California Women’s Suffrage, 1911-2011: Setbacks, triumphs on arduous journey to winning the vote
Editor’s note: Second in a series of articles from a coalition of local organizations marking the centennial of California Women’s Suffrage. Read the first article by CLICKING HERE.
By Sandy Kirkpatrick
Special to The Herald
As we mark the centennial of women’s right to vote in California on Monday, it’s important to remember the arduous journey to reach that milestone. It is a story of perseverence and determination.
One of the leaders of the California suffrage movement was Clara Foltz, a remarkable woman who became the first female lawyer in the state in 1878. Determined to pursue a career in law to support herself and her five children, she lobbied for a new state law allowing women to be admitted to the bar. Many suffragists, recognizing her fight as part of the larger women’s movement, supported her efforts, including Laura Gordon, who also aspired to a law career.
Gordon and Foltz’s success in the passage of the landmark Woman Lawyer’s Act of 1878 encouraged them to turn their talents to lobbying for inclusion of women’s rights in the new state constitution. From the opening gavel of the constitutional convention in 1878, one or both of the two women attended nearly every session, despite pressing family and financial concerns. As their cohort of suffragist activists filled the viewer galleries, the press realized that women’s suffrage was under serious consideration, and pressure from the opposition grew in response.
Though the women’s referendum amendment was ultimately defeated, the debate left many delegates feeling they owed women something, and friends of the women’s movement managed to pass clauses in the state constitution prohibiting gender discrimination in employment or education — both major steps in advancing women’s rights.
The suffragists wasted no time in lobbying the newly seated 1880 Legislature for a constitutional amendment for women’s voting rights, with the fallback position of giving women the right to vote in school board elections (despite Foltz’s objection that this was an unacceptable “half loaf”). After fierce debate and lobbying, the Assembly passed the measure but it fell short of the two-thirds needed in the Senate to put it to a popular vote. The school-related voting measure also failed, by a mere three-vote margin.
Despite two losses in as many years, the suffragists felt momentum was on their side. In 1882 they again came tantalizingly close when a friendly Legislature passed a bill granting women school election suffrage. But the governor refused to sign it.
Across the country, the decade of the 1880s largely brought the suffragist movement a series of disheartening defeats. Perhaps the most painful of these was when Washington Territory, which had approved women’s voting rights in 1883, revoked those rights in 1887 as it moved toward statehood.
Increasingly across the country, the women’s suffrage movement was seen as linked to the prohibition of alcohol and vice, which diminished its support from the male voters needed to pass suffrage.
Foltz shifted tactics. Taking what she learned at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, she brought society women into the suffrage cause, and with their support the state election in 1894 resulted in a California first — a majority party that supported women’s voting rights. Women’s suffrage was at the top of the 1895 legislative agenda, and the question was put to a popular vote in 1896, but the statewide campaign struggled under the shadow of an economic depression and lost.
At the end of the 19th century, only four lightly populated states were in the suffrage column: Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and Idaho. Yet at that very moment in history several younger women emerged as new leaders in the suffrage movement — most notably, in California, Lillian Coffin of San Francisco and Katherine Edson of Los Angeles. With the kind of formal education and financial backing Foltz and Gordon never enjoyed, these young women built a network of clubs that would prove essential in the next campaign.
Their chance came when women’s suffrage was included on a 1911 ballot that contained no less than 23 constitutional amendments. Women’s suffrage passed on Oct. 10, 1911, by a razor-thin margin of 2 percent, thanks in no small part to the amazing organization built by the suffragist network — and the compelling oratory skills of Clara Foltz.
To learn more about Foltz and other leaders in the decades-long battle for women’s suffrage, join us for a centennial celebration event on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Benicia Public Library. The event will include living history presentations of California suffragists by Benicia Middle School students and a speech by keynote speaker Bonnie Silveria, president of the Benicia Historical Society.
If You Go
To mark the centennial of California Women’s Suffrage, the Benicia Historical Society, Benicia-Vallejo AAUW, League of Women Voter’s Benicia, and Soroptimist International of Benicia — with participation of Benicia Unified School District — will hold a fall series of celebratory events from September to November. The next event will be held on Tuesday, Oct. 11, at 7 p.m., in the Benicia Public Library, 150 East L St.
Sandy Kirkpatrick is the public policy vice president of the Benicia-Vallejo branch of the American Association of University Women. Learn more about AAUW at aauw-beniciavallejo.org.