragists through fear, inviting male voters to imagine themselves coming home to dirty diapers, dishes in the sink and an uncooked dinner while their wives were on a jury with 11 other men deciding the fate of society’s worst elements. Furthermore, the anti suffragists argued that women were not fit either physically or intellectually for politics. Women who voted, they said, would become less feminine, less modest, and definitely less dignified.
In Southern California, Katherine Philips Edson was politically active through the Friday Morning Club in southern California, one of the hundreds of women’s clubs throughout the state allied with suffrage. In 1909 she joined John H. Braly, a Los Angeles progressive, to form the California Political Equality League, one of the most important suffrage organizations in the state, opened to both men and women. Mrs. Edson became one of the state’s leading progressives. In 1920, she was a California representative to the national Republican Party Convention.
Women, by 1920, had come such a long way from the first National Women’s Convention in 1848. During that convention, Frederick Douglass and others observed the roar of dissention that rose, when one woman after another objected to adopting a resolution giving them the right to vote. They simply could not conceive of having the right to vote. “Suffrage,” Douglass went on to say, “is the power to choose rulers and make laws, and the right by which all others are secured.”