By SueAnn Freeman
On Monday, Oct. 10, members of the American Association of University Women, the League of Women Voters and the National Organization of Women braved a torrent of rain as they marched from the California State Museum to the state Capitol in Sacramento to celebrate the anniversary of 100 years of voting rights for women in California.
The marchers, dressed in traditional suffragette attire, were greeted on the second floor of the Capitol Rotunda by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, Secretary of State Debra Bowen and other dignitaries.
The marchers and dignitaries were entertained by traditional suffrage songs, dramatic readings of Proposition 4 and two short plays, “The Sixth Star Suffragists” and “We Did It For You.” The program concluded with the passing of the suffrage banner to a representative from Oregon, the seventh state that granted the vote to women.
The banner has three stripes — white for purity, purple for respect and yellow for enlightenment and hope. The sixth star on the banner symbolizes the state of California. Like the Olympic torch, this banner will pass from state to state on the anniversary of their centennial celebrations. Each star added symbolizes the original 14 states granting rights to women.
The West led the way in the women’s suffrage movement, with Wyoming first in 1890 followed by Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Washington. California passed Proposition 4 on the Oct. 10, 1911, ballot, becoming the sixth state to give women the vote.
By 1918, the territory of Alaska and six other Western states followed California. No other states independently awarded suffrage to women.
It was not until nine years after the women of California earned the right to vote that suffrage was granted to all female citizens of the United States with the passage of the 19th Amendment.
In the tradition of their Western foremothers, California women still lead the way. Nationwide, 23 percent of state legislative offices are held by women. In California, 27 percent of the seats are held by women.
California’s two U.S. senators are women — Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. In 2010, California elected its first female attorney general, Kamala Harris.
Walking in the rain with the other modern-day suffragettes, I could not help but reflect on my past. We may have come a long way since 1911 but I can remember an incident in 1980 that took me by surprise when I first moved from the Bay Area to Sacramento.
I wanted to have the utilities in our new home turned on in my name and was told point-blank no. I was informed that as a married woman, my husband was considered the head of the household and therefore utilities must be placed in his name. It did not matter who provided financial support for the family or whether it was a shared responsibility. It only mattered that he was my husband so he was the responsible party.
After creating a small scene and threatening to sue, I was allowed to establish utilities in my name. In 1981, when I accepted a position in labor relations with the Sacramento Regional Transit District, there were few women in the field of labor relations, especially in blue-collar fields. I was told by a union business representative that they would not sit at the table and discuss grievances or negotiate contract issues with me because I was a woman.
The argument presented was the same as 1911 and 1920 when women sought the vote. They suggested that as I was a woman, I would be too emotional and my sensibilities might be offended by the language men used in discussing business. Fortunately, my male boss responded if that was the case then they had no business to conduct with our office. It was me or no one.
I do not know how often scenes like these were repeated in the 1980s or if they are still being repeated in some parts of our country, but it definitely bears remembering and treasuring the rights that our sisters gained for us in the early 1900s and through the 19th Amendment.
If you missed the centennial march at the Capitol on Oct. 10, you can still see the exhibit at the California State Museum, 1020 O St., or see photos of the event online at www.ca2011centennial.com.
In addition, the Women’s Museum of California, located in San Diego, is hosting a reception Monday to celebrate the opening of its centennial exhibit and a Centennial Ball on Saturday, Oct. 29, celebrating women’s suffrage. Attire for the ball is vintage 1911. Additional information on these events can be found at www.womensmuseumca.org.
— SueAnn Freeman is a Sacramento resident, leadership coach and employee and labor relations specialist with more than 25 years of experience with public and nonprofit agencies.