Getting the vote was only part of the story

The California League of Women Voters has been celebrating the 100th anniversary of women in California winning the right to vote.  But women’s political involvement in California’s public life didn’t begin with suffrage, nor did it end there. In a program co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters of San Francisco and the Mechanics Institute a large audience heard more about the history of California women’s activism from the editors of the recent book California Women and Politics: From the Gold Rush to the Great Depression.

Have you ever wondered how the Spanish-speaking and Indian women of California reacted to the Bear Flag Revolt in 1846? Their men were unable to defend the land against the invading Americans under John C. Fremont, but several of the women left testimonials describing their feelings about the “rough looking desperados” who invaded their land. This book begins with a chapter on the women’s resistance—one of the first in a long line of political action by California women.

A few years later, starting in the 1850s, the “Lady Managers” of the women’s charity groups were responsible for most of the charitable work for women and children in San Francisco. In a time of ballooning population growth and a reluctance to pay taxes, private charities were vital to keep the city going. The women founded the San Francisco Ladies’ Protection and Relief Society (SFLP&RS) to help women left destitute by the death of male family members. Eventually they raised enough private money to establish the San Francisco Female Hospital and in 1860 set a precedent by going to the governor themselves to ask for state aid in supporting the facility. For the first time California women became directly involved in the political process without the help of male supporters.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, California women’s activism concentrated mainly on social services. The settlement movement began in 1894 after a visit to the Bay Area by Jane Addams, who had started Hull House in Chicago. Prominent men and women supported the settlement houses that worked to educate men and women, many of them immigrants, and prepare them for jobs in the state. Ties began to be forged between the labor unions and the settlement houses, both groups worked to outlaw child labor and to encourage employers to offer reasonable wages. The alliance between these two groups marked the first time that middle-class and working-class women had cooperated in political actions that led finally to the passage of the 1905 child labor law.

The earthquake and fire of 1906, devastated San Francisco and for a few years afterward, women, like other citizens, concentrated on relief and social services rather than political action. But years of engagement in civic concerns gradually led many women to believe that voting would give them added strength to make important changes. Suffrage efforts had declined after an attempt to win the vote for women failed in 1896, but during the first decade of the twentieth century efforts to revive the movement strengthened. California clubwomen led the effort and were soon joined by working women. Temperance leaders were no longer as active in the movement as they had been in 1896, and gradually a coalition of wealthy society women and determined union women brought about suffrage.

It’s a fascinating story and gaining the vote was only the beginning! To read more about it—pick up a copy of California Women and Politics: From the Gold Rush to the Great Depression at your local public library or bookstore.


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