Aunt Susan Meets the Rampant Suffragist of Crown Hill; Or, How Outside Agitators and Uppity Locals Conspired to Win SLO Women the Vote in 1896
Howard S. (Dick) Miller
South County Historical Society, Oct. 9, 2007
Copyright © 2007 by Howard S. Miller
I'll begin by telling you about the artifact that brought me here today, because the story of how and there I found it illustrates a couple of important principles of local history. The first is fairly obvious, and states that local events always make most sense in their broader context. The second seems at first counter-intuitive, and states that locally available sources are rarely sufficient to tell a local story. For lots of good reasons the best local stuff was often recorded only by outsiders and only preserved somewhere else.
I know about somewhere else because that's where I'm from. Compared to most of you I'm a newcomer to SLO history, and especially to SLO women's history. I became curious about the local distaff side when I noticed that except for the pioneering studies by Carol McPhee, Mary Morgan, Jean Hubbard, and most recently Loren Nicholson, SLO history has been pretty much like the rest of American history – overwhelmingly guy's history in both content and point of view. Here as elsewhere this warped perspective has overlooked half of our past, and as a result probably misconstrued much of the rest.
Since SLO women's history was a new field for me, I decided to take a cue from the archaeologists and dig an exploratory test trench. I recalled from general reading that Susan B. Anthony had spearheaded an unsuccessful California woman suffrage campaign in 1896, so I checked the SLO county election returns. There I discovered that while suffrage had lost state-wide by a narrow margin, it had passed in backwater SLO by 54%. The obvious question was how come? I didn't know the answer, and apart from election tallies and local newspaper accounts the local sources seemed pretty thin.
Then I also recalled that Anthony had been a compulsive scrap book keeper, and that her huge clipping ledgers had been microfilmed at the Library of Congress. On a hunch I borrowed the film on Interlibrary Loan, loaded the first reel, scrolled to the first frame, and there, chopped up and glued down on successive pages, was this remarkable broadside advertizing Susan B. Anthony's visit to San Luis Obispo more than a century ago. I reassembled it, like a jigsaw puzzle, in order to share it with you. It's likely the sole surviving copy, and encouraged me to think there might be other SLO suffrage treasures out there somewhere else.
The broader context of the SLO woman suffrage story takes us back in time and through space to Seneca Falls, New York, a small town near Syracuse. There in 1848 Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other like-minded reformers had gathered to demand recognition of women's full social, economic, and political rights. One of Stanton's ringing declarations declared “that it is the duty of women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.” By the early 1850s a Massachusetts Quaker temperance reformer, Susan B. Anthony, had joined the crusade and would remain its driving force until her death in 1906.
The Seneca Falls generation expected great things from the post-Civil War “Freedom” Amendments, but their liberating potential didn't pan out. Stanton and Anthony lobbied hard to delete the limiting word male from the proposed 14th Amendment, and when that failed they
lobbied even harder, again to no avail, to add the enabling word sex to the 15th. Success in either case would have settled the woman suffrage question once and for all. To make matters worse, a few years later the Supreme Court snatched back even the promise of federal redress when it ruled that while the 14th Amendment clearly made women citizens, it did not make them voters because suffrage was a state-granted privilege rather than a constitutional right.
Broken promises and dashed hoped energized the next half-century of suffrage reform. In 1878 a supportive California Senator, Aaron Sergeant, introduced an Anthony-drafted woman suffrage Amendment, but it languished in Congress until final passage in 1919. In the meantime suffrage activists focused on winning the vote one state at a time.
The largest number of late 19th century American women were neither as politically radical as some men feared, nor as complaisant as they sometimes seemed. Some were devoted suffragists, and more than we imagine were strident feminists, but legions chose instead to work for social and political rights more obliquely, through organizations with other stated goals. Notable examples were the Farmer's Alliance and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. Left-leaning rural reformers had always welcomed women as full participants because they saw disturbing parallels between a male monopoly over hearth and home, and a capitalist monopoly over banks and railroads.
By the 1890s the WCTU was by far the nation's largest and most potent women's organization. Its agenda was also far broader, and more radical, than the stereotype of hatchet-wielding old ladies in black bonnets trashing saloons. The WCTU pursued all reforms, suffrage included, related to what it termed “home protection,” because liquor seemed implicated in nearly every case of poverty, crime, vice, spousal and child abuse, desertion, divorce, and political corruption. The unofficial but operational WCTU slogan was “Do Everything.”
By 1895 women had von the vote in several western states, and there was mounting hope for California as well. Golden State suffragists had been seething since 1878, when Senator Sergeant's suffrage amendment had gotten nowhere, and when the framers of the revised state constitution had refused to delete the limiting word male from California's fundamental law.
California suffragists faced daunting problems: How to reach a widely scattered electorate; how to win support from the entrenched political parties; how to fund a state-wide campaign in the midst of a crushing depression; how to out-politic the well-heeled California wine and liquor lobby, dead-set against woman suffrage as the first step toward state wide prohibition.
But more than that: because the only people who could grant the vote were people who already had it, woman suffrage depended on mobilizing the menfolk. Outside agitators could inform and inspire and coordinate, but suffrage success ultimately depended on local women bringing local men to conviction. Suffrage politics was peculiarly domestic politics, involving the intimate persuasions of back fence and hearth and home, where the political met the personal face to face. More often than not it probably came down to bedroom pleadings and threats.
From 1894 onward California suffragists worked furiously to get the major parties on their side. The long-friendly Populists said yes. The long-hostile Democrats said no. State GOP delegates endorsed woman suffrage early-on, and after their '94 election victory honored their campaign pledge to put a woman suffrage constitutional amendment on the November 1896 allot. Their Amendment number 11 was a typical Golden State mix of high principles and low motives. The same paragraph that gave women the vote also denied it forever to persons born in China.
This odd paring of democratic idealism and xenophobia showed that women were not immune to the raging racism that permeated American life in the Gay Nineties. Many well-educated, native-born white woman suffragists bitterly resented that fact that former black slaves and only recently naturalized swarthy Eastern European male immigrants had more direct political clout than they.
The irony that a pro-woman vote could actually mask a pro-bigot vote cast an ambiguous shadow over the California suffrage campaign. A clipping that Anthony saved from an April 1896 Oakland suffrage paper caught the tone: “Many thousands of women in California pay taxes and are entitled to representation. At present they are placed in the category of Chinamen, criminals and idiots, so far as suffrage is concerned.... Think of an ignorant Dago, full of whisky and garlic,...staggering up to the polls to vote for the perpetuation of the saloon, and the most intelligent and refined woman denied the poor privilege of casting the vote for...the American home!”
California woman suffragists launched their statewide campaign at the May, 1895 San Francisco meeting of the California Woman's Congress, a spin-off from the Woman's Congress at the Chicago World's fair two years before. The Congress organizers hoped that the gathering would be “the indirect means of tossing the firebrand of suffrage into thousands of California homes.” They invited celebrity suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Anna Shaw as special guests. In following weeks committees formed while Anthony, Shaw, and other suffrage orators stumped the state. Anthony, though looking every one of her 76 years, promised to return in 1896 to serve as suffrage crusade commander in chief.
She returned the following March with a fully scripted battle plan and a paid staff of seasoned political operatives, all primed for what she promised would be a “red hot suffrage campaign.” First would come a cascade of overlapping two-day suffrage conventions in every California county, aimed at raising consciousness and sowing the seeds of local organization. Circuit-riding outside agitators would follow up, recruiting house-to-house canvassing committees in every precinct. Precinct canvassers and supportive neighbors and friends would finally coax – or drive – voting menfolk to the polls.
Meanwhile the suffrage press corps would court newspaper editorial endorsements and barrage local papers with feature stories and letters to the editor. Seasoned lobbyists, such as the WCTU's long-time political action director, Sarah Severance, would work Sacramento's smoke-filled rooms. And finally, a quartet of nationally famous suffrage orators, Elizabeth Yates, Anna Shaw, Harriet May Mills, and Anthony herself, would tag-team the statewide public lecture circuit.
Anthony's campaign was almost military – even Carl Roveian – in its strategic planning, centralized command and control structure, and disciplined lines of authority. Anthony's devoted co-workers called her Miss Anthony to her face but “Aunt Susan” behind her back, suggesting both their almost familial love and respect, and their recognition that she was a relentless taskmaster. A special feature of Anthony's campaign was an elaborate communications network that fed nearly weekly field reports to headquarters and to state and national journals such as the San Francisco-based WCTU California Ensign, and Boston's Woman's Journal. It's thanks to these reports from the California hustings, published far afield and nowhere preserved in Central Coast libraries, that we know much of what we know about mobilizing the woman vote in San Luis Obispo County.
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