In July 1848, 240 women and men met in Seneca Falls, New York, “to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women.” One hundred of the delegates–68 women and 32 men–signed a Declaration of Sentiments, declaring that women, like men, were citizens with an “inalienable right to the elective franchise.” The Seneca Falls Convention commemorated the beginning of the campaign for woman suffrage. It was, however, not until August 26, 1920 were all women granted enfranchisement with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. It was an exciting and significant political triumph. Women finally achieved the freedom men had since 1776: to choose for themselves what they believed was best for them.
The battle for women’s suffrage waged for decades, and long before the Civil War, women were seeking voting equality. Pioneer suffragists demanded their own political voice and civil rights; they did not want men deciding their future. There were hard-fought battles, devastating defeats, countless alliances and many divides, but they never wavered in their determination for women’s suffrage.
With Election Day so close, today I want to give you some background on the suffrage movement in California, which was a very influential state and set the stage for others. From the early pioneer days, women had fought hard and long for the right to vote. Many campaigns were lost before their victory on October 20, 1911.
During the 1870s and 1880s, the suffrage movement took different forms. Many women had little interest in politics and were content to help on social welfare issues that they regarded as an extension of home domestic duties. When assisting within an organization, they often referred to it as “advancing women’s work.” Others, such as Laura de Force Gordon, were Progressives and participated with a group of national firebrands including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Gordon gave the first suffrage speech in California.
Following an evolving philosophical route, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) played an important role in the California suffrage process. Members believed that lobbying and political power could strengthen women’s moral authority. Therefore, club members, professionals and the well educated participated in the suffrage fight through WCTU membership. They may have been following different ideological compasses, but when the campaigns of 1896 and 1911 were waged, the progressive, conservative and temperance blocs were all on the same side: to get the power of the vote. So many extraordinary women participated: Ellen Clark Sargent challenged disenfranchisement with the argument of “no taxes without representation,” and Maud Younger, a Progressive, founded the waitress labor union and organized it in the fight for suffrage.
Throughout the years, suffrage organizations utilized a variety of tactics. They lobbied for the right to vote in the new state constitution; advocated through the legislative process; incorporated voting equality into the Republican platform; and petitioned the 1891 legislature for the right to vote in school board and bond elections. In 1896, they used the referendum process only to be defeated again. Unexpectedly, the campaign lost in the San Francisco Bay area, which at that time was the population center of the state. Surprisingly, it passed in the southern part of the state and was carried by working men. The results illustrated that class mattered but in an unexpected way: the more affluent areas voted against suffrage in a higher proportion than working-class neighborhoods.
California women finally achieved suffrage in the astounding campaign of 1911. The younger suffragists worked with the experienced ones, the clubs, the unions and men’s organizations all united to give women what they always deserved: the right to vote. Riding up and down the state in her automobile was the daring and brilliant pioneer suffragist Clara Shortridge Foltz. Along with the members of her Votes for Women Club, Foltz organized Los Angeles and other Southern California regions. Although the margin of victory was a mere 2 percent, Los Angeles and southern rural districts carried the vote. As in the 1896 election, the working class in both Southern and Northern California had the highest percentage of affirmative votes.
California was the sixth state to win the vote, and as arduous and dramatic as achieving victory was, it was a major advance for the suffragists and their supporters. An important and influential state, it set the stage for the other states. Nine more states achieved suffrage before the 1920 national referendum when finally, after so many campaigns and defeats, women throughout the United States were granted the right to vote.
Thousands of remarkable women devoted their lives for women’s suffrage. They were brave and determined to attain what they believed was their inherent right. They set the path for political freedom and civil rights for womankind. Do not let their struggles be for naught. Please vote on November 6.