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.

California: Women work for wages, votes, and visibility

A woman's first vote California's contentious political climate brought both great disappointments and remarkable victories for women rights. Early success came in 1893 when a women's suffrage bill won approval in the state legislature, but it was vetoed by the governor who thought it was unconstitutional. In 1896, suffragists took the issue straight to the California voters for a statewide referendum. Although Populists, Prohibitionists, Republicans and unions joined a formidable women's alliance to promote the measure, it was defeated by a sizeable majority. Many blamed the vocal liquor industry and the Democratic Party for the defeat.

Factory Workers Again, disappointment turned to resolve. White middle-class women's clubs, unions, church groups, black self-help groups, temperance groups, and Socialists all incorporated the suffrage issue into their day-to-day grassroots community work. They believed that if women could vote, they could clean up dirty politics and cure social ills like child labor, prostitution and poverty. Disfranchisement became a powerful symbol that unified women from all walks of life.

Working-class women and Socialists broadened the suffrage coalition in California, especially in urban areas. Many political movements flourished in the state in the early 1900s, searching for a more egalitarian society. Women voters, many hoped, would help bring economic and political justice to a state controlled by wealthy corporations. The Women's Socialist Union of California was formed in 1902. Another ally was the Woman's International Union Label League, which championed women's protective legislation, unionization and suffrage. Mainstream suffragists in the California Equal Suffrage Association came to depend upon Socialist organizers and working-class participation in the cause.

Maud Younger Leaders who could bridge economic and racial divides, like Maud Younger, made California's formidable suffrage alliance possible. Copies of Younger's pamphlet "Why Wage-Earning Women Should Vote" appeared in doorways, union halls and public rallies. Katherine Reed Balentine founded The Yellow Ribbon, a statewide suffrage newspaper in 1906. Charlotta Spears Bass published pro-suffrage editorials from Los Angeles in the state's largest African American newspaper, the California Eagle. In early 1911, these leaders organized a huge statewide Cooperative Council to coordinate all the activity toward passage of a suffrage amendment at the polls. Visibility was the first priority in the council's winning plan: Flamboyant parades and rallies, electric street signs, door-to-door canvassing, street speeches, plays, pageants and press coverage reached every voter in the state from San Diego to Sacramento.

Equal Pay Wage-earning women attracted attention. Waitresses, laundry workers, factory workers, fruit pickers and teachers were especially visible in California's suffrage campaign in 1910-11. On Labor Day, Maud Younger sat in the driver's seat of the San Francisco Wage-Earners' Suffrage League's prizewinning float drawn by six black horses and covered with yellow streamers. Workers' wagons rolled past as thousands cheered in San Diego's Labor Day parade, bearing signs for equal pay for equal work as well as women's right to vote.

Charlotta Spears Bass Flyers and leaflets spread the appeal far and wide. Workers even distributed suffrage leaflets in Spanish, Italian, German and Yiddish to attract immigrant worker support from both men and women. Consistent with California racial politics, however, Chinese workers were shunned by movement leaders who feared a white backlash if Asians were embraced.

The eyes of the nation were on California in 1911, when male voters flocked to the polls to approve women's right to vote by a wide margin in the statewide referendum. It was the sixth and largest state so far to approve women's suffrage in the United States.