The enfranchisement of women, both in California and the United States, was a long and challenging endeavor that spanned nearly 100 years. The women's suffrage movement changed the way our democracy works and ratified the rights and responsibilities of citizenship for women including the right to vote.
In July 1871, a forty-four-year-old widow by the name of Ellen R. Van Valkenburg, sued Santa Cruz County Clerk Albert Brown after he refused to include her name in the county’s Great Register of voters. The essence of her argument was that under the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution, many American women like herself were granted citizenship, and therefore, the rights of citizenship which included voting. Disappointed by the California’s Third District Court, which ruled against her, Van Valkenburg decided to appeal. The following January, the Supreme Court of California supported the lower court’s verdict denying her and other women alike representation and the right to vote.
Petitions were circulated around the state for signatures in 1879 in an effort to amend Article II of the 1849 constitution which granted “every white male” in the state, the right to vote. The petition declaring that “no citizen of the State shall be disenfranchised on account of sex” received over 2,500 signatures in total. Nonetheless, hopes for modifying the constitution at the 1879 Constitutional Convention were dismissed. Various opponents within the all-male delegate body expressed their fears of women participating in politics and repealed the amendment.
The first attempt for women’s suffrage in California failed in the 1896 general election. This eight-month active campaign faced many challenges including financial problems. Nonetheless, women persisted, kept organizing and continued fighting for their right to vote in the following years. In 1910, women seized the opportunity of Governor James Norris Gillett’s new administration and persuaded the California state legislature to add the question, “Should women be allowed to vote?” on the 1911 ballot.
Supporters had only eight months to organize their campaign to win voter approval for this proposal. As the general attitude of the public toward women voting was more "amused, indifferent and incredulous" than hostile, wrote suffrage leader Louise Wall, "it seemed best for us to put forth positive arguments of a hopeful, constructive sort rather than arguments that ended in criticism or irony."
Elizabeth Lowe Watson, a former pastor, led the California Equal Suffrage Association in northern California. The less populated south was covered by two organizations, the Political Equality League founded by Pasadena businessman John Hyde Braly, and the Votes for Women Club led by attorney Clara Shortridge Foltz. These and other groups mobilized over 10,000 local supporters – teachers, college women, wage earners and veteran suffragists – to carry out the vast statewide drive.
To publicize their Cause as widely as possible, suffragists produced pin-back buttons, pennants and posters. They created postcards, playing cards and shopping bags. They used electric signs, 8-foot tall billboards and lantern slides at night to flash their message. They distributed over three million pieces of literature and over 90,000 “Votes for Women” buttons in Southern California alone.
Learning from earlier elections, suffrage leaders anticipated strong opposition by saloon and business interests in the cities who feared prohibition so they concentrated their forces on the rural districts. Speakers, organizers, automobile tours and press material were sent to reach distant voters in the remote corners of the great state. Women in every county organized clubs and associations to win the support of prominent men, newspaper editors, business and clergymen as well as individual voters.
On Election Day, October 10, 1911, the measure was soundly defeated in the San Francisco Bay Area and just barely passed in Los Angeles. Disheartened and disappointed, suffragists began to plan yet another campaign when late reports from the rural counties began to swing the vote in their favor.
When the long count was finally completed several days later, Equal Suffrage had passed by only 3,587 votes – an average majority of one vote in each precinct in the state. The final count was 125,037 to 121,450, making California the 6th state in the nation to give women the right to vote.
The right to vote in California not only allowed women to participate in the democratic process, but also led to women being elected into office. In 1918, Grace S. Dorris, Esto B. Broughton, Anna L. Saylor, and Elizabeth Hughes were the first four women to be elected to the California State Assembly; these women were among the first to hold distinguishable roles in state government advocating for women's rights.
California's women's suffrage campaign inspired other states to join the movement. Nearly a decade after women won the right to vote in California, women were granted this right in all states at the federal level with the passage and ratification of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution on August 26, 1920. Today, this day is known as Women’s Equality Day. Suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony played pivotal roles in this movement successfully giving female voters the right to a ballot.
Though it has been nearly 100 years since women won the right to vote, the effort to increase female representation, both in numbers and in ethnic diversity, is a journey that will continue to exist both at the state and national level. As of 2019, approximately 31% of the California State Legislature is female. According to figures from the National Conference of State Legislatures, women made up 25.4% of all state legislators in 2018. With the help of prominent civil rights activists, Rosa Parks, Dolores Huerta, and new activists and leaders, the work of reaching equality in representation continues.
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