October 10, 1911: A Suffrage Cliffhanger In California

 Sunday, October 10, marked the 99th anniversary of the winning vote for women’s suffrage in California. But as with all suffrage victories in the 20th century, this one was hard fought, and had a nail-biting finish.

When California voters had last cast their ballots on the question of suffrage in 1896, big-city politicians and the liquor industry–both afraid of women as voters–unleashed a last-minute “frenzy of opposition.” The vote from the San Francisco Bay Area was so large and so negative that nothing could override it. (Yes, San Francisco was not the progressive bastion that it is today.)

On election day in 1911, early exit polls by the Los Angeles Record were overwhelmingly positive, but veteran suffragists were cautious, remembering what had happened before. And by 11 p.m. that night, anti-suffragists were already declaring victory.

No one could say that suffrage supporters hadn’t tried, or become overconfident and quit too soon. During the year they had overcome rain and mud, then heat and dust on the state’s primitive roads to stage debates or give speeches to even the smallest, most remote audiences. They held giant rallies–one in Los Angeles on Sept. 30 was so well-attended that hundreds were turned away after 5,000 jammed Temple Auditorium and overflowed into Choral Hall. The suffrage effort had garnered support from labor, prominent citizens, newspapers and even a few politicians, and it had matched anti-suffragists ad for ad in the newspapers. On the day of the special election, supporters began assembling at 4 a.m. to go out and stand as near as the law allowed to each polling place to give out literature to the undecided. Cars flying “Votes for Women” pennants were kept busy all day carrying sympathetic voters–all men, of course–to the polls. They rode past many blocks on which there was almost a solid yellow line of suffrage banners hung from houses, telegraph and telephone poles, and anything else to which they could be nailed or tied.

The next morning, a Wednesday, the anti-suffrage Los Angeles Daily Times gleefully headlined “Suffrage Appears Lost,” while the San Francisco Chronicle was even more certain : “Woman Suffrage Amendment Defeated By 5000.” But while preparing for the worst, proponents still hoped for the best, even if it would take another year. Signature-gatherers hit the streets of San Francisco right away to help qualify a new ballot measure. Said one suffrage spokesperson, Mrs. H.F. Henshaw, to the Chronicle:

I don’t consider we are beaten because the vote does not seem to tally our way. It is really only the result of our first effort. We are not going to start over again, because we have never stopped. We are just always moving towards victory. I, for one, am delighted with the fine campaign we have made. It was a splendid piece of work, and if it has not brought victory today it is the brilliant beginning of another campaign which will surely bring victory at the next election, and that election will not be so far away.

But elections aren’t over until all the votes are counted. As rural votes results trickled in that day, the election began to look more like a cliffhanger than a disaster for women’s suffrage. A lot of ground had to be made up by small towns, farmers and ranchers, since only Berkeley in the Bay Area had voted for suffrage (by a margin of 656 ballots) while San Francisco had voted 62 percent against, delivering 13,559 more votes to the “No” side. In Southern California, Los Angeles went pro-suffrage, but only by a  margin of 1,787 votes (nearly 3,000 less than pro-suffrage forces had managed in 1896). The measure squeaked by in San Diego County, despite only one of the area’s 16 papers in favor.

Very early Thursday morning, with 79 percent of precincts reporting, the pro-suffrage deficit had shrunk to 808 votes. Just before 5 a.m., the trend was clear enough for a Los Angeles Tribune reporter to call feminist activist Katherine Philips Edson to inform, then interview her, about the impending victory. Minutes later she was ringing activists all over the county, as local suffragists began happily discarding plans for a grueling follow-up campaign.

Later that morning, with the outcome no longer in doubt, those who had labored so hard and long took a well-deserved break. They listened to victory speeches and telegrams of congratulations, danced, and sang choruses of everything from “Battle Hymn of the Republic” to “A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.” Finally, every activist had proof of something that’s as true on Election Day 2010 as it was on Election Day 1911: Individual efforts can make the difference between an exhilarating victory and a devastating defeat. By a margin of just 3,587 votes out of 246,487 cast–or about one vote per each of the state’s 3,121 precincts–California had become the sixth equal-suffrage state, doubling the number of women voters in the U.S., and giving new energy and confidence to suffragists nationwide.

Reproduction of poster from c. 1896-1910, from David Dismore’s collection.


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.