Today in Feminist History: The California Victory (October 13, 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 13, 1911: It’s only the second time in the past 15 years that the National American Woman Suffrage Association (N.A.W.S.A.) has been able to celebrate winning “Votes for Women” in a new State, so it made the most of the California victory with a mass meeting at New York City’s Cooper Union tonight. 

From today’s Los Angeles Express, showing an anti-suffragist being overwhelmed by California’s pro-suffrage vote and exclaiming: “H-m-m-m ! There must have been some argument I overlooked.”

The program was quite elaborate, with special electrical effects, and salutes to individuals ranging from Abraham Lincoln to Emmeline Pankhurst. Since it was only yesterday that what looked like a crushing defeat on Tuesday night, October 10th, turned into a one-vote-per-precinct margin of victory when the rural ballots were finally tallied, it’s quite amazing that such a spectacle could be put together on such short notice. 

A large blue banner hung in the background of the platform with a portrait of Abraham Lincoln surrounded by six stars representing the six of the forty-six States in which women now have equal suffrage, and a quote attributed to him which said: “I go for all sharing the privileges of the Government who assist in bearing its burdens, by no means excluding women.” All the numerous and prominent women on the platform wore brand new six-star “Votes for Women” buttons, items that proved quite popular when offered for sale to the audience members. 

Reverend Anna Howard Shaw, president of N.A.W.S.A., took the stage to open the meeting, saying: “Fellow citizens, there has never been an occasion in the world when women had so great occasion for rejoicing.” She then introduced young Portia Willis, who said: “Ladies and gentlemen, I am glad to present to you the sixth star.” At that point, an enormous star composed of electric lights lit up, the band played, the audience cheered, and then sang “The New America,” a suffrage song that dates back to a N.A.W.S.A. convention in 1891. 

Ida Husted Harper found great enthusiasm when she presented a resolution calling on the New York Legislature to give the voters of the Empire State the same chance to vote on a suffrage referendum as those in the Golden State just had – and give the women here the same chance to make their case for suffrage to the men of New York.

Isaac Stevens, of Colorado, who had been working in California earlier in the campaign, was brimming with confidence, and told the audience that if the New York Legislature wouldn’t put a suffrage referendum on the ballot, suffrage supporters would just skip the whole “State-by-State” process and work on getting the Susan B. Anthony Amendment passed by Congress and ratified by the States so that sex discrimination at the polls would be banned nationwide all at once. It was a short, but effective speech, much to the relief of some in the audience after the band played “We Won’t Go Home ‘Till Morning” as he walked on stage. 

Harriot Stanton Blatch, daughter of the late Elizabeth Cady Stanton, took a militantly political approach, a tactic that could prove effective now that the number of women voters is almost twice what it was just three days ago. “Where is President Taft?” she asked.

The President has said some things that are unpopular with suffrage leaders, and though he appears to be rethinking his stance this week, Blatch had some of his statements reprinted on leaflets which she thinks ought to “fall like snowflakes” around the country next year if he and the Republican Party do not give sufficient support to our cause. The leaflets might be especially effective in the six Western States where women have the ballot, and these States have 37 Electoral Votes between them, which Taft will want next year if he runs for re-election.

The biggest surprise of the evening was the attendance of British militant Emmeline Pankhurst. She arrived in New York day before yesterday, and when she unexpectedly showed up at the meeting to add her congratulations, she was given a huge ovation by the crowd as the band played “Hail, the Conquering Hero.” There is a temporary lull in activities in England as Parliament is about to vote on a bill that would enfranchise married women on the same basis as their husbands. It would be a major step forward, though by no means the end of the fight for equal suffrage for all British women even if it passes. She said of the California victory: “The news is worthy of great rejoicing. English women will be particularly glad, because it will be a very great help to our campaign.”

New York suffrage groups played a role in the California campaign. The Woman Suffrage Party raised $2,000, plus a $500 contribution given to them by General Herbert Carpenter. The money enabled them to send two women, Helen Hoy Greeley and Jeannette Rankin, to California in August to travel around the State’s hot interior promoting the cause, even visiting isolated mining camps which had never heard a suffrage speech before. Since it was rural voters who were responsible for offsetting the strongly anti-suffrage vote in San Francisco, their work proved to be especially important. 

Monetary contributions to the California campaign were also made by the Women’s Political Union, which sent Elizabeth Selden Rogers there as a campaign worker as well. The College Equal Suffrage League and the Men’s League for Equal Suffrage also made donations, with N.A.W.S.A. itself contributing $3,500 through its New York office. 

Meanwhile, in California, a festive atmosphere still prevailed in the offices of local suffrage groups, as statements were being issued by the Secretary of State and the Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney saying that a State Constitutional Amendment becomes effective immediately upon passage by the voters, so women can begin registering at any time. Of course, they must still meet the registration deadline and all other standard requirements before voting in Los Angeles, according to City Attorney John W. Shenk. But that still leaves them with several weeks to register for the city election, and women in Santa Monica and Long Beach should also have sufficient time to register for those elections, which also take place on December 5th. County Clerk Harry Lelande said that he has already begun preparations to facilitate the registration of women. Whether women must now serve on juries is still uncertain, according to officials.

Earlier today, Reverend Anna Howard Shaw sent a telegram to suffrage workers in Los Angeles saying: “Los Angeles men worthy their magnificent city; Los Angeles women worthy their splendid victory. Louisville shall hail you with joy.” (The next N.A.W.S.A. convention will be in Louisville, Kentucky.)

Shaw expressed the optimism felt by all suffragists around the country as our struggle enters a new – and hopefully final – phase:

“We’re gloriously happy. This is the beginning of the end. The victory in California gives to the cause as many voters as in the five other States where we have previously won. Kansas, Oregon and other Western States are bound to follow the lead at the next elections. The politicians are also sure to realize that the women are winning their fight and will climb on the band wagon.”


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.