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'Fighting the same battle over and over again': A history of women’s suffrage in California

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NOVEMBER 02, 2022

It’s 1911, and streets are bustling with noise as campaigns get ready for the vote that will guarantee women’s suffrage in California. 

In cities across the state, pamphlets translated into different languages, from Spanish to Chinese, lay fluttering on the ground and are passed between hands. Women’s suffragists held up banners demanding their right to vote, jostling laughter in gathered audiences. Students drove long ways in automobiles, holding comedic skits and passionate speeches in rural town centers. 

After decades of trying and failing to secure enfranchisement, women in California won the right to vote that year, nearly a decade before the 19th Amendment in 1920. In doing so, they created a model of campaigning and organization for other state campaigns and the federal movement itself to follow. 

Despite the influential year, according to professor emeritus Catherine Gallagher, the 1911 victory for women’s rights was the end of a series of campaigns rooted in Berkeley, but was only the start of a long history of expanding women’s rights beyond the vote.

Gallagher, who worked on the 150 Years of Women at Berkeley project two years ago, detailed the history of women’s voting in California in a collection of essays covering major eras of change for women and how Berkeley women participated in that change. 

In her work, the history of women’s organization can be traced back to the founding of the University of California in 1868 and its resolution admitting women as students two years later. 

The establishment of co-education in public state universities was important — and although it was deemed normal for California in the context of the Western states, it ignited a controversy over equality for women on campus. 

More so, co-education and a rising population of women in higher education institutions meant women students could gather in groups and establish organizations to demand certain facilities from administration, a pattern of organized activity that was then later reflected in the suffrage campaigns for both younger and older women. 

The late 1870s also marked the first legislative attempt to enfranchise women in California, in 1879. While the attempt failed, Gallagher described its importance in shifting how suffrage was campaigned for. 

“There had been this idea that women had a natural, moral superiority to men … and were better able, therefore, to spend their time working on the good,” Gallagher said. “That had been one argument that kind of turned some people off, especially men who had feared that ‘moral superiority’ was going to lead women to support prohibition of alcohol or … go on other sorts of moral campaigns.”

Following more attempts in 1896 and 1904 to secure the right to vote, suffragists then began to change their strategies, with UC women playing a role in this movement, according to Gallagher’s essays. Early suffragists and Berkeley graduates like Mary McHenry organized suffrage campaigns state-wide. 

According to Gallagher, this buildup in organized activity, combined with the general call for political reform in the 1910s, led to a steady increase in “potential allies” for suffrage in parallel campaigns for issues like trade unions. 

“Suffragists, in short, segued from earlier rhetoric about women’s natural moral superiority to the more modest and demonstrable claim that women’s organizations already made up an essential element in the movements to reform government and extend its power to improve the lives of citizens,” Gallagher said in the essays. 

But despite this changed rhetoric, women still faced challenges in 1911. Unlike other Western states, which had already enfranchised women, Gallagher noted that California was a “mixed state,” with an urban population that opposed enfranchisement and a rural population that supported it. 

Thus, suffragists had to find ways to reach out to diverse populations and promote the idea of enfranchisement. 

According to Gallagher, this meant translating pamphlets into languages spoken in inner urban cities to various parts of California and utilizing modern inventions of the time, like the automobile, to build a big enough coalition to win the vote. 

Gallagher noted that across the country, campaigns learned from the Western states, from learning to appeal to different populations to building bigger coalitions in the approaching 1920 election. 

When it comes to the state of voting today, Gallagher noted that the story of how the vote was won is reminiscent of the “struggle” of reproductive rights; in 1911, women had different rights in different states, and had to “fight the same battle over and over again,” which Gallagher likens to women’s rights today. 

“What strikes me about Berkeley women like Mary McHenry and Mabel Craft is that they were willing to do that over and over again,” Gallagher said. “They didn’t get discouraged and stop working towards their goal, and that was so important, it was so important to the whole national effort. There is certainly a lesson to be learned from them … to make sure that women’s rights are won and then protected.”

Contact Ananya Rupanagunta at 

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NOVEMBER 02, 2022