Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Hard as it is to believe, women have had the right to vote for less than 100 years. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution wasn't ratified until 1920.
But our state was ahead of the nation by almost a decade. On Nov. 10, 1911, California voters passed a ballot measure granting voting rights to women.
Most of the "no" votes came from San Francisco and Alameda counties, due to a lavishly funded campaign by the Liquor Dealers League.
They were afraid that women would vote for prohibition, which was a feminist issue because many men were getting drunk and beating their wives or abandoning their children.
And they pulled out all the stops. There's a new exhibit at Cal's Bancroft Library showcasing the "no" campaign's propaganda leaflets, including one that warned men that if they voted "yes," they would come home one day to find their dinners uncooked and their children dirty because their wives were elsewhere, hanging out with 11 strange men.
In other words, they would be serving jury duty!
It was one of the closest - and crookedest - elections ever. More than 3,000 phony ballots were discovered in San Francisco alone. On election night, the San Francisco papers unanimously declared the ballot measure was defeated.
But over the next few days, as the results from Southern California and the rural areas trickled in, the margin kept narrowing until votes for women finally won by 3,587 votes.
The only city in Alameda County to vote "yes" was Berkeley, thanks to a small army of volunteers - ranging from wealthy matrons to Cal coeds - led by Hester Harland.
Holding strategy sessions called "Pink Teas" (so called because the name sounded like a harmless social event, not a political meeting, thus avoiding conflict with their anti-suffrage husbands), they fanned out over the city, buttonholed the voters one-by-one, and filled every available meeting place in the city with public speakers.
"The newspapers didn’t want to cover them," says Harland's great-granddaughter, Colleen Kelly. "So she and her staff would take huge bells and toll them as they walked along the street, shouting information about the next suffrage meeting."
The campaign climaxed with a huge parade on election night, led, in Harland's words, by "a tally-ho filled with musicians and young women carrying banners and legends," ending in a rally in the Berkeley High School auditorium.
But Harland wasn't there. Exhausted by overwork, she suffered a nervous breakdown a week before the election and missed the celebration.
But her triumph endures. And this Sunday, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage in California, the Berkeley Historical Society will unveil a new exhibit titled "Berkeley Women Vote: Celebrating California Suffrage 1911-2011" in the Berkeley Veterans Building.
The guest of honor will be Colleen Kelly. Another of Harland's great-granddaughters, Jane Frederick, contributed some of Harland's personal items to the exhibit.
This year is also the 100th anniversary of the Berkeley League of Women Voters - founded shortly after the 1911 election "to follow up the recent victory of Women's Suffrage in California with effective civic work." The League will observe its centennial on Oct. 30 with a celebration in the Berkeley City Council chamber.
Happy double anniversary to all. It wasn't the first time that our country was made better by letting more people in under the tent, and I hope it won't be the last.