Los Altos resident Vicki Reeder and other members of the Los Altos Women’s Caucus have been readying “suffrage outfits” this week for a socially distanced car parade scheduled 3:30 p.m. today. They’re commemorating the work a century ago that won women the vote, and celebrating the political activity that followed.
Participating in the procession are current and former Los Altos city councilwomen, a visible reminder of what many suffrage advocates believed – that the vote is only the first step in broadening access to political power. Finding, supporting and electing women as officials who could then directly legislate was the next step.
When a group of local women founded the Los Altos Women’s Caucus in 2013, their mission was to support expanded political involvement for local women in the broadest sense. No platform, no advocacy for specific issues – just a belief that everyone benefits when leaders include both genders. Although Los Altos’ council is exceptional in the state of California for its current all-female makeup, the city’s commissions are still two-thirds male, Reeder noted.
‘The feminist capital of the world’
Santa Clara County made headlines 50 years ago as “the feminist capital of the world” when Janet Gray Hayes became the first female city council member in San Jose in 1971, then the first female mayor of a major city in the U.S. in 1974.
“It spawned a huge movement – more and more women started running for city council, for school boards, for supervisor,” said Amy Ellison, curator of the Los Altos History Museum’s exhibition celebrating women’s suffrage. “Once more and more women got into office, there was an amazing culture of women supporting women.”
The League of Women Voters’ Los Altos/Mountain View chapter celebrated the 100th anniversary of its founding this month – it was created by former suffragists ready to bolster their newly won rights with continued civic advocacy, particularly voter education and support for the American democratic process.
Los Altos’ first woman mayor, Audrey Fisher, took the lead in 1964. Organizations like the American Association of University Women provided an organizing force for local women looking to continue the trend.
“I still remember going to a PTA meeting at Almond School and thinking, ‘I don’t like this. It was all these ladies talking about hot dogs. I don’t want to talk about which hot dog is best, I want to talk about the Equal Rights Amendment,’” Reeder said of finding a politically engaged sisterhood in the AAUW.
Los Altos resident Dorothea Long joined the AAUW in 1957 when she moved to Los Altos, interested in the babysitting co-op – but also the shared spirit of advocacy.
“I had two master’s degrees and I’d been working as a librarian continuously, and here I was at home, expecting a birth and being very uncomfortable because of it, and the AAUW was a lifesaver,” Long said, remembering how it felt to find other women who read books about something other than making a home.
Her grandmother had already modeled some of the suffragist spirit, Long added, as a “worker toward things going on that needed fixing.”
“When I was a child in the ’30s, I could see then that women didn’t have many rights that men did. Now we have become more in control of our bodies, so we can go ahead and plan things that were never possible before,” she said.
Reeder thinks of the AAUW as having a heyday in the ’70s and ’80s, when its focus on women’s equality had such a structured goal in the Equal Rights Amendment. Drafted by women leaders from the suffrage movement in the 1920s and approved by the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives in 1979, it hasn’t made it into law – yet.
The past few years have made Reeder feel a sense of unnerving deja vu – “It’s like this is all back on the table again,” she said of thinking that voting rights won long ago face increasing peril.
Defending women’s access to abortion services was one of the causes that brought up the most stories for Long as she reminisced about decades of watching women’s issues debated locally. The work that was never completed remains on her mind, too.
“I’m going to be 93 years old next Tuesday,” Long said, “and the ERA has yet to be approved.”
Long’s grandmother’s words from 1930 reappeared as museum volunteer and affordable housing advocate Pamela Baird reflected on the work for equality that followed suffrage’s initial, incomplete success at the beginning of the last century.
“There are so many things that need to be fixed or righted,” Baird said. “You look at the work that other people do and think – ‘I need to step it up and support it however I can.’”
Women’s suffrage organizations used their experience in political mobilization to take on food safety, child labor laws and other public health policy that affected the well-being of American families.
“In some of those newspaper articles from 1910, there were excerpts from some of the (pro-suffrage) speeches – they felt there were societal ills,” Baird said. “Women really felt that if they could get in and get the vote, they would be elected to senate houses and houses of representation in different states and be able to make a difference.”
Learn more about Wednesday's car parade and the Los Altos Women's Caucus at losaltoswomenscaucus.org. You can read more of our reporting on the suffragists of Santa Clara County, who included women in Mountain View and Los Altos who campaigned, entertained and ultimately prevailed on the men in their community to grant them the vote. The history museum has a talk scheduled Sept. 17 from Margo Horn, a Los Altos resident and historian at Stanford University, exploring more about these local activists. And Foothill College Professor Dolores Davison will be giving a talk on women's suffrage Nov. 10, hosted by the Los Altos History Museum, more details to follow.