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The Emergence and Development of the California Women's Movement, 18801911
By Gayle Gullett
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2000 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
The Politics of Women's Work: Building the California Women's Movement, 1880–93
In the 1870s a few extraordinary pioneers for women's rights entered California's political arena, demanding women's enfranchisement. They based their demand on a fundamental principle: fathers and husbands should not vote for women; women must speak for themselves. The suffragists envisioned that women, with the gain of citizenship, would become a powerful force that could greatly improve women's position in society. Yet despite the hours these women spent organizing the suffrage movement, it remained small. Most women saw themselves as living private lives and did not see a relationship between angers many felt about their lives and the demand for the vote.
Although women lacked enthusiasm for the vote, they did develop a public role. During the 1870s women in San Francisco and Los Angeles built public institutions, such as philanthropic organizations that managed urban social welfare services. But the women who created these associations understood them as extensions of women's private domestic responsibilities and not as a challenge to their lives or duties. Just as the woman in the home, supported financially by her husband, created a place of moral influence, so women in charities created places of morality that depended upon male support. These women differentiated between women's role in public service and the role of women in electoral politics. The first was an extension of their domestic lives. The second was the realm of men.
In the 1880s women's organizations developed new ways of thinking about the relationship between women's work and politics. Organized women worried that they were losing their traditional ability to influence national morality through their work in the home, church, and community because of forces they called the "factory," the "city," and the "immigrant." Women turned to politics as a means to bolster their moral guardianship and thus advance themselves as a group; with this understanding they campaigned for, among other things, prohibition, women members on school boards, and a "pure," or nonsensational, press.
Women did not initially call their efforts political, which they understood as male partisan endeavors that were sectarian and opportunistic and, more often than not, corrupt. Organized women felt more comfortable labeling their political campaigns as women's work, a term that evoked for them the traditions of womanly service and obligation. When organized women spoke, as they commonly did, of "advancing women's work," they referred to their work in the home, volunteer work for churches and charities, paid work, and the work of civic activism. Women created an elastic and holistic definition that expanded their work and enhanced their power. When women did this, they were acting politically.
The Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) pioneered in arguing that politics could facilitate women's traditional task of providing moral influence. For WCTU women this meant lobbying for temperance legislation in order to protect the home from the ravages of male alcoholism. Club women, college-educated women, and professional women followed the WCTU's example of using politics for "home protection." Generally, they became involved in school elections, actions that they justified in terms of women's traditional work, their familial responsibilities.
Women's clubs and women's professional groups focused much of their attention on women's paid labor. They were influenced by the rising number of women attending college and the growing number of women who were entering the paid labor force. During the mid- to late 1880s club women in San Francisco and Los Angeles created institutions that sought to aid working-class wage-earning women as workers and protect them as women from public dangers. The club women who led these institutions—and thus worked both as moral guardians and as public servants—spoke of women's right to work and how women themselves, if united, could expand women's opportunities. During this period college-educated and/or professionally skilled middle-class women organized specifically to advance their employment opportunities, which were also linked to the dual concerns of moral service and professional development.
As women expanded their work, they built a new identity for themselves as women citizens. Their claim to public moral authority marked—and limited—them as a different kind of citizen than men; women were still confined to a moral sphere, albeit a more public one. But women's activism as moral guardians also aided their entrance into politics. Women argued that they could provide what men did not and what the women contended an industrial society needed in order to achieve true progress—an ethical nonpartisan public voice that spoke for women and children. By assuming such civic duties, through women's organizations that they controlled, directed, and staffed, women declared themselves citizens; they were performing independent work that sustained the Republic.
A social movement emerges when individuals and organizations form a collectivity, but this is not a process that necessarily runs in a smooth uninterrupted line. Women entered campaigns that were lost, formed groups that disintegrated; much of their story is therefore episodic. But women who engaged in this process developed a new consciousness about themselves; they began seeing themselves part of a movement they called organized womanhood. This label reflected their traditional belief that all women shared the womanly concerns of home and morality as well as their newly gained insight—that they could organize and gain strength from each other. Slowly, many began to feel that such power made them citizens.
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In January 1870 a group of women met in San Francisco to unite the scattered suffrage societies in the northern part of the state into the first state suffrage society. As Laura de Force Gordon told a reporter, "When questions were put to the meeting not more than a dozen timid voices could be heard saying 'aye,' or 'no.'" She urged the women to "open their mouths and vote audibly." To do otherwise, she declared, would discredit the women's movement. The audience cheered and thereafter "unequivocal demonstration of voices were made" at each vote. Gordon's confidence reflected her years on the lecture circuit. Born in 1838, she toured the eastern states during the early 1860s, speaking for spiritualism, a popular movement on the left of religious liberalism. After moving west with her physician husband in 1867, she continued to speak publicly but dedicated more of her lectures to women's rights.
Gordon belonged to a small but vigorous national band of women that included Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and was creating a women's movement. Gordon made several crucial contributions to the early western suffrage movement. She delivered the first suffrage speech in California, at San Francisco in 1868. She spent countless hours and miles touring California and other western states for suffrage in the early 1870s. Most of all, she brought to the movement a militant individualism, a deep belief in everyone's natural rights. Soon after that first San Francisco speech, she presented her perspective on the national debate about citizenship as the nation considered what should be the legal status of ex-slaves during the post–Civil War years. "Let the Constitutions of the several States be amended," she demanded, "so that white and black, red and yellow, of both sexes, can exercise their civil rights."
California suffragists split into two factions, which they labeled "radical" (those linked to the Stanton-Anthony National Woman Suffrage Association) and "conservative" (Henry Blackwell's and Lucy Stone's American Woman Suffrage Association); nonetheless, the California women hoped that their divisions would become a source of strength. As separate groups, each could recruit from their constituencies. Although this could have occurred, it did not. Instead, the 1870s movement failed to grow. This occurred both in California and nationally, more because politics grew conservative as the nation retreated from its Reconstruction promises of equal rights than because suffragists were split internally.
Those divisions, however, fueled by a disheartening decline in popular support, quickly became very bitter and very public. The local press accused California radicals, such as Gordon, of promoting socially dangerous free thinking; according to the San Francisco Chronicle in 1872, they supported socialism, spiritualism, and free love. Within a year conservative suffragists used the same paper to publicly charge a suffragist, Emily Pitts Stevens, with "free love"—which she and other radicals denied. Nonetheless, the conservatives purged her from the movement and soon thereafter the suffrage organ that Pitts Stevens edited, the Pioneer, died.
Suffragists achieved a significant legislative victory in the early 1870s through the work of San Jose suffragists. In 1874 Sarah Louise Knox Goodrich and other San Jose women persuaded the state legislature to pass a law that allowed women to hold educational offices, such as seats on school boards. Knox Goodrich, a wealthy and politically well-connected woman, whom scholar Barbara Babcock characterizes as "maternal, sweet and very tough," served as leader of the San Jose society, which had an impressive two hundred members. Her first husband, William J. Knox, a physician, town booster, and state senator, secured a bill aiding married women's property rights shortly before his death in 1867; a few years later she married Levi Goodrich, a prominent architect, and thereafter used both names.
All the California suffragists supported the educational office bill because all shared with Knox Goodrich the belief that their struggle for women's citizenship was also a fight to increase women's opportunity to engage in public work, from civic activism to paid labor. Knox Goodrich explained that women sought the ballot in order to be "acknowledged as citizens, respected as citizens, accorded the same rights and privileges as other citizens, and given the same chance to earn an honest living."
Suffragists gained victories in other areas as well. In 1878 Gordon and Clara Shortridge Foltz, another suffragist committed to radical individualism, successfully lobbied the state legislature for the Woman Lawyer's Bill. It changed the state requirement to practice law from "white male" to "person." The state suffrage movement aided and supported their efforts, but the work and the victory were mostly theirs. Approximately a year later the state constitutional convention, meeting in Sacramento, approved two clauses key to women's rights; one protected women's right to work and the other their right to higher education. The two women wrote the first clause and lobbied for it.
Despite these efforts and largely because of the growing conservatism of the Gilded Age, the state suffrage movement disintegrated in the 1880s. Although individuals and local societies continued to call for the vote, they did so in increasing isolation as the organizational and communication links that once held the movement together fell apart. As early as 1878 California suffragist Mary Snow reported that there was not "the same amount of activity in the movement as formerly." She observed that only "counties and individuals" gathered petitions; the state society did not. In 1886 a suffragist reported to the American Woman Suffrage Association that no state suffrage association existed; however, Foltz and Gordon continued a society affiliated with the National Woman Suffrage Association.
Los Angeles suffragist Elizabeth Anne Kingsbury toured California in 1887 to determine the condition of the state suffrage movement. A spiritualist and abolitionist, she had worked for suffrage in the East since 1856. She moved west in 1883, and in the spring of 1884 she formed the Los Angeles Woman's Suffrage Association. After her trip up and down California, Kingsbury announced that she had failed to find a single "earnest suffragist" in San Francisco and that Knox Goodrich was "discouraged regarding organized effort." Kingsbury used the columns of the Woman's Journal, a national organ of the suffrage movement, to plaintively inquire, "Is our little suffrage club of Los Angeles with seventeen members the only one in the state?"
As suffrage receded, women's temperance activism increased. Suffragists appraised this shift differently. Knox Goodrich complained in 1882 that "there is not as much interest taken in suffrage work directly as I would like to see, a great many of our old workers having gone off into other channels, such as temperance work." She conceded that "it may be that these will all lead to suffrage in the end," but she was "too impatient to secure the ballot to be even interested in any side issues." For her, temperance represented a retreat from women's struggle for citizenship.
Other suffragists, however, saw the WCTU as a vehicle to promote women's issues. The radical suffragist Pitts Stevens became a leader within the WCTU. As historian Nancy Yamane notes, the WCTU provided Pitts Stevens with a "safe refuge" from personal assaults. Temperance women entered politics as Christians on a crusade to protect the home; such women were not necessarily popular in fashionable society, but their moral reputations were beyond attack. Pitts Stevens developed a regional reputation as a noted temperance orator and writer. Because she watched the temperance movement as it eventually embraced suffrage, she no doubt perceived the WCTU as a powerful resource for the women's movement.
The WCTU served as a retreat, refuge, and resource for suffragists. Its greatest strength and weakness came from its contradictory combination of contained militancy—temperance women entered politics to protect women's place in the family. This focus represented a retreat from the suffragists' struggle to expand rights for women in and out of the family. Temperance women defended the homes of white, native-born, Protestant Americans, which won them much support and shelter from public attack. On the other hand, the WCTU argued that women could best guard the family by developing a politically powerful women's organization, so powerful that it could change laws. Not surprisingly, women who did this successfully rather quickly developed new definitions of womanhood, women's work, and politics that contrasted sharply with their defense of the status quo.
The WCTU developed into a resource for another reason—Frances Willard, the charismatic leader of the national WCTU. She became president in 1879 and soon transformed the small timid organization chiefly concerned with persuading individuals to support prohibition into the largest women's civic (or political) organization in the United States during the 1880s. By 1890, 150,000 women belonged to the WCTU, whereas only 13,000 were members of the national suffrage organization, which at that point was the National American Woman Suffrage Association (the separate groups had merged). Nationally, the suffrage movement remained, as in California, a small group of women clustered around extraordinary individuals. But Willard built an exceptionally well-organized movement with ten times as many members.
Willard rallied women when she asked them to enter politics for home protection—to shield themselves and their children from alcoholic husbands and fathers. Her request evoked two deeply emotional images for the white, native-born, Protestant women, neither rich nor poor, who formed the bulk of the WCTU's membership: the wife, brutalized by a raging alcoholic husband, and the home, a place where women's moral influence transformed husbands into saintly men. Willard's call for home protection criticized male failure in the home and informed women that if they wished to continue as the moral guardians of the home, they must organize, enter politics, and lobby for temperance legislation. As a group they could develop the power they needed to transform America. To quote Willard—whose power rested at least in part on her ability to create such effective political slogans—home protection was "For God and Home and Native Land."
California women, encouraged by Willard, formed a state WCTU in 1879; they started with fewer than two hundred members. (Initially, one organization covered the entire state, but in 1884 southern California women formed a separate group.) At the first state convention in 1880, they made the national slogan of "Home Protection" their own. They declared in their constitution that because the "woman is and always has been the greatest sufferer from this vice [alcoholism], which invades her home, and destroys her loved one," they would therefore "covenant with one another in a sacred and enduring compact against the wicked sale of alcoholic stimulants." In particular, they pledged to "work for such a change in those laws as will give us power to reclaim the fallen" and to create "a high moral and religious sentiment in favor of total abstinence."
When the California WCTU pledged to change laws and develop public opinion to defend the home, it did so for the values that supported Protestant homes. At the heart of WCTU members' political strategy stood their commitment to coercive Christianity. If they could not persuade people to be temperate and religiously observant, they would legislate this behavior. At their first convention they promised to work for state-imposed prohibition and to pass laws to "protect the [Christian] Sabbath as a day of rest and worship"; through the years, the women would continue these efforts.
Excerpted from Becoming Citizens by Gayle Gullett. Copyright © 2000 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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