WOW Museum: The Struggle for Women's Suffrage


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1849-   California statehood.

1893-   State legislature approves suffrage for women; governor vetoes bill as unconstitutional.

1896-   Statewide referendum defeats suffrage.

1902-   Woman's Socialist Union founded.

1906-   The Yellow Ribbon suffrage newspaper founded.

1910-   Progressive Party submits suffrage issue to voters via referendum.

1911-   Male voters approve full women's suffrage.

Charlotta Spears Bass

Charlotta Spears Bass (1880-1969), California suffragist and journalist.
Los Angeles Public Library

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Charlotta Bass was a leading African American journalist, civil rights activist, and women's rights advocate throughout the twentieth century in Los Angeles, California. She was born in South Carolina in October 1880, where she grew up with her parents and ten siblings. Anxious to escape the racial restrictions of the Jim Crow South, Charlotta moved to Providence, Rhode Island, at age twenty to work for a small newspaper there. After ten years, she had become a skilled journalist but was suffering from ill health. Like so many other easterners during this time, Charlotta decided to move west to sunny California in 1910, where she believed her health would improve.

In just two short years, the ambitious and healthy Charlotta had taken over a local Los Angeles newspaper called the California Eagle. She soon married the paper's new editor, Joseph Bass. Together they built the California Eagle into the state's leading black newspaper. Charlotta quickly immersed herself into Los Angeles politics and was particularly impressed that African American women had lobbied for the right to vote since the 1890s. Shortly after her arrival, California women won the right to vote in 1911 by popular referendum. Bass believed that black women voters could be a powerful force for social change in her community. She worked with women's clubs, churches, and civil rights groups to register hundreds of African American voters in the 1912 state primary. She also joined the Woman's Suffrage Advocate, a statewide organization of blacks and whites to encourage women to use their newly won voting rights.

Joseph and Charlotta published weekly appeals in 1914 urging black men and women to register and vote in "every city, county, and state election." They endorsed candidates who supported civil rights laws ensuring equal access to restaurants, theaters, and public places. They also supported a white woman candidate for lieutenant governor of California, Helen K. Williams, who had been unfairly disqualified from the race because she was a woman. Charlotta denounced this blatant discrimination against women. The California Eagle promoted the national women's suffrage campaign as well, endorsing pro-suffrage candidates for president. Like many African Americans of their day, they remained loyal to the Republican Party, "the party of Lincoln."

Bass continued to run the newspaper after her husband's death in 1934. She remained a political activist and in 1945 ran an unsuccessful campaign for city council. She was the first black woman to attempt a seat in Los Angeles's government. Bass was outspoken against racism in the military and at home during World War II and was accused of "un-American activities" during the 1950s.

When the Progressive Party ran independent presidential candidate Henry Wallace in 1948, Bass was among the new party's founders. She traveled worldwide, speaking out against racial injustice and political intolerance. In 1952, she became the first African American woman to run for vice president, enthusiastically nominated by the Progressive Party. "Win or lose, we win by raising the issues," declared Bass from countless podiums across the nation.

At age eighty, she published her fascinating autobiography, Forty Years: Memoirs from the Pages of a Newspaper, in 1960. Peace, civil rights, and women's rights remained Bass's primary political causes until her death in Los Angeles in 1969.