California and the 19th Amendment

State of California depicted in purple, white, and gold (colors of the National Woman’s Party suffrage flag) – indicating Colorado was one of the original 36 states to ratify the 19th Amendment. CC0
State of California depicted in purple, white, and gold (colors of the National Woman’s Party suffrage flag) – indicating California was one of the original 36 states to ratify the 19th Amendment.

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Beginning in mid-1800s, women began to come together to advocate for their rights. Many women knew that they had the same rights as men, yet the government prevented them from exercising these rights. As a result, women fought to have their rights recognized by the government at the state and national level.

One of the issues that united women was voting (or suffrage) rights. Some women wanted the federal government to recognize their right to vote by passing a constitutional amendment. Leaders like Susan B. Anthony proposed an amendment known as the 19th Amendment. If added to the Constitution, the federal government would have to recognize a woman’s right to vote all across the United States.

Other women felt they should focus on getting their state or territory to recognize their right to vote. Many women in California, for example, spent their energy on proposing suffrage bills to the state legislature. In 1893, the California legislature passed a bill recognizing women’s suffrage rights. But the governor vetoed the bill, and women were still without the vote. Three years later, California held a referendum on women’s suffrage. A referendum occurs when the people directly vote on an issue. Some voters were afraid that if California women voted, they would pass legislation banning the sale of alcohol. Known as temperance, this was a popular political issue of the day.

Annie Marshall Reid Rolph, wife of San Francisco Mayor James Rolph, casts her ballot. Library of Congress.
Annie Marshall Reid Rolph, wife of San Francisco Mayor James Rolph, casts her ballot.

Library of Congress, Bain Collection. https://www.loc.gov/item/2014691300/

In the early 1900s, women doubled their efforts to get the state to pass legislation recognizing their right to vote. Suffrage organizations formed in both northern and southern California. Women gave speeches, held rallies, and registered voters. When another referendum was held in 1911, the people of California narrowly voted in favor of recognizing a woman’s right to vote.

After gaining the vote, women started to run for political office. One such woman was Irene Burns, an educator who dedicated her life to teaching disabled children. Burns ran for the position of superintendent of schools and was elected the first women in Placer County to serve in this position.

Even though California women could now vote, they continued to push for national suffrage rights. In 1919, the US Congress finally voted in favor of the 19th Amendment. This is called ratification. After Congress ratified the 19th Amendment, at least 36 states needed to vote in favor of it for it to become law. On November 1, 1919, California ratified the 19th Amendment. By August of 1920, 36 states (including California) ratified the 19th Amendment, recognizing women’s suffrage rights across the United States.

State flag of California, CC0
State of California, CC0

Women in Califronia

Dozens of Indigenous tribes lived in California before the arrival of Europeans colonizers. Many of these tribes, such as the Maidu and Karok, were known for their basket weaving. Women belonging to these tribes were skilled artisans who told stories through the baskets.

From the 1500s on, people from many different countries settled in California. Europeans from countries like Spain and England colonized the region. Present-day California also belonged to Mexico until the 1840s. In the mid-1800s, Chinese immigrants and settlers from the eastern coast of the US migrated to California. As a result, there were women of all different backgrounds living in California. These women had their own cultures, customs, and languages.

Wagon train of women, men, and children, moving through the mountains on their way to California around 1850. Library of Congress.
Wagon train of women, men, and children, moving through the mountains on their way to California around 1850.

Library of Congress, American Women Collection. https://www.loc.gov/item/2002716775/

Those settling in the region often faced hardship. The journey to California alone could be perilous. In the 1700s, explorer Juan Bautista de Anza led a group of soldiers and colonists from Arizona to a settlement close to present-day Los Angeles. The group included Native American, European, and African women and children. Eight of these women were pregnant when they traversed mountains and deserts along this 1,200 mile path now known as the Anza Trail!

The California Gold Rush of the mid-1800s attracted settlers from the southern and eastern US and immigrants from China. Most immigrants were men as Chinese women were usually not permitted to travel alone. Some women did brave the journey and worked as entertainers or prostitutes once in California. In proceeding decades, the ratio of women to men became more balanced and Chinese immigrants established communities all across California including Locke Historic District and Hakone Historic District.

Women in San Francisco, CA, registering to vote. California adopted women's suffrage in Oct. 1911. Library of Congress.
Women in San Francisco, CA, registering to vote. California adopted women's suffrage in Oct. 1911.

Library of Congress, Bain Collection.
https://www.loc.gov/item/2014691302/

Around the time of the gold rush, an enslaved woman named Biddy Mason relocated to California. She was forced to walk thousands of miles with her three young children. As California was a free state, Mason challenged her enslaver for her freedom. On January 21, 1856, Los Angeles District Judge Benjamin Hayes approved Mason’s petition. The ruling freed Mason and thirteen members of her family. Mason established her own business as a midwife and nurse. She acquired enough money to purchase land in what is now Los Angeles. There she organized First A.M.E. Church, the oldest African American Church in the city. Mason used her wealth (estimated at $3 million) to become a philanthropist to the entire L.A. community.

In the 20th century, women in California banded together to advocate for their rights and to form communities. In addition to securing the right to vote in 1911, women established social clubs like the Women’s Improvement Club of Hueneme. Others like Agnes Richards sought to help and protect women who could not advocate for themselves. In the 1920s, Richards founded Rockhaven Sanitarium, one of the first women-owned and operated sanitariums in the country. Rockhaven offered a peaceful, home-like setting that functioned more as a community than a hospital.

From the basket artisans of the Maidu and Karok to the shipyard workers of World War II, California has many stories of courageous and resilient women. As we discover their stories, we come to find that women’s history is California history.

Last updated: September 4, 2018