When the 1896 California state ballot included the option of votes for women, men in San Francisco’s hospitality business were alarmed. They saw links between women’s desire for the vote and women’s opposition to drinking. And it wasn’t their imagination.
Since 1874 the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) had organized to combat liquor interests. Often women and children suffered from abuse by drunken husbands or fathers and had no recourse in law. The organization grew rapidly throughout the country. Initially it was silent on the issue of woman suffrage. Susan B. Anthony is given credit for convincing longtime WCTU leader Frances Willard about the importance of woman suffrage. Miss Willard came to agree and articulated the advantage of the woman’s vote as a necessary “weapon for home protection.” Soon the WCTU endorsed woman suffrage as one of its principles.
Anthony was the most visible leader in America’s suffrage movement. She had been active in the temperance movement in her early years and kept in close touch with Willard. In fact, when the WCTU planned its annual national convention in San Francisco for 1896, she successfully urged Miss Willard to move it elsewhere. Anthony did not think bringing a large number of WCTU members to San Francisco that year would help the suffrage cause. California had 270,000 voters and a woman suffrage victory in the west’s largest state would have encouraged others to get the issue on their ballot.
Eastern suffragists helped with the 1896 campaign which lasted eight months. The indomitable Anthony spoke in favor of Ballot No. 6 at meetings throughout California including one in Martinez chaired by educator John Swett. Miss Anthony touted the many legal advances which women had made in the past fifty years. The October 10, 1896 Contra Costa Gazette stated: “Her speech throughout was well received and most heartily applauded at the close.” She consistently emphasized the need for women to achieve equal rights but did not usually address alcohol abuse in her speeches.
The Liquor Dealers League in San Francisco was alarmed about these connections between the WCTU and suffrage advocates. According to suffrage leader Mae Silver, the League included “the producers, proprietors and patrons of drink” and was especially powerful in San Francisco. The organs of “the trade” devote regularly a considerable portion of their space to anti-suffrage editorials, framed posters, scurrilous articles, poems and cartoons. In 1896 the City included 25% of the state’s voters.
At the election on November 3, 1896, the counties of San Francisco and Alameda voted overwhelmingly against the constitutional amendment, essentially killing it. The statewide results were
Yes 110,355 44.60% No 137,099 55.40%
While the campaigners were disappointed, they didn’t give up and in 1911 woman suffrage came before California voters again. After a long, vigorous state-wide campaign primarily managed by many women’s groups and the College League, it was successful. California became the sixth western state to provide the franchise to women.
The Anti-Saloon League organized in 1893 and joined the WCT’s efforts to ban drinking. There were several other groups, including a chapter of the International Organization of Good Templars in the San Ramon Valley. The consumption of alcohol throughout the country was impressive. In the 1790s American adults consumed and estimated 5.8 gallons a year. In the 1830s the estimate was 7.1 gallons a year and from 1900-1915 2.5 gallons a year.
Prohibition passed as the 18th amendment to the Constitution in 1919. Ironically, it passed without national woman suffrage, since the that amendment (the 19th) was not approved by the states until August of 1920. And of course Prohibition is another story.
By Beverly Lane, 2023
Sources: The info on Willard and WCTU from Stewart, Ella Seass, “Woman Suffrage and the Liquor Traffic”, The Annals of the American Academy, V. 56, Nov. 1914