Today in Feminist History: Suffrage Momentum is Stronger Than Ever! (October 12, 1911)

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.


October 12, 1911: A grueling, non-stop, all-out California suffrage campaign, followed by a 35-hour roller-coaster of emotions as partial returns slowly came in after the polls closed, finally ended just before 5 o’clock this morning.

A sixth star being sewn on the suffrage flag.

Katherine Phillips Edson was telephoned by a reporter for the Los Angeles Tribune at that early hour, and her morning—as well as California’s new era—began when the reporter asked for her reaction to his paper’s new and final projection that the suffrage referendum would pass after all! The farmers, ranchers and small-town voters were finally getting their ballots reported, and they had rescued woman suffrage from what would otherwise have been a crushing defeat at the hands of a big city political machine, liquor interests, organized vice and a well-financed propaganda campaign by anti-suffragists.

Within a half hour, Edson had called many of her fellow suffrage workers, passing the good word as far away as San Bernardino and Pomona, so that the victorious campaigners could come to Choral Hall in Los Angeles as soon as possible for a hastily arranged celebration.

The atmosphere in the Hall today was the total opposite of what it was at various suffrage groups’ headquarters yesterday. On Wednesday, exhausted suffrage advocates were being pummeled with gloomy bulletins and headlines: “SUFFRAGE APPEARS LOST,” gloated the anti-suffrage Los Angeles Daily Times. Our workers were telling reporters of their determination to wait until the last vote was counted, then forging ahead with a 1912 campaign if necessary. But today the headlines and bulletins were quite reassuring: “SAFE MAJORITY NOW IS ASSURED FOR WOMAN SUFFRAGE” was the gleeful news in the Los Angeles Express. Each new update provoked cheers as it was read to those present.

The Hall rang with songs sung loudly, from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” to “There’ll Be A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” often with improvised lyrics to match the occasion. Even the eldest of the celebrants could be seen taking a few turns on the dance floor, though one white-haired veteran of the struggle was so overcome with emotion after so many years of working for the vote that she was unable to address the crowd when it was her turn to speak, and she simply embraced others who had also done so much for the cause.

Plans for the 1912 campaign, so earnestly begun yesterday in case there had been no reversal of the anti-suffrage majority, were unceremoniously tossed in the trash, and quickly replaced by new plans for encouraging and facilitating the registration of women voters in time for the December 5th city elections in Los Angeles, Santa Monica and Long Beach. At least one suffrage group has already made the switch official, issuing this statement today:

“The Political Equality League will maintain its organization for the political good of the women of Los Angeles. The leaders feel they have got the women into politics and therefore they wish to do all in their power to make women intelligent citizens. For this reason, we will keep headquarters open where the women may come for information and literature, and where we can hold open, non-partisan meetings for the discussion of issues as necessity arises. It might be called a women’s forum. There will be no change in officers of the league.”

Western Union has certainly profited by the suffrage win. Large numbers of telegrams have been sent and received all day. Among the messages was one from Reverend Anna Howard Shaw, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association:

“Our hearts rejoice with you. Your victory ours. Jubilee meeting in Cooper Union Friday night.”

The vote deficit we needed to overcome, which at one time stood at nearly 10,000, was cut to 3,922 by late last evening. During the night it rapidly shrunk into triple digits, and because the overwhelming majority of still-unreported returns were from locations thought to be quite favorable to suffrage, it was in the hours before dawn that the papers made their revised predictions of victory. They got it right this time, and as of 2:15 this afternoon, the suffrage referendum was already ahead by 1,041 votes with the upward surge showing no signs of slowing down. Individual victory statements have been coming all day. Mrs. Berthold Baruch said:

“I know just how happy I am, because I was so unhappy yesterday. What a difference between Wednesday and Thursday mornings. I am not only happy for myself over the turn of affairs but for my husband. He has been my staunch ally and best friend in all the fight and I never in my life realized how much I loved him until he stood beside me in the suffrage struggle.

“All day Tuesday he acted as my chauffeur getting voters to the polls. When we thought we had lost I think he was a little ashamed of it as some of the ‘antis’ crowed over him. They could not realize that it took a high grade of manhood to fight for what was in some high places an unpopular cause. Now it is his time to crow and mine to rejoice, to rejoice in my freedom and the freedom of my sex …. Yes, I am happy; I believe I was never so happy in all my life.”

Back East, Harriot Stanton Blatch said:

“We are gloriously happy over the victory in California, because we feel that the vote for the amendment in that State will have an influence on the voters in Oregon next year. When we have won Oregon we shall have the Pacific Coast solid.”

Total victory is still at least 40 campaigns in 40 States away—unless the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, banning sex discrimination at the polls in all 46 States, plus all U.S. Territories, can be passed by Congress and ratified. But those other battles are still far enough in the future that today can be spent celebrating, and reflecting on what was accomplished in day before yesterday’s election.

California’s victory has changed things in many ways. For instance, in next year’s Presidential election women will be a factor, as they now have full voting rights in States that cast 37 of the 266 Electoral Votes needed to constitute a majority of the total of 531. And in one of the richest ironies of the campaign, the largest city in the U.S. in which women can vote is now San Francisco. It went nearly two-to-one against suffrage and delivered an almost unbeatable 13,500 more votes to the opposition than to proponents in an election that the latest projections say will be won by somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 votes, or about one vote for each of the State’s 3,121 precincts.

Though many Californians were drawn into the suffrage struggle only for the purpose of winning the right to vote in their home State, others who worked for the cause will take what they’ve learned here and use it in other campaigns. There will be a suffrage parade in Newark, New Jersey, just 13 days from now, and plans are being made for efforts in as many as six States in 1912, with Wisconsin, Ohio, Kansas and Oregon being specially targeted.

But whichever one the seventh suffrage State may turn out to be, it can’t eclipse the significance of what the sixth one did, nearly doubling the number of women voters in the United States. Today’s win also means the long drought that began after winning Idaho in 1896 and which lasted until the win in Washington State in 1910, during which time there were few referenda and no victories, is now ancient history. The momentum lost for so many years is now back stronger than ever, with final victory now much closer than it could ever have been imagined just yesterday.


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About

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.