Today in Feminist History: Suffragists Shake off California Loss and Look to Future of Amendment (October 11, 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 11, 1911: Suffragists in California, as elsewhere, have always mixed optimism with determination and practicality.

So, while there are still glimmers of hope being expressed that what even pro-suffrage newspapers are calling yesterday’s “defeat” of the woman suffrage amendment may be turned around by as yet unreported rural votes, more attention is being given to plans for our 1912 campaign than to gloom over this year’s effort. Within hours of the “Initiative, Referendum and Recall” measure rolling up an insurmountable lead and being declared to have won, suffrage supporters were on the streets of San Francisco gathering signatures to put “Votes for Women” on the ballot again next year.

According to Gail Laughlin, who came here from Colorado to help the campaign:

“The women of San Francisco have started a petition today, under the initiative and referendum, and will make our new fight in 1912. In this next battle the women will do what they did not have time to do before – thoroughly organize the precincts of San Francisco, for it was San Francisco that lost us the fight. We can never win this battle for the women of California as long as we allow San Francisco to steal our votes …

“If there is anything that shows the need of woman suffrage it is the way in which the election was conducted in San Francisco. In various sections of the city the election officers were intoxicated and unfit for duty. Disfigured ballots were permitted to pass, and some of the workers reported that ballots for the cause had been thrown out. I think the defeat of the amendment in this city may be attributed to ‘bought votes’ and corruption and throughout the State the sense of injustice of California men. Still the fight is not yet lost, and although we are disappointed we will still continue to strive for the cause of equal rights for all.”

Despite the shock of last night, when the first results began to come in from the North and grim reality quickly displaced confident predictions of victory, suffragists at the Los Angeles headquarters of the Political Equality League today were not at all ready to give up on making California the sixth suffrage State, or even on the recent campaign.

According to Mrs. A.S. Lobinger:

“The victory for direct legislation is a virtual victory for suffrage. Eventually we shall win and the day is not far distant. The movement could not die now if the women tried to make it. We shall go straight onward. We will go straight forward with the work of education and never stop until we win the ballot, and I am not sure that we have lost even this election.”

Looking back on this year’s effort, Eliza Tupper Wilkes seemed pleased with what had been accomplished:

“It is worth all the cost whether we lose or win. I want the vote for the education of the people and this campaign has opened minds that will never again be closed. The women are roused and that is the vital thing. We shall keep up the organization and we shall study civil government so we will be prepared to take up the new duty of suffrage, for I regard it as a duty and not as a privilege.”

The College Equal Suffrage League has issued the following statement:

“The fate of the woman suffrage amendment is still in doubt. Beaten or victorious, the woman suffrage forces are a united phalanx ready and eager to take up the fight – in defeat, for justice and self-government for the women of California, in victory, for civic betterment throughout the State. If the final returns show defeat at this election, they will only mark the beginning of a new campaign which will end in victory. We have learned the weak points in our attack on the interests opposed. We know our enemies. Hereafter we will fight them in the open without fear or favor. There will be no fifteen years interval between this campaign and the next. The adoption of the initiative and referendum has provided us with an opportunity for bringing the suffrage question to the immediate issue in this State, an opportunity of which we will avail ourselves at once.”

Though obliged to report the unpleasant news of the suffrage amendment’s apparent fate, the papers that favored it have not lessened their support in the least. The Los Angeles Record made that clear today:

“It was the gum-shoe campaign of the old machine politicians that defeated suffrage, and next time we will all know how to make a better fight against such methods. If the ‘antis’ have the slightest idea that we, who are in favor of equal suffrage, are in the slightest degree discouraged by Tuesday’s vote, they will find themselves badly mistaken. We are merely aroused to make a harder fight next time.”

But late this evening there is renewed hope. The 9,913 vote margin against suffrage that seemed to seal its doom – mostly due to early returns from big cities – has now been reduced to 3,922 as the tallies from the rural districts finally begin to arrive. There are still 1,078 precincts—about half the State’s total—still unreported, so only a four vote margin in each would be enough to turn defeat into victory.

It looks like another long night ahead, but at least there’s the expectation of a definitive result some time tomorrow. And despite the newspapers strewn around suffrage offices tonight with headlines such as “WOMAN SUFFRAGE AMENDMENT DEFEATED BY 5,000” and “SUFFRAGE DEFEATED BY ADVERSE VOTE IN SAN FRANCISCO,” there’s still the possibility of a stunning, come-from-behind win if those intrepid suffrage advocates who went to even the smallest and remotest towns, farms and ranches succeeded in winning their listeners to our cause.


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.