Santa Monica History Museum marks the centennial of women’s suffrage with a retrospective on California’s first wave feminists
By Christina Campodonico
The year 2020 marks a full century since the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted American women the right to vote. But California has that anniversary beat by nearly a decade. In 1911, women in the state won enfranchisement — by a slim margin of 3,587 votes — with the passage of a state constitutional amendment known as Proposition 11.
“We were the sixth state to give women the vote, but because we had such a large population it doubled the number of women who were eligible to vote nationally,” says Sara Crown, archivist for the Santa Monica History Museum.
And as California went, so went the rest of the nation. Visitors to the Santa Monica History Museum can gain insight into how the Golden State’s women campaigned for the right to vote in the new exhibit “All is Possible: Women’s Suffrage in California,” which opens publicly on Sunday, March 7, and runs through June 6.
The exhibit features a guestbook from Santa Monica’s Fairmont Miramar Hotel property (where the home of Santa Monica co-founder Sen. John P. Jones once stood) that’s signed by famed women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony and the Rev. Anna Shaw, the first woman to be ordained a Methodist minister. There are also period photographs, illustrations, letters and replicas of suffrage banners, ribbons, sashes, china and facsimiles of newspaper clippings. One such remake is based on a circa 1920s card from the League of Women Voters that reads “A Woman Living Here has Registered to Vote Thereby Assuming Responsibility of Citizenship.”
“People could put it in their window, sort of advertising that somebody was voting there,” explains Crown. “It would have been to let people know that a woman voted under the 19th Amendment, essentially a reminder for other women to do the same.”
Think of it as the 1920s equivalent of a “Vote or Die!” political decal or bumper sticker.
Crown says that local suffragists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (part of feminism’s first wave) could also be members of a number of organizations in the Greater Los Angeles area dedicated to obtaining the vote for women, such as the still-active Santa Monica Bay Women’s Club or the Friday Morning Club led by L.A. women’s rights activist and “the mother” of such clubs Caroline Severance.
These clubs would not only hold meetings such as the one that led Anthony to sign the Miramar’s guest book in 1895 (then the private home shared by Jones and his wife Georgina), but also lobby for causes in step with the national women’s suffrage movement: such as the ability for married women to own property (California women could own property independently of their husbands), initiate divorce, gain custody of children in case of a split, and teetotalling.
Advocating for temperance may seem quaint by today’s standards or unrelated to the core issues of women’s suffrage, but Crown says it was a way of “protecting women.”
“Many husbands were imbibing and they were abusing their wives or they were overspending on alcohol, which affected the household funds the wives or women needed for running a household, feeding their families,” she explains.
In such ways, the women’s suffrage movement in the years leading up to and after the turn of the 20th century mirrors the feminist movement of our own time, which encompasses not only fighting for equal pay and representation in the workplace, but also combatting sexual abuse and harassment, encouraging more women to run for office, and lobbying for progressive policies on immigration and climate change.
“They saw the movement as essential to equality and saw voting rights as an opportunity to right societal wrongs,” says Crown of the suffragists. “So, you know, it wasn’t just about, ‘Oh, we want to vote and be equal to men.’ It’s ‘we want to vote because we have something that we see as wrong. … We want to have a say in changing things.’”
Crown hopes that the Santa Monica History Museum’s exhibit on California’s suffrage movement will show how brave and “revolutionary” the suffragists were.
“It kind of helps explain how challenging it was for women to be part of this movement. Today we look back on it and it may not seem like that revolutionary a thing, but when you’re looking at these images and this artwork, it really does reinforce how they were mocked,” says Crown, citing how illustrations and cartoons of the era parodied the suffragists. “They were sometimes treated as children. They were assumed to be bitter spinsters.
“At the time it was really unheard of for women to do something like this, to advocate for themselves in a political way,” she continues, but “they definitely embraced the idea of being rebellious women.”
“All is Possible: Women’s Suffrage in California” opens Sunday (March 7) and remains on display through June 6, with a special preview from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday (March 5). Regular exhibit hours are noon to 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets are $5 to $10, or $30 for the preview. Call (310) 395-2290 or visit santamonicahistory.org.