Cambria Men Just Said No, But Women Won the Vote Anyway

by Howard S. (Dick) Miller
Cambria University Women, September 19, 2011

I’d like to begin with some general comments on the practice of history, then broad brush how SLO women gained the vote, and finely close the story closer to home by telling you a little about Cambria’s first women voters.

The first comment concerns what history is not: it is not a list of dead dates and pat answers embalmed in a book. History is instead a lively and on-going conversation among the living about the role of the past in the present. You could describe it as a kind of shared ponder in process. History works on two levels of scale. Close-up history explores regions, communities, families, individuals, and episodes. Long-zoom history explores nation-states, continents, civilizations, and broad trends. Both kinds of history need each other. Close-up history always needs the perspective of broader context. Long-zoom history always needs local textures to make it live and to make us care. In the words of San Diego State historian David Gutierrez, “locals provide the passion to make the story relevant, outsiders provide the dispassion to make the story credible.”

The second comment is that too often history is, by default, guys’ history in both content and point of view. Historians traditionally have given women short shrift. The result has been a lop-sided, gender-biased history that has cheated us out of half our past, and in so doing probably has misconstrued the rest.

The third comment returns to the question of historical scale. The geographies of how big and how many always matter. At the last census SLO county had 270,000 people. Can anybody venture a guess at the SLO county population in, say, 1890? It was 16,000, which is just a little less than that of present-day Arroyo Grande. Today SLO city has 45,000 people; in 1890 it had less than 3,000, which made it not much bigger than Cayucos today. In 1890 Cambria had 288 residents; the surrounding San Simeon township had less than a thousand, which means that it was smaller then than, say, Shandon is now.

Too often we forget that turn of the 19th century Central Coast was a small and remote world of scattered ranches and a few villages spotted across a rugged landscape with no decent roads, few decent seaports, one narrow gauge railroad running south from SLO and a major one only recently arrived from the north. The county population density was two people per square mile, which put SLO squarely on the Census Bureau’s official frontier line marking the furthest edge of civilization. Getting to anywhere from anywhere under such frontier conditions was such a hassle that it those days local really meant LOCAL. People knew their neighbors intimately, but there was nothing like a county-wide consciousness or identity. County-wide cooperation on anything was rare. There was even serious talk of splitting the county into two at the Grade. SLO county then was even more balkanized than it is now.

I’m a relative newcomer to the Central Coast. I’d done a lot of both local and women’s history elsewhere, but I knew practically nothing about either in these parts, so I started to poke around. Woman suffrage is an intriguing historical topic in part because it turns on a fundamental irony: women wanted the vote, but only voters, i.e. men, could grant it.

I recalled from general reading that Susan B. Anthony had spearheaded a California woman suffrage campaign in 1896, so I thought it might be interesting to see how SLO men voted. To my surprise I discovered that while woman suffrage had lost state wide in 1896, in backwater SLO it had passed by 54%. I wondered how come. Nobody seemed to know.

Then I recalled that Anthony had been a compulsive scrapbook keeper. On a hunch and a hope I borrowed microfilm copies of her scrapbooks from the Library of Congress. I put the first reel on the reader, cranked to frame one, and there, chopped up and pasted on successive pages, was this remarkable poster. I reassembled it like a jigsaw puzzle in order to show it whole. The poster looked to me like the lead for a pretty good story.

The story of woman suffrage on the Central Coast began, as all American woman suffrage stories do, in Seneca Falls New York. There in 1848 the nation’s first woman’s rights convention issued the stirring declaration that “it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.” Several years later Susan B. Anthony, a Massachusetts temperance activist, joined the suffrage cause and remained its leading advocate until her death in 1906. Annual women’s rights conventions followed Seneca Falls until the Civil War temporarily swallowed up all other reforms.

Seneca Falls generation suffragists expected great things from the post-Civil War 14th and 15th amendments, but they didn’t pan out. Former male slaves got the vote but women didn’t. Then in 1875 the US Supreme Court further dashed women’s hopes by ruling that even under the 14th Amendment suffrage was a privilege granted by states, not a right guaranteed by the constitution. Women now realized that their only hope was to win the vote state-by-state until pressure for a federal constitutional amendment became too strong to resist.

Woman suffrage came early to California because the Seneca Falls generation was also the ’49er generation. The earliest suffragists on the Central Coast may well have been the Cambria physician, Dr. E. A. Clark, and his sister Mariah. Thanks to Clark Collahan’s recent book, we know something of their advocacy of women’s civil, social, and reproductive rights in the 1860s. What we don’t yet know is whether they influenced anyone else.

By the 1870s California suffragists were everywhere organizing and speaking out. In 1878 California Senator Aaron Sargent (in this context we really should call him Mr. Ellen C. Sargent) introduced a woman suffrage constitutional amendment in Congress. Actually phrased by Ellen Sargent’s friend Susan B. Anthony, it was reintroduced every year thereafter until ratification as the 19th Amendment in 1920. It simply stated that neither state nor federal voting rights could be “denied or abridged on account of sex.”

Organized woman suffrage efforts came to San Luis Obispo in two stages, both parts of the larger one-state-at-a-time national campaign. The first was a hopeful but false start in 1896, the second a foregone conclusion in 1911. What united the two was some continuity of campaigners, grass roots saturation politicking, and alliances between outside suffrage agitators and local pro-suffrage groups. Vital to SLO suffrage success were the rural SLO Farmer’s Alliance, the county-wide Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and town-based progressive women’s civic clubs.

By the early 1890s the Farmer’s Alliance and the WCTU were both well-established in SLO County. They were the only major county-wide organizations that welcomed women both as members and as officers. Each group gave women, especially otherwise isolated rural women, an institutional base, a social network, and a public platform. Memberships and leadership in the two often overlapped so that the women activists of both groups made up an informal interlocking directorate.

The woman’s clubs were just coming on the scene. In SLO they were largely offshoots of suffrage activism, especially in the case of the SLO Political Equality Club and its successors, the SLO Political Equality League, the SLO Civic Club, and the later Monday Club. Clubwomen suffragists were generally middle or upper-class townies, typically the daughters or wives of professional men or successful merchants, who shared a progressive commitment to woman’s empowerment as a necessary step toward good government reform and social improvement. Thanks to SLO City Historian Joe Carotenuti’s prodigious research we now know that the unlikely power brokers of women’s politics in early 20th century SLO were the predominately female Trustees of the Public Library.

The politically left-wing Alliance, like the Grangers and the Populists, favored woman suffrage from the outset because it was ideologically small-d democratic, and because rural radicals saw disturbing parallels between a male monopoly over hearth and home and a capitalist monopoly over banks and railroads.

WCTU activists came in all political flavors, but shared a focused social agenda. Today we tend to dismiss temperance reformers as crabby old ladies in black bonnets single-mindedly taking hatchets to saloons. But no less than Susan B. Anthony began as a temperance reformer. By the 1890s the WCTU was not only by far the nation’s largest women’s organization, but also the one with the most comprehensive women’s reform agenda and the only one with real clout to advance it. The WCTU was pro-suffrage because it was anti-alcohol, and it was anti-alcohol because it was pro-home: liquor seemed implicated in nearly every social ill that undermined the family, especially spousal and child abuse, divorce, desertion, poverty, and crime. If women could vote they would likely vote dry. From the mid-80s onward the California state WCTU’s brilliant chief political strategist, lobbyist, orator and grassroots organizer, Sarah Severance, constantly roamed the state starting suffrage brushfires. She was the first suffrage outside agitator to energize SLO suffragists.

The Cambria WCTU organized in 1884 with 11 founding members and 10 men in its informal male auxiliary. Margie Sanders was its founding Secretary. Margie’s daughter in law, Lena Sanders, became a first-time Cambria woman voter in 1912. Women’s activism often ran in families.

All the SLO Alliance women, WCTU women, and local clubwomen needed to become a potent political force was galvanizing leadership and a coordinated battle plan. The got both in 1896 .

By the mid-1890s several western states had granted women suffrage or were close to it. The Golden State was the next stepping stone toward a constitutional amendment. California suffragists launched their state-wide campaign at the 1895 meeting of a women’s congress in San Francisco, where Susan B. Anthony was a special guest and several SLO women were in the audience. In following weeks committees formed while Anthony and other suffrage spellbinders stumped the state. Still a Force of Nature at 76, Anthony agreed to return the next year to lead what she promised would be a “red hot suffrage campaign.”

She returned the following May with a fully scripted strategy and a paid staff of seasoned political operatives. First would come a cascade of suffrage conventions in every county to raise local consciousness and sow the seeds of local organization. Circuit-riding outside agitators would follow to organize every precinct. Precinct canvassers and supportive neighbors would in turn convince or coax or threaten voting menfolk to the polls.

Anthony’s hand-picked operative for San Luis Obispo, Kern, and Santa Barbara Counties was Harriet May Mills of Syracuse, New York, the closest big city to Seneca Falls. If Sarah Severance was a tough-minded, straight-talking politico with an acid wit, Mills was the picture of demure High Victorian Womanhood: well- educated, gentile, attractive, reassuring. When Mills and Elizabeth Yates, another Anthony operative, spoke in SLO she explained to her approving audience that “Miss Yates and I don’t wear bloomers and short hair. We are like other people. It doesn’t make us “new” women in the vulgar sense because we are suffrage lecturers.” Mills was, of course, the most subversive kind of New Woman: disarming but politically astute, a master organizer, and utterly tireless. For years she had run the entire New York State Woman Suffrage Association out of her home. Mills came by her activism naturally as a second generation suffragist daughter of radical abolitionist parents. They had picked her middle name to honor family friend Samuel J. May, a radical reformer male who in all probability was present at the 1848 woman’s rights convention in nearby Seneca Falls.

During the hot and dusty summer of ’96 Mills braved SLO’s wretched roads to visit not only every town and hamlet in the county, but also seemingly every social gathering of any kind, including campers tenting on the beach in Morro Bay and a group of captive hot tubbers at Sycamore Hot Spring.

Cambria suffragists had precinct committee already in place when Mills visited in early August. The admiring Cambria correspondent of the SLO Breeze reported that Mills had “converted two thirds of the male population to her way of thinking.” The reporter concluded that “a handsome woman can work wonders when she wills.”

SLO grassroots efforts culminated in Susan B. Anthony’s October 12 appearance in San Luis Obispo, where she held the sell-out crowd spellbound for an hour. To rousing cheers she concluded, “and to settle the matter . . . and have peace in the family, the men might as well vote ‘yes’ this time.”

As election day neared California suffragists realized that they had been had. The previously supportive Republican and Populist parties bailed, as did many influential newspaper editors. The long-ominously quiet nemesis of woman suffrage, the liquor lobby, now counter-attacked with a noisy anti-suffrage blitz that reframed the issue from a woman’s personal right to political power to a man’s personal right to drink. Saloon keepers in the Bay area mobilized their patrons to vote early and often. Since a third of all Californians lived in San Francisco and Alameda Counties, as the Bay Area went so went the state. Even though woman suffrage won in SLO it lost state-wide 55 to 44 percent.

Local election tallies showed that SLO suffrage politics turned almost entirely on the domestic persuasions of hearth and home, back fence and bedroom, where the political met the personal face to face. There were no significant correlations between how men voted on woman suffrage and how they voted on anything else. Nor did it seem to matter much where they lived. Arroyo Grande voted yes, as did San Miguel, Templeton, Morro and Nipomo. Paso Robles and SLO split about evenly. Cayucos and Santa Margarita voted no. Cambria men apparently backslid from their earlier reported conversions; almost three-quarters voted no.

Defeat crushed Anthony’s corps of outside agitators, who left the state within a few days, and appeared to scuttle organized local suffrage efforts for the next decade. But appearances were deceiving. The win the vote campaign continued, albeit quietly, under the banners of temperance and progressive clubwomanly good government reform. Local anti-Saloon League members joined forces with long-time WCTU and Alliance activists; San Luis and Paso Robles women’s clubs grew in size and influence. By 1911, when the women suffrage appeared once again on the California state-wide ballot, the wind appeared to have gone out of sexist sails. The hottest local campaign issue was not whether to give women the vote, but whether to shut down SLO saloons.

SLO 1911 county voting patterns mirrored those of 1896. Once again woman suffrage turned more on personal politics than party or state or national issues. Once again a majority of SLO men voted yes. Once again a majority of Cambria men just said no, though most Cambria men didn’t bother to vote at all. Either way, this time Cambria men didn’t matter because a majority of California men just said yes. The elated Cambria correspondent to the Breeze editorialized that men had lost one fight and were likely to lose another: “It looks very much as if it were up to the women to decide the saloon question, as it is very evident that they were not able to keep them out.” Within months nearly a third of Cambria registered voters were women.

So who were Cambria’s aspiring woman voters in 1912, the first national election in which they could participate? Where did they live? What did they do? Did the demography of scale in this very small place make it possible, even likely, that these women knew one another and strengthened each other’s resolve?

Thanks to the Great Register, the official list of registered voters in 1912, and the 1910 federal census, some of these questions have preliminary answers. Of the 259 registrants in the Cambria precinct, 80 were women. A 31% turnout wasn’t bad for first-time voters. Of the 80, we know enough about 72 to sketch an overview with some details.

Fortunately for us the Great Register, like the federal census, recorded personal information as individuals supplied it, so that their self-descriptions offer some clues to their own sense of self. As usual, the political precinct and census district borders didn’t quite match up, but they were close enough for present purposes. Cross-checking the register against the census makes it possible to identify Cambria’s first-time woman voters and know something of their biographies. From their own and their husband’s stated occupations we can infer a good deal about their economic and social status. Some of the patterns that emerge are not surprising; others may seem counter-intuitive.
About a third of Cambria’s first-time women voters were clearly farmers, more often dairy and stock ranchers than general farmers. About a third were townies who presumably lived in Cambria village. For about a third their place of residence was ambiguous.

Half the women were California-born; only 7 were foreign-born. All but 13 were married. The singles included several young women, several widows, and one divorcee. Their ages ranged from 19 to 75, with most between 30 and 35.

Like most Cambria men, the women registered overwhelmingly as Republicans. The exceptions were three Prohibitionists, ten Democrats, two Socialists, and a dozen who said that their Party affiliation wasn’t any of the Registrar’s business.

The suffragists’ own occupations and those of their husbands revealed a broad economic and social spectrum probably representative of the community as a whole. Although most women listed their occupations as either “housewife” or “none,” some stand-alone women ranchers proudly described themselves as a “Farm Woman.” As might be expected, the wives, widows, and daughters of bankers, merchants and “capitalists” – people who lived off investments – were well represented. But so were the wives of carpenters, blacksmiths, engineers, butchers, and other tradespeople. Surprisingly, so were the wives of teamsters and common laborers. One wonders whether Carmel Cantua, Clara Eubanks, and Bertha Gillespie were all suffragists, in part because they were friends in part because their husbands were all Cambria village blacksmiths. One wonders what else first-time voters Lizzie Galbraith and Emma Skaug, whose husbands were common laborers, might have had in common with Mary Ellen Soto and Neva Williams, whose husbands were teamsters.

So many questions…; so many local women still waiting to receive their just historical due. Obviously, more of us need to get involved in history’s ongoing conversation. For starters, I’d like you to use your historical imaginations to time-travel for a moment back to 1912. Picture Cambria village. Now picture the polling place on election day. Imagine two local suffragists chatting, possibly with their husbands in tow. One of them is Mamie Mitchell, the Socialist wife of a Socialist pick and shovel quicksilver miner. The other is Alice Rigdon, the Republican wife of the politically well-connected Republican mine owner. What do you suppose Mamie and Alice talked about as they stood in line, first-time ballots in hand?