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The Santa Monica Bay Women's Club Celebrates 100 Years of Suffrage  

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By Melonie Magruder
Lookout Staff

October 21, 2011 -- The Santa Monica Bay Women’s Club celebrated California women’s centennial of voting rights Thursday night with a decided air of victorious festivity.

California women exercise their rights.
Image courtesy of Santa Monica Bay Women's Club.

It was an appropriate venue - the club, which opened in 1905, joined with other women’s clubs throughout the state to drive the suffrage campaign forward in October of 1911.

California was not the first state to give women the right to vote – that would be Wyoming, as a territory in 1869 and a state in 1890. In fact, the U.S. lagged behind other countries in recognizing the fundamental right of women to participate in their democracy. New Zealand granted adult female citizens that right in 1893.

California was the most populous state to first recognize women’s voting rights, but the battle to get there was hard won. In her opening remarks, club member Renee Chanon – dressed as the silver-haired, prototypical suffragette Susan B. Anthony – spoke of the remarkable efforts by California women’s clubs to push their enfranchisement.

“These women organized and got it done 100 years ago,” ‘Anthony’ said. “And they did it without iPods, Facebook or Twitter!”

Just how organized those women were 100 years ago was detailed by the evening’s speakers.

Suffrage in California was opposed by a huge segment of society. The liquor industry vehemently opposed it, presumably because women would vote for prohibition more readily than men. Even the news agencies were against women voting. The Los Angeles Times once referred to Anthony as “that mischievous old maid.”

Ellen Dubois, professor of history at UCLA, spoke of 19th century efforts to enfranchise women, despite social disapprobation and endemic ballot-box manipulation.

“California women tried a couple of times before 1911,” Dubois said. “They even got a referendum passed (in 1893) that the governor vetoed. You think the Florida 2000 election had problems? We don’t know from corruption compared to then.”

The rise of the Progressive Party in the early 20th century was instrumental in women’s eventual success. They framed the question of women’s suffrage as one of “equal guardianship” by working women of society’s assets, championing bills that allowed women custody of children in divorces, demanded men financially support illegitimate children, promoted a minimum wage, and forbade child labor. When votes for women finally passed in 1911, it galvanized a national movement.

“We spurred the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920,” Dubois said.

Much of the core organizational activity for the suffrage vote began with women’s clubs, a social phenomenon that had exploded in the latter half of the 19th century, thanks in large part to Caroline Severence and her founding of the first women’s club in Los Angeles.

Author Virginia Elwood-Akers spoke at length about the subject of her latest biography on Severance.

“Caroline Severance was incredibly progressive for her era,” Elwood-Akers said. “Her motto was, ‘Nothing is impossible for organized womanhood.’”

Severance and her husband left the Presbyterian Church to found the first Unitarian Church in Los Angeles, with the embedded principal that civil rights cannot be denied a citizen because of the color of his skin. She also quickly founded the first women’s club in downtown L.A. (the building on Figueroa stands today). She then founded the Woman Suffrage League in 1900 at age 80.

The Severances promoted free kindergartens to help working women and formed the Women’s Cooperative Union, to help working-class women sell their products collectively. California women’s suffrage seemed the logical next step.

“The Los Angeles Women’s Club was very political,” Elwood-Akers said. “They marched against the Board of Education for firing 200 women teachers. They were instrumental in getting women to do what it took to succeed in 1911.”

After Elwood-Akers spoke, Martha Wheelock’s documentary “California Women Win the Vote,” was screened. It starkly presented the obstacles California women faced in their battle for voting rights.

In 1910, the Progressive Party submitted the suffrage issue to male voters via referendum. The governor approved it in early 1911, giving women about 10 months to make their case. A political messaging machine kicked into gear that would put today’s party politics to shame.

Women went door to door, encouraging their sisters to influence their husbands’ coming vote. They urged African-American women to lean on their men (who obtained voting rights through the 14th Amendment in 1868). They marched with banners. They plastered towns with billboards and secured endorsements from influential writers and politicians. They stamped their motto “Votes for Women” on everything from boxes of Shredded Wheat to seed packages. And they didn’t let up.

On voting day, October 10, 1911, they sent women out as poll watchers and chewed knuckles as the returns came in. In northern California, suffrage was so unpopular that the San Francisco Chronicle ran an early headline declaring the referendum defeated.

But as returns slowly trickled in over three days, the numbers changed. Women’s suffrage passed by 3,587 votes – less than one percent of the voting population.

When Severance cast her first vote for president in 1912, at age 92, she wrote her son, “Having had this experience, I think I will live a little longer. I feel like a girl again!”

Suffragette “Anthony” warned against complacency by today’s generation of women.

“The battle is far from over,” she said. “Women still earn only 70 cents to a man’s dollar. And we still hold only 90 seats out of 535 in Congress. Voting is our most treasured right. I urge you all to keep trying.”

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