Hometown Heroes: Suffragists

Thursday, 27 Oct 2011, 5:42:00 AM

Susan Cloke

Susan Cloke, Columnist
Santa Monica Mirror Archives
Susan Cloke, Columnist

Meetings in public parks, speaking from makeshift platforms, using the media to get the word out - sound familiar? In 2011 it’s “Occupy Wall Street.” In 1911 it was “Votes for Women.” Different goals define each historical issue. The one constant is that, to change the status quo, people have to speak out in a major voice.

Ms. Magazine wrote about the California suffragists, “No one could say that suffrage supporters hadn’t tried, or become overconfident and quit too soon. During the year they had overcome rain and mud, then heat and dust on the state’s primitive roads to stage debates or give speeches to even the smallest, most remote audiences. They held giant rallies–one in Los Angeles on Sept. 30, 1911 was so well-attended that hundreds were turned away after 5,000 jammed Temple Auditorium and overflowed into Choral Hall. The suffrage effort had garnered support from labor, prominent citizens, newspapers and even a few politicians, and it had matched anti-suffragists ad for ad in the newspapers. On the day of the special election, supporters began assembling at 4 a.m. to go out and stand as near as the law allowed to each polling place to give out literature to the undecided. Cars flying “Votes for Women” pennants were kept busy all day carrying sympathetic voters–all men, of course–to the polls. They rode past many blocks on which there was almost a solid yellow line of suffrage banners hung from houses, telegraph and telephone poles, and anything else to which they could be nailed or tied.”

Celebrating the extraordinary work and the success of the California suffragists, the fact that California has elected women to every level of government and is represented in the United States Senate by Senator Diane Feinstein and Senator Barbara Boxer, more than 150 people filled the auditorium of the Santa Monica Bay Woman’s Club to honor the work of the past, to acknowledge the gift to us, and to think about our responsibility to the future.

Greeted by club members dressed as suffragists, and eating donuts with “Votes For Women” tags, an idea taken from photos of the 1911 rallies, the audience learned, from speeches by UCLA Professor Ellen DuBois, Librarian Virginia Elwood-Akers, and the Martha Wheelock and Jane Guthrie film, “California Women Win the Vote,” exactly how difficult it was, how much work it took, to pass the 1911 amendment to the California Constitution that made California the sixth state with women’s suffrage.

California was already ahead of the rest of the country on the issue of equality. In 1878 the California Constitution was amended, adding the following, contemporary-sounding language, “A person may not be disqualified from entering or pursuing a business, profession, vocation, or employment because of sex, race, creed, color, or national or ethnic origin.” (Article 1 Section 28); “No person shall be debarred admission to any department of the university on account of race, religion, ethnic heritage, or sex.” (Article 9). California women could go to the university and they could work, but they didn’t have the right to vote.

The 1911 election was a cliffhanger. It took several days for the vote to be tallied and victory to be declared. Initial returns had shown defeat, especially in San Francisco, and newspapers had headlined the defeat. In Los Angeles it passed by a narrow margin. According to Joanne Leavitt, President of the League of Women Voters of Santa Monica, the vote for suffrage in Santa Monica was 414 for and 361 against. The Evening Outlook, which had come out in favor of votes for women, took for itself the right of registering the first female voter in Santa Monica.

The California journalist and suffragist, Alice Park, in telling of the narrow victory, famously said on the day the final vote was tallied and the suffragists were victorious, “…. men stopped me on the street to congratulate me. Everybody seemed to approve…. No man can be found who voted no. They must have died the same day.”

The history of the Woman’s Clubs is intertwined with the story of suffrage. Originally started to provide women a place to learn and study as well as a place to participate in civic life, they became an essential part of the movement for women’s suffrage in America.

The Santa Monica Bay Woman’s Club was formed in 1905 and included Georgina Jones and other prominent Santa Monica women in their roster. Its first president, Elmira Stephens, is listed on the rosters of national committees organized to support suffrage. With help, in the form of a land donation from Santa Monica founder, Arcadia Bandini, the Santa Monica Woman’s Club purchased the 4th Street property and the Club is still in the same, now historic, building. Jessica Hankey, a current Woman’s Club member and officer, sees the Santa Monica Bay Woman’s Club as “a tremendous resource that has survived for over 100 years and is here now for the community.”

In the words of one of the SaMoHi students who attended the celebration, “What can we do at this point to get things moving toward full equality?”

And really, isn’t that the right question for each generation to ask?

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