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

by Howard S. (Dick) Miller
South County Historical Society, Oct. 9, 2007

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 advertising 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.

n 1896 San Luis Obispo County was the literal American frontier. The total population of 16,000 put the county squarely at the two person per square mile density the census bureau had recently defined as the boundary between civilization and wilderness. The male-heavy population ratio typical of frontier communities had been shifting here for decades, however, so that in the ‘90s SLO was edging ever closer to a 50/50 balance of men and women.

The old mission town county seat then boasted a well-established regional narrow-gauge railroad, the recently arrived Southern Pacific, a commercial port at Avila Bay, but only 3000 people – which made it about the same size as Cayucos today. The next-biggest towns were Paso Robles, population about a thousand, and Arroyo Grande, with about half that number. The other country hamlets were smaller still. Roughly a third of the county population lived above the Cuesta Grade in what locals called “North County,” about a quarter below the grade in “South County,” and the rest in an around San Luis Obispo city or westward to the coast.

Balkanized by rough terrain, bad roads, history and habit, SLO voters were hard to reach and all but impossible to organize. Save for the Farmer’s Alliance, the WCTU, the Odd Fellows and a few other county-wide organizations, there weren’t many established social networks to bridge ingrained provincialisms. Any project that required North Countians, South Countians, and SLO cityfolk to meet in the same place at the same time for the same purpose was likely to fail. There was even serious talk in ‘96 of splitting the county into two at the grade. The genius of Aunt Susan’s outsider-directed but insider-realized suffrage campaign was that it did not require county-wide gatherings. All it needed was a latent community of interest that outsiders could focus and mobilize.

Before the mid-90s SLO activist women had channeled their public efforts almost entirely through left wing agrarian politics and temperance reform, especially though the Farmer’s Alliance and the WCTU. Both well-entrenched in North and South County, the two provided the homegrown foundations on which Anthony’s outside agitators built their local suffrage campaign. The WCTU sponsored the initial county-wide suffrage convention in May of ‘96, which in turn spawned the first San Luis city suffrage organization, the Political Equality Club. The latter, the Alliance, and the WCTU promoted suffrage meetings and precinct canvasses throughout the summer and fall, building momentum toward Anthony’s celebrity appearance in October. By election time over eighty SLO county residents had become sufficiently active in the cause to leave some trace in the public record. More than a third lived in or near Arroyo Grande.

SLO suffragists were a mixed lot. San Luis city activists tended to be the wives and daughters of upper middle class county seat business and civic leaders who naturally gravitated toward the woman’s clubby Political Equality Club. North, South, and coastal county suffragists were more widely spread along the economic and social scale. They were as likely to be farmers and townies, were generally more radical than their city sisters, and more often than not had been long-time Alliance agitators and WCTU crusaders. A telling number of both town and country suffragists were the uppity daughters of uppity mothers. Openly supportive SLO menfolk were everywhere few and far between, and most often left-wing Alliancemen or liberal clergy, attorneys, and journalists. Notable exceptions were the SLO drayman William Sandercock, and Arroyo Grande hotel keeper Joel Apsey.

SLO county journalists provided generally supportive news coverage and editorial endorsement. Early-on the radical Alliance paper, The Reasoner, and the Paso Robles Record added woman suffrage to their regular coverage of Alliance and WCTU affairs. SLO’s Tribune and the Breeze became enthusiastic backers, perhaps in part because both editors’ wives and one of their daughters were founding members of the Political Equality Club.

The most ardent paper of all – and the only one in the county that could be described as proto-feminist rather than merely pro-suffragist, was the Arroyo Grande Herald, co-edited by Stephen Clevenger and his wife May. Stephen was perhaps the ablest journal in the county. May had served as President of the county WCTU.

The Herald both led and reflected local opinion. South County had long been the hot spot of SLO suffrage. In 1892 the Nipomo WCTU chapter had staged an elaborate theatrical farce titled “In the Year 1900; or, Shall We Allow Men to Vote?” Shortly after Anthony launched her statewide ‘96 campaign, defiantly Bloomered women appeared on Arroyo Grande streets, and before it was over Arroyo Grande high school girls Edith Carpenter and Claudia Eddy were giving rousing suffrage speeches in local public halls. The Clevenger’s Herald serialized women’s right essays by Tennessee Clafin Cooke, sister of the notorious Victoria Woodhull, and in October published a hard hitting special suffrage issue guest edited by a committee of local women. One especially notable Herald piece, probably contributed by Clara Paulding, was an account of a fictional coffee klatch conversation between characters named Mrs. Moderation, The Rampant Suffragist, The Conservative Lady, the Dutiful Wife, and The Woman Who Had Never Thought About it.

SLO was fertile ground for outside agitators Sarah Severance and Harriet May Mills. The county had long been a regular stop on Severance’s statewide WCTU political circuit. Mills, a newcomer to California, was Anthony’s hand-picked operative for San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties. Both were upstate New Yorkers born near Seneca Falls, in 1836 and 1857 respectively, and both embodied its reformist spirit. Both women first became teachers, and later, full-time political operatives constantly on the road, married only to their cause.

Severance came West in the 1860s to teach at a San Jose academy, then founded her own girls seminary in nearby Gilroy and threw herself into Santa Clara Valley civic and social reform. In 1886 the California State WCTU appointed her the organization’s chief political strategist and lobbyist, a position she held for the next twenty years. Severance would be the first outside suffrage agitator to speak in SLO during the run-up to the 1896 general election.

Sarah Severance was a tough-minded politico with an acid wit and little patience with reactionary men. Her admirers described her variously as “the Gladstone of the WCTU,” and “Sarah the Sarcastic.” She wrote the most remarkable campaign document of the ‘96 suffrage crusade, a satirical play titled Extra Session of [the] California Legislature. It dramatized a fictional all-female Sacramento legislature debating the question of whether or not men deserved the vote. Severance drew her character’s lines from the daily journals of the actual all-male California assembly. Gender-bent, of course, their anti-suffrage arguments sounded absurd.

Mills, in contrast, was gentile and unconfrontational, though no less politically astute. She previously had perfected grass roots suffrage organizing techniques in Syracuse, and had written a brilliant how-to-do-it manual for the New York State Suffrage Association. Mills brought tactical experience, people skills, and tireless energy to her Central Coast assignment. During a grueling two week period over the summer, for example, she braved scorching heat and wretched roads to visit inland Santa Margarita, Paso Robles, Adelaide, Shandon, San Miguel, Templeton, Creston, and Estrella, as well as the coastal villages from Cambria to Pismo Beach. No crowd escaped her, whether a village hall sociable, a tent city of campers on the beach at Morro Bay, or a group of hot tubbers taking the waters at Sycamore Mineral Springs. May’s field notes, published in far-away Boston, remain remarkably perceptive but sadly under-utilized descriptions of Central Coast culture.


Susan B. Anthony’s eagerly-awaited October 12 appearance in San Luis Obispo was a grand affair. Organizers hired the largest hall in town, installed special lighting, and got out the broadsides. People came in from the surrounding area, including a contingent from Arroyo Grande. Thought gaunt and exhausted after weeks on the road, Aunt Susan nevertheless confirmed her reputation as a Force of Nature, holding the standing room only crowd spellbound for more than an hour. To rousing cheers she concluded, “and to settle the matter once and have piece in the family, the men might as well vote ‘yes’ this time.” She was scheduled to travel by steamer the next day to Santa Barbara, but somehow Joel Apsey and other South County admirers convinced her to take the narrow gauge south instead so she could make a whistle stop appearance at the Arroyo Grande station.

As election day approached the suffragists realized they’d been had. The Populists and Democrats ran a fusion ticket, the price of which was Democrat insistence that the Populists withdraw their suffrage support. The GOP, fearing that the prospect of voting women would spook McKinley men, repudiated their own suffrage amendment. Several initially supportive big city newspapers went silent or joined the opposition. Meanwhile the political dirty tricksters were at work. State election officials renumbered the suffrage amendment from 11 to 6, sure to confuse some pro-suffrage voters, and placed it either at the beginning or end of the ballot, where anti-suffrage men could more easily find it. The long-ominously quiet liquor lobby now launched a noisy anti-suffrage blitz, especially in populous San Francisco and Alameda counties, where it mobilized saloon patrons to vote early and often. Platoons of prostitutes hired for the occasion paraded through fashionable San Francisco neighborhoods waving yellow suffrage banners and singing bawdy parodies of suffrage songs. Since the two bay area counties contained a third of the state population, the odds were that as they went so would woman suffrage.

On November 3rd California men rejected woman suffrage 55 to 44 percent. The anti-suffrage plurality came overwhelmingly from San Francisco and East Bay urban precincts, and from rough and tumble Gold Country counties. Sarah Severance’s assessment was typically incisive: “What defeated us?” she asked. “Greed, liquor, lust, and ignorance….It looks as if we had been traded for McKinley…. California ought to teach women better than to put faith in politicians. Our work should be with the voters, each woman making a few unbelievers her especial mission.”

Severance might have added that for all her strategic brilliance, Aunt Susan had misread California political demographics. By 1896 the state was already more urban than rural. Only a few over half the counties had populations larger than 1% of the state total, whereas more than half of all Californians lived in the five most urbanized regions – the Bay area, the Santa Clara valley, Fresno, and Los Angeles. The simple fact was that women had to win the cities to win the vote. However effective, pro-suffrage campaigning in rural counties such as San Luis Obispo did not carry much weight state-wide. The outcome was close enough that relatively more emphasis on urban rather than rural politicking might well have won the day.

Converting unbelievers face-to-face had worked best in rural and small town settings, especially in central and southern California. Unlikely Tulare and Alpine Counties voted for suffrage two to one, the highest pluralities in the state. San Luis Obispo County men approved by 54%. SLO returns confirmed that suffrage politics was far more personal and partisan, and not obviously patterned. The turn-out was pretty good; nearly 80% of the SLO men who voted at all expressed themselves on the suffrage issue. But there were no significant correlations between how they voted on woman suffrage and how they voted on anything or anyone else. Where they voted was equally unrevealing. Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo split about evenly, and smaller village votes defied easy explanation: Cambria and Cayucos no, Morro and Nipomo yes; Santa Margarita no, San Miguel and Templeton yes. As one might have expected, Arroyo Grande men voted strongly pro-suffrage – though a local outbreak of nasty anti-Chinese agitation during the summer of ‘96 makes it hard to judge their deepest motivations.

Defeat crushed the campaigners. The state woman suffrage convention, long scheduled to be a victory celebration the day after the election, turned into a wake. Anthony and her crew left California within a few days. Except for ongoing WCTU efforts organized woman suffrage floundered in the state for nearly a decade. In 1910 the crusade revived and finally succeeded, appropriately enough with Anti-Saloon League backing and the aged but redoubtable Sarah Severance as honorary chair.

In October 1911 voter registration rolls opened to California women. At least twenty of the SLO suffragists of ‘96 still living in the county triumphantly signed up to vote in their first national election. One was Martha Frick, Paso Robles Alliancewoman and WCTU stalwart.

Another was Clara Paulding, the probable Rampant Suffragist of Crown Hill. A third was Kate Cox, a founding Vice President of the SLO Political Equality Club, a long-time investor in Arroyo Grande real estate, and still feisty at 76, who listed her party as Democrat, and her occupation as capitalist.