Celebrate 100 years of suffrage on Sunday

There is way too much crazy fun stuff going on in Oakland this weekend! Tonight, we’ve got grown-ups night at Fairyland plus The Coup is playing at the Oakland Museum. Saturday is the Black Cowboy Parade and Oaktoberfest.

But don’t party too much on Friday and Saturday, because the best weekend event is on Sunday!

The Oakland Suffrage Parade

October 10th marks the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in California. And we’re celebrating the centennial a week early with a parade!

I’m not sure how much you guys know about the suffrage movement, in general or in California specifically, I did a lot of reading about it this summer, and it is all a really interesting story.

The 1911 referendum was actually a second try for California women — there had been a vote on suffrage in 1896, but it lost pretty badly, largely due to extremely strong anti-suffrage turnouts in San Francisco, thanks to aggressive opposition from the liquor industry, and partly to a not-so-great campaign on the part of the suffragists.

For a while it looked like suffrage was a lost cause for the women of California. After suffrage got crushed at the ballot, the cause lost much of its support. Most people who had been active in the campaign just gave up. But a couple dozen women, mostly in the Bay Area, kept pushing. A glimmer of hope arrived in 1906, when a reform movement sprung up within the Republican party aimed at eliminating political corruption, and suffragists realized they had found themselves some natural allies.

With effort, they managed to get another referendum on suffrage through the State Assembly in 1907, but it failed in the Senate and the dream of women’s votes had once again, as the suffrage newsletter The Yellow Ribbon put it, been “trampled in the dust by our politicians at Sacramento.” Rather than giving up, California suffragists decided to look to the model of their English counterparts shift to more aggressive tactics.

The original Oakland parade

The next year, the California Republican party held their convention in downtown Oakland. Determined to show their strength, the suffragists organized a march to convention site, the first suffrage parade ever in California! They arrived to demand the party adopt suffrage as part of their platform. And they made quite the spectacle. The San Francisco Call reported that when the chair moved to thank them for their attendance, he was met with hissing and booing, and angry cries of “We don’t want thanks — give us the ballot.”

Once again, they lost. And once again, they didn’t give up. It only just increased their resolve. After the failure at the Republican convention, suffragist leader Lillian Coffin proclaimed:

From now on our tactics will change. We will make an open war for our rights. The women were passive before, they are aroused now, and the campaign will be renewed in January in spite of this.

Although the marchers failed to achieve their goal that day, the event really energized the movement and marked a shift towards more militant and aggressive tactics. Shortly afterwards, a similar stunt at the Democratic Convention in Stockton did convince that party to endorse.

The next couple of years continued to be full of frustration for the suffragists. Suffrage amendments got introduced in the legislature a couple of times, but didn’t go anywhere (or even come remotely close to passage).

Their tactics may not have helped them much with Assemblymembers, but it did help grow the movement’s visibility, and the list of organizations supporting the suffrage movement started growing.

The Referendum

Finally, in January 1911, the State Legislature agreed to place a Constitutional Amendment giving women the vote on an October ballot, but only after a rather vigorous debate. A couple of my favorite quotes from the floor:

A suffragette is a woman who wants to raise Hell, but no children – Senator Sanford of Ukiah

You will soon hear these women lecturing their husbands instead of cooking their meals. They will yell at them as they return from work at night. – Assemblyman W.A. McDonald, San Francisco

After years of effort, the suffragists were on the ballot again. The movement had to shift their efforts from lobbying to campaigning, something they hadn’t done such a great job of the last time around.

Reading about the campaign this summer, I was so impressed with how organized and clever the whole thing was. They studied the results of the 1896 referendum to figure out where they could and couldn’t expect support, and where they had opportunities to turn votes.

Seeing that they had lost virtually the entire immigrant vote in 1896, they printed pamphlets and other materials in multiple languages to do focused outreach. They knew the liquor industry was too powerful in the cities to hope to win those votes, so they organized a really strong campaign in rural areas.

One of my favorite parts of the campaign was that they got a car and drove it all around the rural areas and farm towns of the State. They would roll up to a town, park it on a corner, and of course all the men in the town, many of whom had never seen a car before, would all come to gawk and check out the cool toy. While the men stood around admiring the car, the suffragists use the opportunity to educate them about the importance of women having the vote. Don’t you just love that?

In the end, the suffragists lost the cities, as expected. Oakland and San Francisco voted against suffrage by a wide margin. The day after the vote, headlines in the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner proclaimed suffrage defeated again. But all that outreach in the rural counties paid off. Once all the small-town votes came in, the women of California had won the vote by a 1% margin. The New York Times headline about the final outcome reads “California Farmers Give Vote to Women.”

Parade on Sunday!

So to celebrate the suffrage centennial, we’re having a parade!

It’s on Sunday, October 2nd, starting at 11am at the Lakeside Park Bandstand. It will start with brief remarks from Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and the women of the Oakland City Council, and then we’ll march (with the League of Women Voters leading the way, of course) a roughly 1 mile route up to the Pergola and then down Bellevue back to the bandstand, where the Montclair Women’s Big Band will be playing. Afterwards, we’ll head to the Veterans Memorial Building for an ice cream social.

The parade is being co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Oakland, American Association of University Women, National Women’s History Project, Coalition of Labor Union Women, American Civil Liberties Union, Girl Scouts of the USA, Cinnamon Girl, Emerge California, Piedmont Area Republican Women, Jean Quan, and all the women Councilmembers. Assemblymember Nancy Skinner is co-sponsoring the ice cream social afterwards, along with Fentons and Trader Joes.

At their last meeting, the City Council had a really nice ceremonial item celebrating the parade and the 100th anniversary of suffrage in California:

Costumes are not required for the parade, but they are encouraged. If you don’t feel like pulling together a costume, at least consider wearing the traditional suffragist colors: purple for courage and justice, white for purity of purpose, and yellow for hope.

Celebrating the suffragists

One of the things that happens when you’re involved in any kind of activism is that you lose a lot. You win sometimes too, and some people win more often than others. But no matter who you are, if you continue being involved with issues and elections for any real length of time, you’re going to lose eventually.

And the truth is that sometimes that can feel really discouraging, especially when you get a streak of losses, or you win on a lot of things but just keep hitting a wall when it comes to one particular issue you care a lot about.

I started reading about the California suffrage movement this summer in anticipation of the parade. And the more I read, the more inspired I felt by these women. Obviously, I am thankful I have the ability to vote, and I’m thrilled to celebrate Oakland’s place in the movement’s history, but it was all so long ago that I think a lot of people can’t really imagine women not having the vote or at least don’t attach much meaning to the specific date the vote was won, figuring it would have happened eventually.

But this parade isn’t just about being able to vote, at least for me. The long battle of the suffragists is a really wonderful testament what you can achieve through dedication and persistence. They fought for so long, and failed to get what they want over and over and over again, and they just kept going. And that’s what makes this for me more than just an interesting bit of history. Not just the outcome, but the relentless persistence of the suffragists is worth celebrating and remembering, and should be an inspiration for any modern activist.

You can get more information about the festivities on the suffrage parade website and also the parade Facebook page. If you want to learn more about the suffrage movement in California, a good starting point is the League of Women Voters California 100 Years of Voting page. The Bancroft Library has also put together a neat online exhibit featuring newspaper clippings and campaign materials from both sides of the 1911 campaign, which is pretty fun to look at.

So if you’re not booked on Sunday, I hope you’ll consider coming down to Lakeside Park for the parade and join me in saying “Well done, Sister Suffragette!”

4 thoughts on “Celebrate 100 years of suffrage on Sunday

  1. Aaron

    Thank you for this. I think what you said here was very profound:

    But this parade isn’t just about being able to vote, at least for me. The long battle of the suffragists is a really wonderful testament what you can achieve through dedication and persistence. They fought for so long, and failed to get what they want over and over and over again, and they just kept going. And that’s what makes this for me more than just an interesting bit of history. Not just the outcome, but the relentless persistence of the suffragists is worth celebrating and remembering, and should be an inspiration for any modern activist.

    Thanks again.

  2. gregory mcconnell

    This article is yet another excellent example of the valuable contribution that you bring to Oakland. I had no idea about this history and the role Oakland played. I also am very much in agreement with you about the need to relentlessly pursue issues that are important to you. I know a great deal about wining and losing as I have experienced both many times. The most important lesson is exactly the point of your post. Stay engaged. Thank you V, you continue to surprise me and I love that about you.

  3. sarah

    Exciting that Oakland has such a rich history and that all of these groups have gotten behind celebrating such an important event!