Suffrage and Women's Movement

How did California’s women get the vote nine years before the 19th Amendment? What role did UC’s women play?

Suffrage poster

Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, women campaigned for the vote throughout the United States, but their early successes were all in the West. Politicians in the new states and territories had various motives for enfranchising women: trying to attract female settlers, bolstering the power of particular voting blocs, and breaking legislative control by special interests. But whatever the particular reasons, they combined into a regional trend, which California suffragists tried to join for many decades before the breakthrough of 1911.

UC Women and the Suffrage Movement in the Nineteenth Century

Laura Gordon
The career of one of the earliest suffragists in the state intersected at an odd angle with the history of women at UC. A Sacramento newspaper reporter, Laura Gordon, attended the 1879 convention to revise the California constitution and lobbied the delegates for an equal voting rights provision. Failing in that attempt, she and her allies quickly switched to having an equal educational rights clause inserting into the new constitution: “No person shall be debarred admission to any of the collegiate departments of the State University on account of sex” (Mead, 41; Stadtman, 83). Once that clause became part of the state constitution, Gordon used it to win a civil suit against Hastings Law School, an affiliate of UC that had refused her admission. By the time the case was won on appeal, she had already learned enough law to be admitted to the California bar and no longer sought admission. But her efforts had secured the rights of UC women to enter the professional schools of their choice (Stadtman, 133).

Mary McHenry

A younger suffragist, Berkeley alumna Mary McHenry (1879), soon took advantage of the opening created by Gordon and became the first woman to receive a law degree from UC in 1882. She practiced law briefly, but after marrying the prominent landscape painter William Keith, she devoted most of her time to women’s suffrage organizing. As a leader of the Berkeley Political Equality Club, one of the largest suffrage organizations on the West Coast, she helped organize a state-wide Women's Congress to spearhead the drive for a suffrage referendum in 1895-6 (Weinstein, 96–98, Mead, 80-82). The energetic campaign mobilized hundreds of women across the state,but the measure failed to pass, doing especially poorly in urban areas. Although the reasons for the failure were complex, at the time it was blamed on the persistent public belief in an alliance between women’s suffrage and the anti-alcohol temperance movement, a cause that was especially unpopular in cities.   

The Suffrage Campaign of 1911  

 By 1911, voting women were even more normal in the western states than they had been in 1896. Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Idaho, and Washington had all voted to enfranchise women by then, and none of those states had suffered any negative consequences. Moreover, women had become a much more organized social force in the first decade of the century. They had come together in hundreds of clubs devoted to all sorts of causes and activities, and their voluntary work was generally appreciated. Although most of the clubs were not originally political, their existence made it far easier to reach women in groups and convince them to take the step from social to political activity.  

Most importantly, though, in the first decade of the twentieth century, a progressive insurgency had broken the conservative Republican dominance of the California legislature, and reformist movements were remaking the political landscape. Indeed, both major parties were beset from within and without by reformers of all kinds: anti-poverty campaigners, educational and child-welfare advocates, women- and child-worker protectionists, as well as legions of anti-corruption, anti-monopoly, and clean government crusaders. Smaller political parties had also appeared—Socialist, Populist, and Progressive. Suffragists therefore had many new potential allies, and they had learned from their setback in 1896 that they needed to make different kinds of alliances to broaden their appeal.

In their campaign speeches, slogans, pamphlets, and press releases, the 1911 suffragists downplayed divisive issues like prohibition and emphasized instead the connections between their cause and direct-democracy measures that had already been enacted, like the referendum and the recall. Enfranchising women was presented as one among many other reforms that would clean up local governments by reducing the power of political machines and monopolistic corporations. Women voters would add another purifying element to the electorate, helping to rid it of graft and cronyism. Their political activity would be a change, to be sure, but one that would protect society from the threats posed by industrial modernity and rapid urbanization. They would especially safeguard the interests of families and children by joining the fights against tainted food, contaminated water, and unsanitary neighborhoods. Suffragists, in short, segued from earlier rhetoric about women’s natural moral superiority to the more modest and demonstrable claim that women’s organizations already made up an essential element in the movements to reform government and extent its power to improve the lives of citizens. 

One of the women responsible for the new public face of California suffragism was Berkeley alumna Mabel Craft Deering, who directed press relations for the entire state campaign. Craft Deering had always attracted publicity. When a graduating senior in 1892, Mabel Craft achieved notoriety by challenging the university’s decision not to award her the University Medal even though she had the highest grade-point average among her classmates. 

Mabel Craft Deering

The public hullabaloo caused the young man named as the medal’s recipient to decline it. After taking a law degree from Hastings (1895), Craft went into journalism, becoming a celebrity among newspaper reporters for her daring and persistent pursuit of stories. The San Francisco Chronicle rewarded her success by making her the Sunday editor of the paper in 1899, a uniquely high-status job for an American woman journalist. She worked with numerous women’s organizations in the following decade, and once again became widely known for leading a campaign in favor of racial integration in the national women’s club federation (Lapp, 164-5). Several years after her marriage to a prominent San Francisco attorney, she joined the College and Professional Equal Suffrage League, which was led by fellow alumna Fannie McLean (1885). She made an effective press director for the 1911 campaign because she had already earned the respect of the California newspaper establishment and had access to editors and many state political leaders. She used the contacts and the skills that she’d acquired as a journalist—persistence, humor, and attention-getting—to popularize the cause of women’s suffrage.

In addition to appealing to a larger audience by changing their public image, the suffrage campaigners of 1911 actively made alliances across class, ethnic, religious, and racial boundaries. All sorts of associations were being made, often facilitated by the women’s clubs. For example, African American suffrage leader Sarah Overton formed a racially integrated coalition organization—the Interracial Suffrage Amendment League—in San Jose to coordinate campaign efforts (Mead, 139). Federations targeted at college students and alumnae were also organized—the College Equal Suffrage League and the College and Professional Equal Suffrage League—and Berkeley alumnae were often the officers and best-known speakers and pamphleteers for those organizations. As historian Rebecca Mead explains, they often connected the suffragists with an array of other activists “through their connections to social work, reform politics, and the labor movement” (Mead, 171).

They helped facilitate relations with workers’ organizations, especially with the Wage Earner’s Suffrage league, where they coalesced in support of women trade unionists who were trying to win an eight-hour day. They leafleted workers at the Southern Pacific Railway yard and campaigned among other city-dwellers whom they had not been able to win over in 1896. Seeking supporters among newly arrived immigrants from Italy, France, and Germany, as well as among Spanish-speaking Mexican-Americans, members of the College Equal Suffrage league helped translate campaign literature into many languages. They sought and won some endorsements from Catholic priests, which they distributed especially to various ethnic congregations on Sunday mornings. They translated their flyers into Chinese and courted voters among the Asian-American merchants of San Francisco’s Chinatown. An endorsement from a local Rabbi was appended to suffrage pamphlets that were passed out at synagogues (Mead, 137-45).

In the more sparsely organized countryside, suffrage was already a popular cause, but writers like alumna Millicent Shinn (BA 1880, PhD, 1898) were asked to turn out the vote by reinforcing the message that the women voters were needed in the coalition to clean up the cities and prevent their vices from spreading to the countryside (Schaffer, 487). Student suffragists also drove to rural areas in automobiles (which were attention-grabbing novelties at the time) and drummed up enthusiasm among farm families by gathering audiences and performing comic skits in town centers (Schaffer, 489).               

In short, many of the new organizations and strategies that propelled the 1911 suffrage campaign to victory were created by Berkeley alumnae. When the votes were finally counted, the effectiveness of the campaign was revealed. The yes votes still fell short in the cities of Oakland and San Francisco, but by a much smaller margin than they had in 1896. And the majority for women’s suffrage had increased overall in southern California, rural areas, and small towns, which insured its passage. As historian Mead concludes, the victory thus, “confirmed the significance of modern mass-based methods in a diverse, heavily urbanized state” (Mead, 149). The California movement served as an organizational and strategic model for a series of other state campaigns between 1912 and 1914, and its innovations were built into the drive for the federal constitutional amendment of 1920.