The Suffrage Stories Connected Through the Archives

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Topics: Library and Archives, Revealing Women in the Archives, Collections

By Victoria Bernal, Women in the Archives Social Media Manager

To celebrate the centennial of the 19th Amendment, the Autry launched a year-long campaign to draw attention to the women’s stories found in the archives (#ArchivingWomen). With the 100th anniversary upon us, this is a small sampling of suffrage stories spread throughout different archive collections, including collections found at the Autry.

In the book Contesting Archives: Finding Women in the Sources, Sherry Katz explained her process of having to “research around other subjects” in order to piece together the life of Frances Nacke Noel, a labor activist who led the Wage Earner’s Suffrage League (WESL) in Los Angeles. Noel only left behind two small manuscript archives while many of her peers left no public record of their efforts. Katz had to consult sources on broader topics in order to find enough traces of these radical women to reconfigure their lives and work. This idea of “researching around” resonates as one needs to research around topics in various archives in order to stitch together stories of suffrage in Los Angeles.

Caroline Severance, known as “the Mother of Women’s Clubs,” is one of the main characters in that story as her work threads through so women’s lives and suffrage moments. Severance was an early women’s rights activist before her move to Los Angeles and co-founder of the American Woman Suffrage Association. She arrived in Los Angeles in 1875 where she started the first women’s club in LA In the book Women in the Life of Southern California, Gloria Ricci Lothrop explained that Severance had a “long-range objective to nurture civic activism in women in an effort to further justify their claim to equal suffrage.” Women’s clubs initially focused on self-improvement but quickly became a vehicle for women to influence public policy and promote important civic reforms. The 1906 tribute book The Mother of Clubs: Caroline M. Seymour Severance: An Estimate and an Appreciation is a great compilation of her many speeches along with tributes from peers whose words leave a powerful record of her influence in Los Angeles and beyond.  A copy of this book is found in a number of libraries, including the Autry.

In 1891, Caroline Severance founded what became the city’s most popular women’s club, the Friday Morning Club. At its height in the 1920s, the organization provided social, cultural, intellectual, and political opportunities for its several thousand members. The organization vigorously campaigned for California suffrage in 1911, which prompted an Out West Magazine editorial to complain that “dry rot” had invaded the club due to its sole focus on “politics and suffrage.” Historic programs from the club, archived in a number of local institutions, show this wasn’t the case, like this Annual Bulletin (1910-1911) digitized by Scripps’ Ella Dennison Library.  Caroline Severance was 91 years old when Californians voted for women’s suffrage in 1911. Due to her age and decades of work in national, state and local suffrage campaigns, she was the “center of attention” on that 1911 election night. The next morning, the Los Angeles Herald reported that she was “probably the happiest woman in Los Angeles.” Severance credited women’s clubs for this suffrage success as she believed “Nothing is impossible for organized womanhood.” The Huntington Library has over 100 boxes of Caroline Severance’s papers, though her portrait and published biographies can be found in many local archives, including The Autry.


[MAIN IMAGE] Votes for Women sash, 1912-1920. Autry Museum; 2002.106.4

Votes for Women place card. Autry Museum; 2002.106.3  

Photo of Susan B. Anthony, Caroline M. Severance and Rebecca B. Spring, 1906. Autry Museum; P.36335

Lantern slide of the Friday Morning Club on Figueroa in Los Angeles, CA, early 1900s. Autry Museum; LS.12372

Photo of Mary Emily Foy, early 1900s. Autry Museum; P.32267

Cover of How we won the vote in California : a true story of the campaign of 1911 by Selina Solomons.  Autry Museum; EPH.979.4.109

Women's suffrage postcard, published by the Cargill Company, circa 1896-1910, Autry Museum; 2006.25.4

During the Progressive Era, women’s clubs flourished among LA’s middle and upper classes. In 1892, over 30 women’s clubs operated in Los Angeles. By the 1920s, that number grew to 172, according to the California Federation of Women’s Clubs (archived at UC Santa Cruz Special Collections). Clubs hosted salons about art, books, travel, science, and music. Club committees worked to solve social ills, preserve local landmarks, create healthier cities, help the war effort, and campaign for suffrage. Collections from of these clubs are can be found at the Autry and peppered throughout Southern California institutions. The Highland Park Ebell Club yearbooks along with the archive from The Assistance League, a woman’s group that started during WW1 as a Red Cross Shop. Occidental College’s Special Collections also has items from the Highland Park Ebell Club. All these club opportunities expanded the idea of how women could create change in their communities and expand and wield their political power.

A member of the Friday Morning Club, Mary Foy started her career as the Los Angeles Public Library’s first woman City Librarian and spent the rest of her career working in education and local politics. During California’s 1911 campaign, Foy served as vice president of the Political Equality League and secretary of the Votes for Women Club. A favorite speaker in the suffrage crowd, she did not shy away from creative displays in support of suffrage. The Autry’s Mary Emily Foy collection contains Jane Apostol’s 1996 profile of Foy, titled “Miss Los Angeles.” Apostol recounts a 1911 baseball game in Washington Park at which Foy helped manage a straw vote with an anti-suffrage representative. Both asked baseball fans to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on suffrage. Foy strategically sent a team of women into the crowd to distribute pro-suffrage literature. Ultimately the crowd ‘voted’ in favor of suffrage and even the Los Angeles Times, with its known anti-suffrage bias, acknowledged Foy as the “manager superb and the boss par excellence.”  A search on Mary Foy in Calisphere shows that archives and images related to her are found in at least ten different repositories.

Publisher of the California Eagle, Charlotta Bass was another clubwoman who also could have worn the title “Miss Los Angeles” for all her work in advocating for social justice across Los Angeles. According to the Women of the West archives now at the Autry, when Bass arrived in Los Angeles in 1910, she was pleased to join African American women who had been working for the right to vote since the 1890s. According to Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, in her book African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920, the Colored Women’s Club of Los Angeles was one of the early organizations that represented African American women in the west. Bass actively campaigned for voting and civil rights and fought against racial segregation in housing and work. She supported suffrage as well through her editorials in in the African American newspaper The California Eagle she founded with her husband. After her husband’s death, Bass is believed the first African American woman to own and run a newspaper. In 1952, Bass became the first African-American woman nominated for Vice President, as a candidate of the Progressive Party

Attempts to bring out lesser known stories can be seen in large scale projects like the Unladylike2020: Unsung Women Who Changed America one-hour documentary and short films  produced and directed by Charlotte Mangin and made available through the Public Broadcast System (PBS). This multimedia series features “courageous, little-known and diverse female trailblazers from the turn of the 20th century.” A feat that brought together hundreds of archival resources not only across Southern California, but from across the country. While small projects like this one-page Women’s Vote Centennial timeline by History Colorado reminds that some groups were still excluded and their struggle to earn the right to vote persisted beyond the passing of the 19th Amendment.

“Researching around” the topic of suffrage resources at the Autry and other archives inspires this historian’s inner-detective—finding, following and pulling at the threads of stories—even more of a challenge considering the reliance on digital archives during a global pandemic. Nonetheless, many institutions like the Autry are “archiving at home” and working to make their collections accessible so that in in 100 years future historians will have more to stitch together about the women in today’s movements.

Land Acknowledgment

The Autry Museum of American West acknowledges the Gabrielino/Tongva peoples as the traditional land caretakers of Tovaangar (the Los Angeles basin and So. Channel Islands). We recognize that the Autry Museum and its campuses are located on the traditional lands of Gabrielino/Tongva peoples and we pay our respects to the Honuukvetam (Ancestors), ‘Ahiihirom (Elders) and ‘Eyoohiinkem (our relatives/relations) past, present and emerging.

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