You can still walk past the Masonic Hall in downtown Mountain View and imagine the suffrage speeches that drew listeners more than a century ago.
A man often headlined, as was the norm even for women-led initiatives. The women who filled the room had to mix strategy with entertainment as they continued a decades-long campaign for equal rights.
The mother-daughter duo of Eliza “Lida” Hood Talbott and Mae Talbott Winchell performed at Mountain View suffrage rallies, using “widder doodles” to poke fun at contemporary social norms. In addition to lampooning restrictive ideas about a woman’s role and calling out double standards of the time, their sketches used satire to entertain.
“These women are not, to my knowledge, in any history books that I have read, but their names are in local newspapers,” said Amy Ellison, curator of the Los Altos History Museum’s ongoing exhibition on women’s suffrage. “Not everything makes it into the history books, but once you start looking into the newspapers, you get a good picture of what’s going on day-to-day and what’s affecting people on a local level.”
Local faces of suffrage
Los Altos resident Pamela Baird searched the microfiche record of 1910 and 1911 issues of the Mountain View Register-Leader to find traces, amid stories of car accidents and rogue cows, of the local fight for suffrage.
Women in California secured the right to vote in 1911. Among the local stories of enterprising entertainers and industrious organizers who mobilized support for women’s rights, Baird picked up on an underlying theme of long, hard labor.
“So many women did a lot of work to get us to this point – we need to really cherish the franchise,” she said. “Get yourself educated on the candidates and subject matter, and vote.”
In the week leading up to the October 1911 election, there were meetings every day in somebody’s house or at Swall’s Opera Hall, the meeting room located above a shop in downtown Mountain View. Because California women had to win suffrage by convincing male voters to give it to them in a referendum, their campaign required indirect diplomacy.
“You’re asking somebody who has power to give you that same power,” Baird reflected, describing the advocacy work that goes into asking a privileged group to give up their exclusive access to a resource. “There are parallels today.”
The Glen Theater’s owner was one of the male allies who enabled the work and hosted large gatherings, but Baird observed in article after article that “these women just got out there and hammered and hammered and hammered. It was women influencing other women, who they hoped would influence their husbands or brothers or friends.”
The first local election that newly enfranchised women could participate in was the April 1912 school district race – and when a considerable majority supported Mrs. Eliza J. Farrell over the incumbent, one William F. Bubb, she became the first woman elected to the district board.
“I found a reference to that first election – when the polls opened at 6 in the morning there was a woman in line in her 80s,” Baird recounted.
She imagines the story behind that first-time voter, and her motivation to turn out the first minute she was allowed in the door. The Register Leader’s account of the day, when the largest vote ever polled in a school election came in, glowingly described Farrell as a teacher with practical experience, a member of the Mountain View Women’s Club and “one of the most enterprising of citizens.”
Who is missing from this story?
Although state and federal voting amendments had granted all women a technical right to vote in the United States by 1920, voter suppression and unequal voting access meant vast communities of women were in fact excluded based on racist voter suppression that also applied to men.
“You might have the right to vote, but it was very difficult to do so,” Ellison said.
Local newspaper clippings present an incomplete picture of what voting advocacy looked like in the region. The women featured were uniformly middle class and white. Black women suffragists worked in Santa Clara County, but their story isn’t told in the Mountain View documents that volunteers were able to unearth. The Latina, Asian and indigenous women who also lived and worked in this area were similarly absent from the Mountain View record, visible only in glimpses caught in everyday photos of the region that the museum also maintains in its archive.
Los Altos resident Margo Horn, who teaches history at Stanford University and is a member of the Los Altos Historical Commission, said the history of the suffrage movement and 19th Amendment is being drastically reshaped. As people look beyond the narrative that once started at Seneca Falls in 1848, they find the African-American women who were working on suffrage long before, and the uneven experience of voting rights for Americans of color living within a pervasively racist system.
Horn said that even though the broadly known suffragist “hall of fame” has up until now exhibited a group of middle-class white women leaders, California in truth hosted a diversity of women working for voting equality.
The San Francisco Call reported that Tye Leung Schulze was the first Chinese-American woman to vote, in 1912. Clara Elizabeth Chan Lee, the first Chinese-American woman to register to vote in California, founded the Chinese Women’s Jeleab Association, which promoted women’s rights in the U.S. and China.
In Oakland, Lydia Flood Jackson was a chairwoman for legislation and citizenship of the California Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. In Los Angeles, Maria Guadalupe Evangelina de Lopez translated English pamphlets and newspapers making the argument for women’s suffrage into Spanish. And Sarah Massey Overton worked to form interracial suffrage leagues in San Jose during a time when allied advocacy was extremely rare and sometimes actively rejected by some white suffragists. Overton raised children, ran a catering business and also found time to do social justice work both with the Political Equality Club of San Jose and with San Jose’s Suffrage Amendment League.
“There were huge racial tensions within the suffrage movement, and I have to imagine that the same was true on a local level as well,” Ellison said. “African-American suffragists saw that there was this crucial connection between race and gender; they were intersectional before we started thinking about intersectional feminism – they were embodying it and definitely drawing those connections.”
Ellison pointed out that it was common at the time for women to be active in multiple organizations with interconnected causes. The temperance movement, care for elders, services for vulnerable women and children, and labor activism all intersected with suffrage advocacy. Maud Younger organized the first union for waitresses in San Francisco, helped pass the eight-hour work law in California and helped found the Wage Earners Equal Suffrage League. Hetty Tillman advocated for suffrage in Oakland but also led the Oakland branch of the NAACP, among many other social works.
Ethel Durst, a local suffragist, gave a lecture in Mountain View on “Problems confronting the new voter” that addressed some of the hurdles newly enfranchised people face.
“We know that there are suffragists who, once they won the vote here in California, went to the East Coast to advocate for women all around the country – or all white women, depending on what their politics were,” Ellison said.
Although much of the western U.S. had expanded its franchise to both genders, the country was uneven in 1911. When the World’s Fair brought people from around the nation to San Francisco in 1915, women set up booths to promote suffrage to visitors from states that still prevented women from voting.
Foothill College professor Dolores Davison, who is giving a talk on women’s suffrage and race at the Los Altos History Museum in November, said this fall’s presidential election will present a new frontier for women and voting access. During the pandemic, women have become disproportionately responsible for child care and home-schooling oversight.
“It will be interesting to see if that impacts the vote – where they have to go in person – because they can’t get out,” Davison mused. “Now that we’re gearing up and students are back in school, the number of women I know who have either taken a leave or quit their jobs ... it’s going to be interesting to see if that demographic is impacted.”
Ready to learn more? Davison will be giving a talk on women's suffrage Nov. 10, hosted by the Los Altos History Museum, more details to follow. Horn is giving a talk at noon on Sept. 17, hosted by the museum on zoom, on the suffragists of Santa Clara County. Local women continue to organize and advocate for electing women to political roles – learn more about their history.