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Centennial of Women's Vote in California is 2011: Berkeley Celebrations Planned

By Steven Finacom
Tuesday March 01, 2011 - 10:08:00 PM
A drawing in the Oakland Tribune in 1909 captured the spirit of the campaign for
            women’s votes—Equal Suffrage—in California, which would triumph in October, 1911.
A drawing in the Oakland Tribune in 1909 captured the spirit of the campaign for women’s votes—Equal Suffrage—in California, which would triumph in October, 1911.
Mary McHenry Keith, one of the Berkeley leaders of the Suffrage movement a century
            ago, was pictured in the same Tribune article.
Mary McHenry Keith, one of the Berkeley leaders of the Suffrage movement a century ago, was pictured in the same Tribune article.
For nine months in 1911 supporters of voting rights for women worked out of a
            campaign headquarters at 2515 Bancroft Way. The house stood on this site, just south of where
            Sproul Hall on the UC campus now rises.
Steven Finacom
For nine months in 1911 supporters of voting rights for women worked out of a campaign headquarters at 2515 Bancroft Way. The house stood on this site, just south of where Sproul Hall on the UC campus now rises.

In June of 1908, as Berkeley prepared to ceremonially lay the cornerstone of a new City Hall, a group of local women registered a protest. They weren’t against the building itself, but wanted to use the occasion bring attention to the cause of Women’s Suffrage, the campaign to achieve voting rights for women. 

California—and most of the United States—did not, at the time, grant women the vote. 

The Berkeley Political Equality League, under the leadership of Mary McHenry Keith, proposed placing a letter to the future in the cornerstone. 

“We…hereby commit the cause of Equal Suffrage for man and woman to the judgment of future generations, in the confidence that in after years whoever shall read these lines will wonder that so late as the year 1908 the women of California were political serfs; they were taxed without representation, governed without their consent, and classed under the law with idiots, insane persons, criminals, minors and other defective classes…We, about to die, greet you, the inheritors of a better age, men and women of the future Berkeley, equal before the law, enfranchised citizen; co-operating in all public service.” 

The all male Town Trustees ultimately looked askance at the proposal and the letter wasn’t included in the City Hall cornerstone. But this month, 103 years later, Berkeley’s early equal rights crusaders will finally have the last official say. 

On Tuesday, March 8, 2011, the Berkeley City Council will proclaim a resolution in that same City Hall commemorating the 100th anniversary of women winning the vote in California in 1911, calling it a “triumph that has been partially forgotten or ignored, and has for too long been denied its rightful place in the history of our state.” 

The resolution is sponsored by Susan Wengraf and Linda Maio, the two women who currently serve on the nine member City Council. 

How women won the vote in California will be a focus of both statewide and local celebration and educational activities over several months. Activities will climax in October, the anniversary of the October 10, 1911, statewide election when women won the right to votes by a narrow margin. 

Commemorative activities in Berkeley are being coordinated by a local committee, led by Phyllis Gale of the Berkeley Historical Society and Nancy Bickel of the Berkeley-Emeryville-Albany League of Women Voters, and including others from both groups, the American Association of University Women, and other interested organizations. 

Activities will include a costumed march of suffragists in the Solano Stroll and four exhibits (two on campus, one in the Central Berkeley Library, and one at the Berkeley Historical Society). The main exhibit, at the Berkeley Historical Center, will be paired with a day of celebration in Downtown Berkeley in October. Details are now being planned. 

The local League of Women Voters is celebrating a double anniversary. October 30, 2011 is the centennial of the formation of the organization, originally called the Berkeley Center of the California Civic League. 

Winning the vote in California was a long and arduous process for women and their male allies. A measure to amend the State Constitution had failed in the 1890s and it was more than a decade before the proposal got back on the official ballot. 

Amendment 8, to be voted on October 10, 1911, would win, but not without an enormous and exhausting campaign throughout the State and in Berkeley. 

Berkeley had a special place in the California Suffrage struggle since some of the prominent statewide leaders came from here and there was a vigorous, and successful, local campaign effort. 

And Berkeley—which was, in that era, still one of California’s five largest cities—was the only municipality in the Bay Area to vote for suffrage. 

The election arguments were passionate. “Women are equal to men intellectually. In fact, if we take the number of graduates from our schools and colleges, we must admit that they are farther advanced mentally”, wrote H.G. Cattrell, Speaker of the State Assembly, in an official ballot argument. 

“Women should not be subject to taxation without representation any more than men. ‘Consent of the governed’ means women as well as men…” 

“Suffrage is not a right”, countered J.B. Stanford, Chairman of the Democratic Caucus in the ballot argument against the amendment. “Politics is no place for a women consequently the privilege should not be granted to her.” 

“The mother’s influence is needed in the home. She can do little good by gadding the streets and neglecting her children”, Sanford went on. “The courageous, chivalrous, and manly men and the womanly women, the real mothers and home builders of the country, are opposed to this innovation in American political life.” 

“The men are able to run the government and take care of the woman. Do women have to vote in order to receive the protection of man?” Sanford argued. He asserted that in Colorado where woman had won the vote, the divorce rate and crime had increased. 

“Woman is woman. She can not unsex herself or change her sphere. Let her be content with her lot and perform those high duties intended for her by the Great Creator…” he concluded. 

The Suffragists saw it differently. 

“If the ballot was granted to women the men would not have quite as much liberty in the control of affairs. She would have something to say about the city government and things in general that pertain to the community in which she lives. I believe that the hand that rocks the cradle should rule the world,” Dr. Mary Plumb had said in the Oakland Tribune in 1909, as the next attempt at suffrage was heating up. 

And Sarah Shuey, a pioneering East Bay doctor from Berkeley, said at the same time, “Why do I believe in suffrage for women? Because I am a human being as well as a woman, and I believe in true democracy, and wish to get into the company of rational human beings before the law, and not to be classed with the idiots, imbeciles, the insane and criminals—because the city, State or nation is only a larger family, therefore it is inevitable that women should share in the responsibility for the normal development of the race.” 

Women and their male allies in the California Suffrage movement pursued a vigorous campaign in 1911. 

“There were posters and all kinds of designs” leaders of the national suffrage movement wrote in 1920 in a recap of their cause, “city circularizing of the most thorough kind in many languages; pageants, plays, concerts and public social function; the placarding of city bill boards over miles of country; advertising of every possible kind; huge electric and other signs; long weeks of automobile campaigning in the country and the villages; special speakers for all sorts of organizations; a handsome float in the labor day parade; speaking at vaudeville shows—there was no cessation of these eight months’ strenuous work.” 

Automobile campaigning seemed a particularly novel and effective form of making contact with rural voters. City women would drive out into the countryside and stop in a small town. Local men, who rarely got to see an automobile up close in that era, would gather ‘round to examine and admire the vehicle, and the women would seize the opportunity to speak to them about Suffrage. 

In Berkeley the City was divided into 35 districts and Mrs. Hester Harland headed up a campaign headquarters at 2515 Bancroft Way, just east of today’s Sproul Plaza. 

Campaign workers, primarily women and including many UC students, spread out through the City identifying sympathetic voters. They gave talks, speeches, and parades. Notable Berkeley leaders included Mary Keith—one of the first women to earn a law degree in California—and Mrs. Mary (Charles Crocker) Hall who lent her palatial home on Hillside Avenue for Suffrage events. 

“We secured every available hall and meeting place, large and small, and sometimes we were offered rooms in private homes for lectures”, Mrs. Harland later wrote. 

“This we planned ahead for eight months. At these places we had from our own Berkeley, San Francisco, and from other places far afield, the best and most brilliant speakers we could secure. For the last night of the campaign, we secured the Berkeley High School Auditorium, which was the largest meeting place in town, and this turned out to be a grand rally celebrating our victory when the returns came in.” 

Voters went to the polls on October 10, 1911. Thousands throughout the state worked all day to get male supporters to vote. Over 1,000 campaign staff volunteered in San Francisco alone. 

In Oakland there were 240 women who stood near polling places for 12 hours, canvassing for Suffrage and “this work was paralleled in Berkeley, Alameda and other places around the bay.” The Daily Californian reported that one hundred co-eds from the campus had joined the Election Day canvassing. 

Early election reports prematurely reported the demise of Amendment 8. But as later returns arrived in subsequent days, the balance tilted in favor of the measure. 

Big cities in California tended to go against suffrage. In San Francisco the amendment lost by 35,471 votes to 21,912; in Oakland, the loss was by 1,743 votes. Although Los Angeles voters approved suffrage by a very small margin, votes from rural counties made the real difference. And suffrage in California passed in 1911 by only 3,587 votes out of 246,487 cast. 

Berkeley Suffrage supporters, including Socialist Mayor J. Stitt Wilson, celebrated November 2, 1911. More than 500 gathered in the auditorium of Berkeley High School for a victory rally. 

"The recent campaign resulted in the grandest victory ever gained in any state”, Hester Harland told the crowd. “We are here tonight to celebrate this achievement of government, not by part of the people, but by all. We are here to celebrate the beginning, of a new era.” 

"Not many years ago it was not a pleasant thing to say that one was a suffragist,” said the Rev. Dr. Florence Buck of Alameda, "and any one who believed in the enfranchisement of women was ridiculed. But that time is past." 

She was right. It was a victory and the nationwide effect was electric. “With the winning of this old, wealthy and influential State the entire movement for women suffrage passed the crisis and victory in the remaining western States was sure to be a matter of a comparatively short time”, the women leaders would write in 1920. 

It would take another 8 years to get universal suffrage approved by Congress, and a year more to achieve sufficient State ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. 

By then, even suffrage opponents were mollified by the California results. In 1915 both houses of the California Legislature, which had seen bitter battles over Suffrage before 1911, approved a resolution that read: 

“Resolved, that so successful has been the operation and effect of granting political rights to women that it is generally conceded that, were the question to be again voted on by the people of this State, it would be re-endorsed by an overwhelming majority; and be it further resolved, that the adoption of woman suffrage by California is one of the important factors contributing to the marked political, social and industrial advancement made by our people in recent years.” 

The tangible local reward for winning the suffrage election came April 27, 1912. Voters went to the polls in a Berkeley election and, for the first time, the electorate fully included women. 

"Many of the most prominent women in Berkeley participated in the election, casting their ballots with womanly grace and with a skill equal to the masculine”, the Oakland Tribune reported in the afternoon. 

Many less prominent women—ordinary housewives, sales clerks, office workers, UC students—also went to the polls that day. The Tribune commented on the number of women—office workers and sales clerks, in particular—who voted early in the morning at polling stations along Shattuck Avenue before boarding the interurban trains for jobs in Oakland and San Francisco. 

The 1912 voter rolls show the extent of the change. Hester Harland lived on Union Street—essentially underneath Lower Sproul Plaza on the UC campus today—and the fruits of the victory she and her allies had won in Berkeley were apparent among her neighbors who were now voters. 

Among them were women who were teachers, nurses, bookkeepers, chambermaids, clerks, students, a “rooming house proprietor”, “research assistant” and lawyer, in addition to those who simply listed themselves as “housewife”, “housekeeper”, “widow” or “spinster”. 

And Harland herself was working that election as an election clerk for Precinct No. 28, with its polling place at Bancroft and Ellsworth, not far from her home and the home of Mrs. Keith. There were three women among the six staff assigned to that poll. 

It must have been a sweet experience helping to staff the locations where they were also now full participants, not simply on-lookers. 

The Proclamation Recognizing the 100thAnniversary of Women in California Winning the Right to Vote will be read and presented at the March 8th Berkeley City Council meeting. Ceremonial items are first on the agenda, at 7:00 pm. The Council Chambers are at 2134 Martin Luther King Way. 

For more information on the Statewide efforts visit California: 100 Years of Women Voting website, organized by the League of Women Voters. 



(The author is the First Vice President of the Berkeley Historical Society, and will be involved in organizing one of the commemorative exhibits on the UC Berkeley campus. He’ll write periodically through 2011 about the Suffrage Centennial plans and events.)