Women Win the Vote - in California & the Nation

In 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal..”  and set in motion a movement which continues today.

Women and enlightened men pursued civil rights for women in the nineteenth century, including the right to be recognized as citizens and to vote. In California, Woman Suffrage Associations were formed beginning in 1869 and, when suffrage came to the California ballot in 1896, Susan B. Anthony herself came and gave impassioned speeches in Martinez and San Francisco.

California men voted on woman suffrage in 1896 and rejected it, due in large part to the powerful Liquor Dealers League in San Francisco, the state’s major city.  According to suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt, a number of Chinese were brought to the polls and paid to vote no on the franchise for women.

But times were changing as the 20th century began. More women were educated and were involved in schools and community improvement clubs. And California’s population was more broadly distributed, decreasing the clout of San Francisco’s hospitality interests.

In 1911 Women Win the Vote in California

After the earthquake in 1906, a suffrage convention of considerable size convened in San Francisco. The fight was on.

An impressive campaign was mounted statewide with special attention to voters in Central Valley rural towns and Southern California. Suffragists drove a handsome touring car and, when men gathered to look at the car, gave speeches urging them to support woman suffrage on October 10, 1911.  They sponsored parades, staged plays and wooed the press. A compelling poster (drawn by Berta Boyle) showing a woman with a Votes for Women banner and the Golden Gate was posted all over San Francisco.

Five Equal Suffrage Leagues were founded in Contra Costa County, the largest being in Martinez where suffrage pioneer Mary Louise Swett was the honorary President.

1911 Bertha Boyle Golden Gate Poster
Oakland Suffrage Parade in 1908
Oakland Suffrage Parade in 1908

From the Concord Transcript of July 29, 1911:

Intelligent and fair minded men everywhere are rallying to their (women’s) support. They  are beginning to think that the onus is resting pretty heavily upon them of having their mothers, wives and sweethearts rated along with Chinamen, idiots and insane persons when it comes to voting.

Women won the vote in California by a narrow margin, part of a successful Progressive platform. They won by 21 votes in Contra Costa County and 2% statewide, one vote per precinct. The New York Times trumpeted “California Farmers Give Vote to Women.”  All voters in the San Ramon Valley were not among these farmers, as Alamo, Danville and Tassajara voted “no” while San Ramon and Walnut Creek voted “yes.”

California became the sixth western state to support woman suffrage -- The Sixth Star.

At 10 am the Monday after the election, four women registered to vote in Martinez. One of them, Irene Morford (Hurley), became the Contra Costa County recorder from 1924 to 1931.

Soon western suffragists won state after state. California’s victory was an inspiration to their compatriots in the East. This 1915 drawing is called “The Awakening.”

The Awakening, 1915
The Awakening, 1915

In New York Harriot Stanton Blatch and Carrie Chapman Catt adopted many of California’s campaign techniques, finally winning a New York suffrage referendum in 1917.  Establishing woman suffrage state by state, as many national politicians advocated, was proving to be exhausting.  And southern leaders who already suppressed votes by black men actively opposed the vote for black women.

The focus of suffragists turned to adoption of a national amendment to the Constitution which would give woman the vote.  Militant efforts by Alice Paul’s National Woman’s Party and persuasive arguments by Catt’s National American Woman Suffrage Association finally won Congressional support in 1919.

Quaker Alice Paul

Quaker Alice Paul organized parades, pickets in front of the White House, and pro-suffrage Congressional campaigns. She pioneered non-violent passive resistance when women were arrested for blocking the sidewalk and went on hunger strikes.


Thirty-six states were needed to ratify the Susan B. Anthony (19th) amendment.   California’s legislature ratified the amendment on November 1, 1919, at a special session called by Gov. William Stephens.  It passed the Senate unanimously and only two men opposed in the Assembly.  Tennessee became the 36h state on August 18.  The amendment was finally certified on August 26, 1920, a date now celebrated as Women’s Equality Day.

It took 72 years after Stanton’s 1848 Woman’s Rights Convention for women to win the vote.  In 2020 centennial celebrations are planned throughout the country which will recognize the significance of the 19th amendment and feature the importance of the vote in a democratic society.


By Beverly Lane, Museum of the San Ramon Valley, Nov. 2019