California–The Sixth Star

More than a hundred years ago West Coast suffragists made a flag with a star for each of the suffrage states of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Washington. When California women won the right to vote—one hundred years ago this year—California became the Sixth Star in the suffragist’s banner. It had been a long struggle, but finally California women won the right to have a voice in government. For years women had chanted the verse:

For the Long Work Day

For the Taxes We Pay

For the Laws We Obey

We want Something to Say.

It took a lot of chanting, a lot of shouting and marching, and even a long blue roadster to drive around the state, but finally women were being accepted as equal citizens.

Did it really take a blue car to win the vote? Well, cars were new on the roads in 1911 and they attracted attention, especially from men. Members of the College Equal Suffrage League used their “Blue Liner” open roadster to drive around the small towns and farms in the state. (Shades of Nancy Drew!) They attracted attention all right when they parked the car in the middle of town and stood up to address the men who gathered around to see the latest technology. They attracted attention and they changed people’s minds.

The suffragists were good at using technology. They quickly adopted the telephone, which made it possible to keep in touch with chapters all over the large state. The telephone saved hours of travel, lots of money, and made a statewide campaign possible.

There are many heroines who worked to help California women get the vote, none more effective than Selina Solomons, the founder of the Votes-for-Women Club in San Francisco. Selina recognized that the suffrage movement was being led largely by wealthy white women who gathered in private clubs. She determined to bring working women into the struggle, so she established a headquarters on Sutter Street in San Francisco, in the middle of the business district. The center provided a rest room and a reading room and served a five-cent lunch for the women who worked in stores and offices in the area. To keep the project solvent, Selina organized a men’s auxiliary, which required dues, and held a suffrage bazaar. Elaine Elinson describes the results of her efforts  in bringing together working women and society women, offering them literature about suffrage and organizing them to monitor the election held on October 10, 1911. Despite the drunkenness of some voters and even election officials, and some fraudulent voting in North Beach, the San Francisco vote was close and when the state vote came in, suffrage had won. The women celebrated “in both manly and womanly fashion, with handshaking and back-slapping, as well as hugging and kissing one another,” Selina wrote. She declared that “October 10, 1911 proved to be the greatest day in my life…”

The culminating triumphs of the campaign came on March 28, 1912, when women were allowed to register to vote and on May 14 when they were able to vote in a national presidential primary. This was the first time California women had a voice in national politics.

Were the women content now? Hardly. They were determined to move on to Washington DC and fight for the right of all women in the United States to vote. As they proclaimed in one of their campaign songs (sung to the tune of the Marseillaise):

On they come nor know retreating;

Eastward from the West they move,

Souls upon the Morning beating,

Womanhood made one in love.

Womanhood made one in love.

No more we bend the knee imploring,

No longer urge our cause with tears.

We have rent asunder binding fears,

We are women strong for women warring.

It was to take more years of demonstrating, educating, and struggling to get the job done, but the women of California joined others from across the country and finally won the right for all American women to vote. Now as full citizens, women were able to participate in the political life of the country and change the course of history. How many of us give thanks to these women as we cast our vote year after year? Perhaps we should

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