Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine History Article January 2007.
Women’s Suffrage Movement
By Lauren Coodley
Elections change lives. Generally, we forget this important historical lesson. Fresh from the most recent election, with its consequences both locally and nationally, we might think again about Napa’s relationship to two critical elections in l896 and l9ll. In those elections, men of several races (though not the Chinese nor the Native American) voted on whether to allow women to vote. With their large populations, San Francisco and Los Angeles were the seats of the California Women’s Movement, which worked to achieve suffrage, also known as “votes for women.” Delegates to Women’s Suffrage meetings wore campaign badges of silky yellow, the official color of the suffrage movement.
The campaign for Women’s Suffrage traveled to Napa in 1896. Susan B. Anthony, who had begun her life as a Quaker temperance advocate, became an abolitionist (against slavery) and then began speaking for women’s rights after the Civil War, came to Napa County at the age of 76. The Napa Register reported that she spoke to enthusiastic crowds throughout our county.
Reporters described the local suffrage conference that was held a month after Anthony’s visit, on May 27 and 28 at the Opera House. Electa Burnell Hartson was elected President of the Political Equality Club. A Mrs. Tays spoke of the “injustice of the present situation.” A Mrs. Mills explained the purpose of the suffrage movement and her optimism about the California Ballot Measure. She believed that “the anti’s are in the minority in California; California has such excellent men; and the press in California favors equal suffrage.” A Mrs. Grant then spoke of examples of women throughout the world who had held political office and had made a difference. And finally, Mrs. B. F. Taylor concluded that, “We cannot claim that our Constitution is of the people, for the people and by the people when one half of them are disenfranchised.”
The next day, the Reverend Anna Howard Shaw spoke. Along with Susan B. Anthony, Shaw had been working to get the vote for women for more than forty years. Growing up as a homesteader in the Michigan woods, her first dream at the age of fourteen was to become a minister. Shaw became a teacher at the age of fifteen; by the end of the Civil War, she was earning the largest salary possible, $156 a year. There was a movement to license women to preach in the Methodist church; when she was 23 years old; the Presiding Elder in her district invited her to preach a sermon. Later, she was offered the chance to become a full time organizer for women’s suffrage. Eventually, as President of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association, she was sent to Napa.
But the Equal Suffrage ballot measure of 1896 failed by a large margin, due in part to lobbying by alcoholic beverage associations. “Considering the city’s powerful saloon and liquor interests; its population dominance in the state; and the myth that voting women would shut down the liquor lobby, it was no wonder that the 1896 Suffrage Amendment failed,” historian Mae Silver concludes. The 1896 measure also met defeat because the suffrage movement was in its infancy and suffrage activists neither had the propaganda skill, nor the resources to meet the demands of campaigning to such a large and diverse citizenry. The early amendment was little known and poorly understood by many people in California.
Several national suffrage leaders aided the state in their continuing efforts to win equal suffrage in California after the 1896 defeat. Susan B. Anthony came back to San Francisco in 1902 as the lead speaker of the annual convention of the Annual California Woman’s Suffrage Association. She was then 80 years old. Sadly, she died in1906 without seeing suffrage in this state, while Anna Howard Shaw lived long enough to see suffrage ratified into the American Constitution.
Between the years of 1896 and 1911, the suffrage campaign in California became an unstoppable force. By 1911 California suffragists had created a cross-class alliance of women from many walks of life throughout the state who worked tirelessly on the movement. Socialist women, temperance leaders, college-educated women, housewives and women who were involved with the organized labor movement came together in an unprecedented effort to gain the right to vote for women of the state. Waitresses in San Francisco, led by Louise Larue, head of Waitresses Local #48, organized the Wage Earner’s Suffrage League and brought working women together with college women to fight for suffrage. The College Equal Suffrage League campaigned in a special car named the Blue Liner, in which they toured California. Mae Silver says, “Trimmed like a pet horse, the car sported yellow streamers and was especially appealing to men.” We don’t have evidence yet on whether the Blue Liner came to Napa, but I think it is likely.
The state suffragists left no stone unturned in the state. They campaigned in the cities through public addresses, mass mailings of postcards, poster campaigns on billboards and in store windows, as well as through parades and dramatic productions put on in open-air venues. In rural parts of the state, suffragists often went from farm to farm, speaking to the locals about the importance of women’s right to vote. They hung fliers on every fence post that they came across announcing the need for woman suffrage. With unceasing energy California suffragists took their message to the citizens of the state.
Suffrage received press support from the San Francisco newspaper The Call, edited by John Spreckels, eldest son of the sugar millionaire Claus Spreckels (brother Adolph had a race horse farm in what is now the River Park Shopping Center). The Call declared its aggressive support for suffrage in August, 1911. After the October 10 election, both leading San Francisco papers, the Examiner and the Chronicle, declared suffrage defeated, but The Call reminded readers that the vote had not yet been counted. The Call predicted that suffrage would win with 4,000 votes; in the final tally, it won with 3,587 votes.
In gratitude for the suffrage victory, the College Equal Suffrage League wrote an “Ode to the Farmers Who Voted a Majority for Us:”
But from the strength of the hills
Men’s voices hailed us;
God bless our farmer-folk,
Scarce a man failed us!
Undoubtedly, some of those important votes came from the prune farmers of Napa, whose wives, daughters or sisters had attended that meeting in the Opera House in 1896.
We can imagine the dinner table conversations, held in the elegant houses still standing in Old Town Napa, during which the men of the family began to consider voting for the suffrage amendment. Perhaps a diary of one of the daughters exists in someone’s home, and we could find out exactly what was said. If you have it, please contact the Napa Historical Society, located back home in the Goodman Building.
Recommended reading and viewing: The Sixth Star by Mae Silver, Winning the Vote: The Triumph of the American Woman Suffrage Movement by Robert Cooney, and the HBO Film Iron Jawed Angels.