‘Highly regarded’: 1st 4 women elected to CA State Assembly had ties to Berkeley

California Women in Politics
Hon. Sunny Mojonnier, Women in California Politics/Courtesy
Grace Dorris, Elizabeth Hughes, Anna Saylor and Esto Broughton 'broke through the glass ceiling' and were the first women elected to the state Assembly, according to a Berkeley News press release.

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Oct. 3 marked the 150th anniversary of the UC Board of Regents’ 1870 decision to admit female students, further serving as a reminder of the political and cultural impacts four women had when elected to the 1918 California State Assembly.

Each having ties to Berkeley, the four women Grace Dorris, Elizabeth Hughes, Anna Saylor and Esto Broughton “broke through the glass ceiling” and were the first women elected to the state Assembly, according to a Berkeley News press release.

Dorris and Broughton were both UC Berkeley alumnae who graduated in the early 1900s, according to the press release. Hughes taught art at UC Berkeley Extension and Saylor was the president of Berkeley’s Twentieth Century Club for women.

Campus alumnus and former journalist Steve Swatt conducted research on the four women and, with his wife, ultimately wrote about their contributions in the book “Paving the Way: Women’s Struggle for Political Equality in California.”

“We found that women have made tremendous contributions to California’s political progress over the years, but they were lost to history and totally forgotten,” Swatt said. “They weren’t in the history books, so we decided to research and write about them.”

According to Swatt, Broughton overcame not only cultural stereotypes and discrimination but also a physical handicap of spinal tuberculosis.

Despite former UC Berkeley School of Law dean William Carey Jones telling a newspaper in 1913 that “women are almost too emotional to cope with criminal cases,” Broughton earned a law degree from UC Berkeley, according to a Berkeley News press release from 1998.

Once elected to the Assembly, Broughton pushed for women’s property rights and became an expert on irrigation and water issues, leading the fight to bring water to farms in the San Joaquin Valley, according to Swatt.

Hughes also faced gender stereotypes while running for the Assembly: Her opposing candidate said “it takes a virile man to do the tough job of a lawmaker,” according to Swatt.

According to the press release, Hughes was a high school teacher who was focused on education issues. She expanded Chico State Normal School, which is now known as California State University, Chico.

Dorris ran her campaign for the Assembly by criticizing landowners who withheld unproductive lands, according to Swatt. In office, Dorris pushed for shorter work hours and the creation of public defender offices for domestic servants.

Unlike Dorris and Broughton, Saylor was originally a librarian and did not attend UC Berkeley, but she eventually moved to Berkeley and joined the Twentieth Century Club, Swatt said. He added that this club provided Saylor with “women power,” which contributed to the success of her campaign.

Saylor’s campaign initially ran on improving literacy, but she actually dedicated her career to criminal justice reform, according to Swatt. Some of her contributions included helping to abolish the death penalty for minors and establish psychiatric clinics and child detention centers.

“All four of these women did amazing jobs and they started out as novelty during their campaign,” Swatt said. “But once they were in office, they proved themselves and they got very good press coverage and they were highly regarded.”

Swatt added that the four women brought “great talent” to UC Berkeley through their connections.

The four women also helped push the 19th Amendment to ratification.

“The biggest takeaway for me is that even though most of these women are mere footnotes in history, they have done so much over the years to further California’s regional political history and political path,” Swatt said. “These women have overcome discrimination and cultural stereotypes with grit, determination and resilience to make California what it is today.”

Jasmine Lee is a general assignment reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @JasmineLee_02.