CA women got vote a century ago

Written by Sean Janssen, The Union Democrat November 02, 2012 08:59 am

Women’s issues are at the forefront of this election unlike ever before in the 100 years since women began voting in presidential elections in California, according to Columbia College political science professor Ted Hamilton.

“I see no comparable election in which both the importance of women as a voting group or attention paid to women has been higher,” Hamilton said.

Most of the voters in the Nov. 6 federal election are expected to be women.

Just a century ago, that was unthinkable.

Women’s suffrage was one of the hottest topics in politics in 1911-12. 

The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving women the right to vote, wasn’t ratified until 1920.

But California, joining a handful of other western states, was ahead of the nation by nine years in granting women the vote. Thus California women got to vote in two presidential elections before the majority of American women joined them.

Adding women as voters allowed them to be counted for apportionment of U.S. House and Electoral College representation, increasing the state’s sway in Washington, D.C., Hamilton said.

Proposition No. 4, the California constitutional amendment to grant women’s suffrage, passed narrowly, by about 3,000 votes. Though defeated handily in San Francisco, strong support in rural northern counties like Tuolumne and Calaveras, and an edge in Los Angeles, took it over the top.

The Union Democrat reported unofficial results from Tuolumne County’s last all-male vote showing a tally of 578 to 442 in favor of equal voting rights. The town of Carters — now Tuolumne — voted most heavily for, by a 96-45 count, whereas three Sonora precincts came out overwhelmingly against, 116 to 76.

Patricia Ryan, of Sonora, spent five months researching the women’s suffrage campaign in 1911 for the January-March issue this year of Chispa, the quarterly publication of the Tuolumne County Historical Society.

Ryan found it most interesting to look at the breakdown of how each California county voted.

“One hundred years ago, this was a pretty conservative, men-were-men kind of county, so I was kind of surprised,” she said.

Turnout stood at a dismal one-third of the state’s registered voters and, although a whopping 23 amendments passed, women’s suffrage had the slimmest margin.

The first election to include women in Calaveras or Tuolumne counties made history by incorporating Angels Camp as a city.

On Jan. 17, 1912, the Angels Camp Record reported: “At the late registration 156 women placed their names on the great register. Tuesday’s election showed that all but about six of them visited the polls and cast their ballot, thus helping to swell the majority in favor of incorporation. In voting they did their work just as easily and smoothly as the men, thus demonstrating that the old rotten cry against the women voting was un-necessary.”

When Tuolumne County women first voted in 1912, in an April 8 Sonora city election, The Union Democrat made a similar observation.

“As a rule, the women voted with greater speed than did the men,” this newspaper wrote.

Female candidates for office were less successful. Equal Suffrage Club of Sonora activist Ella Kleinecke was trounced by F.J. Ralph, 147-16, in a school board election on April 12, 1912.

“Some ill-feeling was engendered, though the opposition to the (Ralph) ticket maintains that the candidacy of Mrs. Kleinecke was not with the hope of securing an election, but simply to serve notice that the women will, above all else, claim the right of representation on the boards governing schools,” the Democrat wrote. “We note by our exchanges that in many instances women sought the position of school trustees. In the main they were unorganized, really didn’t know how to do things, and were generally and generously defeated.”

Ironically, the education realm had given Tuolumne County its first female elected official 36 years earlier, with Rose Morgan, of Columbia, serving one year as superintendent of county schools. She became the third woman to serve in such a capacity after Mono and Shasta counties elected women to fill the office.

In 1922, Josie Terzich was elected in Tuolumne County as the state’s first female coroner. She was re-elected three times. Calaveras County had its first woman in public office in 1924 when Julia Waters was appointed treasurer after her husband’s death, said county archivist Shannon Van Zant. Waters was later re-elected by voters.

It took much longer before a woman gained Tuolumne County’s highest office, with Mildred Filiberti elected as a supervisor in 1976. Filiberti served until 1987.

Today, the race for Tuolumne County District 1 supervisor is an all-female clash between incumbent Liz Bass and Sherri Brennan, ensuring the fairer sex will maintain representation on the board regardless of the outcome.

Angels Camp has its third-ever female mayor, Elaine Morris, who was re-elected this year to a second term. The city’s second woman mayor, Debbie Ponte, is running against Tom Tryon for Calaveras County District 4 supervisor this fall, and the county’s sitting female supervisor, Merita Callaway, is its second-longest tenured with 19 years in office.

Both counties’ elections will be overseen by women, with Debi Russell Bautista and Madaline Krska holding the Tuolumne and Calaveras elected clerk offices respectively. Rebecca Turner serves as the elections coordinator for Calaveras County.

Women have consistently turned out to vote at a higher rate than men since the 1980s, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Calaveras County does not track voters by gender but Russell Bautista said women outnumber men 16,508 to 14,394 among Tuolumne County registrants. The gender of 879 voters is unknown, according to Tuolumne County statistics.

That women’s issues are at the forefront in this election should probably not be a surprise. There has been much progress since 1920, the first time women nationwide voted for president.

“In 1920, women voted overwhelmingly as their husbands did or their fathers,” Hamilton said. “Today, women are much more independent and it’s very diverse. You often have a Republican husband and Democratic wife in the same household (or vice versa).”

Among women are some of the most reliable voter demographics, upper-income, elderly and white women, he said, who lean more Republican, whereas low-income, rural and minority women, who lean more Democratic, “are a hard group to mobilize, overworked or (holding) other obligations.”

“In the 1960s and 1970s, women started living so much longer,” Hamilton said, “and as they aged, tended to be much more participatory.”

Contact Sean Janssen at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it or 890-7741.