The Solano Stroll—Berkeley and Albany’s day-long street fair taking place this coming Sunday, September 11—is well known for its opening parade. Fire engines, school groups, yoga and martial arts schools, and other eclectic contingents interested in showing off their program, organization, skills and/or enthusiasm march, stroll, or amble down the Avenue at 10:00 am as a kick off for the event.
This year, there’s going to be at least one special element of the march, a celebration of the centennial of the 1911 ballot measure that won women the vote.
The group includes members of the Berkeley Historical Society, League of Women Voters – Berkeley, Albany, Emeryville, American Association of University Women, Friends of the Berkeley Public Library, and other historical aficionados.
Phyllis Gale from the AAUS and Nancy Bickel from the League have been heading up the planning. Volunteers have been busy making sashes that read, “Votes for Women”, a banner has been secured, and replicas of pins from 1911 (also with the “Votes for Women” slogan) are on hand, courtesy of the University Archives at UC.
March contingent participants are encouraged, but not required or expected, to wear costumes from 1911. Gale is asking people to emphasize white, purple, and/or gold attire, the three colors used in the early 20th century efforts to achieve women’s suffrage (the right to vote).
You may recall that catchy little tune from the movie “Mary Poppins” in which the lady of the house leads women in a suffrage song. “We're clearly soldiers in petticoats. And dauntless crusaders for woman's votes”, they sing, concluding, “Our daughters’ daughters will adore us—and they’ll sing in grateful chorus—well done, Sister Suffragette!”
Well, that’s exactly that will be happening this Sunday. The contingent that strides proudly down Solano on Sunday is expected to include not only local families but also descendants of some of the notable women who worked for woman’s suffrage in Berkeley a century ago. One group of descendents of Hester Harland, the Berkeley campaign manager in 1911, is even coming in from Hawaii.
Appropriately enough the Solano Stroll theme this year is “Unsung Heroes”. The suffrage activists of 1911 clearly fall into that category.
It’s probably hard for many readers to believe that it was only a century ago that women won the right to vote in California, or that a majority of the population once thought in the early 20th century that women shouldn’t have the voting franchise.
But in 1911 there were only 5 states—all of them western—where woman had voting rights, and an earlier effort in California had fallen short in the 1890s, discouraging suffrage advocates for several years.
The campaign a century ago was a hard fought, close run, contest with vigorous opposition, some of which came from liquor interests (who feared women would later vote for Prohibition). Other opponents simply didn’t like what they saw as radical change, or played on the fears of men that they would lose control of one aspect of society where they had been dominant.
(One statement against suffrage warned men that if they voted for it, they would come home some day from work to find no dinner waiting, the children dirty and unfed, while the wife and mother was off somewhere with 11 strange men—serving on a jury.)
Locally, a majority of Berkeley males who voted cast ballots in favor of suffrage, after a careful eight month long campaign organized by both sexes but, primarily, by Berkeley women from wealthy matrons to Cal co-eds to working girls.
That’s one of the reasons for celebrating on Sunday. In contrast, in California’s largest city, San Francisco, suffrage lost at the polls. The final margin of victory ultimately came from late returns from rural voters, after newspapers initially reported the effort had lost.
The suffrage centennial celebrators will have a booth at the Solano Stroll as well as the parade contingent. Look for the booth next to the Berkeley Historical Society booth on the south side of Solano, just east of Ensenada.
At the booth you can get more information on activities planned later in the year, as well as buy replicas of pro-suffrage postcards from 100 years ago and—for $1—purchase your own copy of the 1911 “Votes for Women” button to wear proudly about town.
If you would like to participate in the suffrage contingent at the Stroll, email firstname.lastname@example.org. The current plan is for participants to gather on the lawn in front of the Northbrae Community Church at 941 The Alameda, between 8:00 and 8:30 am on Sunday. The Parade begins at 10:00 am.
“Votes for Women” sashes can be purchased by parade participants for $10. “Votes for Women” replica buttons will be free to paraders. Participants are encouraged to wear white, purple, or gold.
On Sunday, September 18 a new exhibit, “Berkeley Women Vote: Celebrating California Suffrage 1911-2011”, will open at the Berkeley History Center, 1932 Center Street in the Veterans Memorial Building.
There will be a 3:00 pm opening reception with a guest speaker, Robert P.J. Cooney, author of Winning the Vote: The Triumph of the American Woman Suffrage Movement. Following the talk guests will be treated to a “pink tea” (pink lemonade, in this case).
When campaigning for suffrage, women organizers sometimes called their strategy meetings “pink teas.” Women whose male family members opposed suffrage could thus honestly say they were going to a “pink tea”—which sounded like some harmless social event—rather than a votes-for-women meeting that might cause household discord.
A series of other events, including four exhibits on local and statewide suffrage issues, and various events and speakers, will unveil during the fall and into next spring.
One exhibit is already open, and it’s a splendid one, organized by Bancroft Library staffer Lee Anne Titangos. In the corridor that connects the Doe and Bancroft Libraries on the UC Berkeley campus there are several display cases filled with material and memorabilia from the 1911 California suffrage era, including extensive period materials detailing the campaigns for and against giving women the vote.
You can read the newspaper articles, handbills, cartoons, and behind the scenes campaign correspondence of the era, including material from notable local personalities. For example, there’s a letter from Berkeley Police Chief August Vollmer who was for giving women the vote (because he believed in the “Golden Rule”, he wrote); other supporters included some of the local Roman Catholic priests from Newman Hall and St. Joseph the Worker (then, the Workman) parish. In contrast, Amey Webb Wheeler, wife of the President of the University of California, was against.
The “no” campaign material is fascinating. Setting aside the flowery and formal written language particular to the era, one finds among the reasons to oppose suffrage: it blurred and violated the natural roles of men and women; the Founding Fathers didn’t endorse it; it would increase government costs and spending; traditional moral standards would loosen and the nation would decline; women would abandon their natural, vital, place in the home; there are some things (including politics) that one sex naturally does better than the other; women didn’t really have the maturity, education, or aptitude to vote sensibly, and would be flighty, frivolous, and easily manipulated and fooled at the polls; crime would increase (since women would be away from home, voting and doing other unwomanly things, and burglars could raid their vacant houses). Last, but not least, some opponents felt giving women the vote was against God’s laws.
Do any of those arguments sound familiar? Many, if not most, are similar to arguments we hear today trotted out by America’s right wing whenever some sort of major social, cultural, or political change is in the offing. In that way, the campaign against giving women the vote in 1911 is still going on, although under different auspices.
There is a striking similarity, for example, between 1911—when California became the first really large, reasonably populous, state to grant women the vote, giving crucial momentum to the suffrage movement—and exactly a century later, 2011 when New York became the first large state to grant the right of same-sex couples to marry. Both events were sea changes in American culture and politics, one now safety “part of history” the other still unfolding.
For more information on the various events, visit the Berkeley Historical Society website at http://www.berkeleyhistoricalsociety.org/ and look in the “Events” section.
(Steven Finacom is the President of the Berkeley Historical Society, one of the sponsors of the local suffrage celebrations. He is also working on one of the campus exhibits on the suffrage centennial.)