Abstract: San Francisco and California as a whole became a catalyst for launching the Women’s Suffrage movement. Pitting the formation and growth of equality movements against Eastern “New World” settlements and communities, none can quite keep up with the pace at which the Bay Area accepted Gender Equality as the norm.
Two distinct discourses of Gender Relations and Race Relations exist within the United States. As far as the formation of new cultures and cities goes, there seems to be a fairly safe start date and end date of the struggle of women in 18th-20th century America. The start date would be the arrival. Naturally, the creation of new social structure necessitates a reforming of traditional roles which will be seen in the founding of the colonies in places like Roanoke and Plymouth Rock, as well as in the Gold Rush cultures of the Southern Mines.
The end date, for the purpose of keeping this essay manageable and within the time period, can be set as a major milestone for women’s rights and American gender relations as a whole, Women’s Suffrage. The intent of this essay is not to make the argument that women’s victory in earning the right to vote is the logical conclusion of any issues in gender relations, but that it’s a very specific event which was measured in every state to chronicle the changes in the way women and men interacted, and how the social standing of women grew from earlier times.
When settlers came over from England in the colonial era, the crews were mostly men. Looking at the Mayflower original passenger list, commissioned by Gov. William Bradford, only 18 women came, and of those all were married to one of the men aboard. In Roanoke, the numbers came out to be very similar. According to the National Parks service, which did it’s best to compile numbers of settlers from old documents (none of which could be found at the time this was written sadly), only 17 women were included in the original 1587 settler count. For simplicity, we’ll place the aggregate timing of these arrivals at around 1600, give or take a few years. Because it seemed to be exclusively married women in the colonies at this time, it wouldn’t seem that women had much room to maneuver or create their own lives in this built and experience landscapes. It would seem that for a woman to exist in this new world necessitated her to live in the shadow and footsteps of her husband who was surely viewed as a true pioneer and hero.
The breakdown of genders who sped to California to take part in the Gold Rush is very similar to that of the original settlement of the American colonies. In her book Roaring Camp about the southern mines of the Gold Rush, Susan Lee Johnson repeatedly refers back to the “skewed sex ratios in the diggings.” (Johnson 2000 101) Not only were few women around at the time of the diggings, but also the gender roles seemed to be fairly backwards, at least in the eyes of many of the men of the Gold Rush. Edmund Booth wrote to his wife in 1850 that “Cal. is a world upside down–nothing like home comforts and home joys.” (Booth 1953 31) Because of the lack of women in these camps, Johnson notes that men would often take on these roles of cooking and domestic work, but she also alludes to the idea that these female roles were passed off to the men of color living with the white men of the mines. Johnson says, “In everyday events like these, where men of color performed tasks white men associated with white women, Gold Rush race relations became gender relations as well.” (Johnson 113)
By relegating the roles of women to people in the camps who the white men looked down upon as having a much lesser social standing, the men of the southern mines made it very clear where they saw a woman’s place being. While the baffling sex ratio led to the creation of a world upside down, the men of the Gold Rush made it clear where they saw themselves, and women, in this new western world. Through these relationships and the gender breakdown of these new settlements, it can be seen that in 1850, California is starting on a very similar footing to where the original American colonists started off. Women are few and far between to begin with, living in the shadows of husbands and other men while having their traditional roles relegated to what the white men viewed as lower levels of society. The question now, is how do these mini-societies move from this new formation to the “enlightenment” of Suffrage, and how long does it take?
The peak of gender relations in the 19th and 20th centuries was the concept of finally allowing women to vote. That brings us to this, the California Suffrage ballot. In 1911, California passed a constitutional amendment which would allow women the right to vote. This was California’s second attempt to pass the vote for suffrage after a failed attempt in 1896. With the 1911 vote, California still became the sixth state to allow women the right to vote, with the other five also coming from states/territories in the Western United States. In this fun little map found on the website of the National Constitution Center, you can see when each state/territory granted women the right to vote relative to the passing of the 19th amendment as a federal legislation.
As can be seen from the map, much of the West Coast had granted women the right to vote before any federal legislation, which was not the case on the East Coast, and the states of the colonies mentioned earlier. Before delving into what may have made California gender relations so beneficial, it’s time to do the math to determine just how much of a breakneck pace California, and San Francisco, really moved at.
In the colonies discussed, the numbers were taken in 1587 and 1651, respectively. For a California start date, we’ll use the year when Edmund Booth found his world upside down, 1850. From formation to suffrage in Virginia and Massachusetts, the people took 333 and 269 years, respectively. In California, on the other hand, suffrage took only 61 years. That is 4-5 times quicker than the pace of the East Coast, plus California held the tie-breaker of “who did it earlier.”
Now how did California come so far so quickly? Well, it might not be fair to say that both groupings started in the same place in gender relations. Johnson notes that coming into the Gold Rush, many of the white men had come from the East Coast areas either by boat or over land. (Johnson 2000) This gives these men the benefit of starting the gender relations discourse with the knowledge of 200 years of men and women living in this country. Also, California at this point was already incredibly diverse, and therefore necessitated many of these racial/gender relations discussions rapidly and often all at once as this western culture developed.
Women using public spaces and marching under the suffrage banner in San Francisco in 1908 (FoundSF)
One thing which almost definitely swayed the tide for California, however, was the use of public spaces by women in their 1911 campaign. In a chapter of Jessica Sewell’s book, Women In the Everyday City, dedicated to the differences between the 1896 and 1911 California Suffrage campaigns, she makes it very clear that the largest difference was that in 1911, the women knew how to and were able to take full advantage of the public areas of San Francisco. From streetcars, to department stores, to lecturing on the street, the status of women in California gave them the ability to finally reach their target audience, which were everyday male voters. (Sewell 2003) According to Sewell, much of the 1896 vote was confined to the homes and parlors of the more elite women, which limited the voters in favor to the families of those elite suffragettes. The expansion of women’s roles in San Francisco led almost directly to these openings in the public spaces where they could get on their soapboxes and bring men into their cause.
In the end, it would seem that California is not only a brilliant incubator for tech startups, but also was a nearly record-breaking quick incubator of women’s rights and gender equality. While it did have some intrinsic benefits of timing, it also had the benefit of a social class which allowed for women to use the public spaces with minimal consequence, as well as a population already more used to a plethora of diversity than most other American populations at the time. Not only did California legalize voting for women 200 years quicker than the original American settlements, but it managed to be on the very forefront of women’s rights by being one of the first states to back the right to vote for women. There is still further to go in terms of gender equality, but if the past is any indicator, California will be one of the quickest to make those changes.
Johnson, Susan Lee. Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000. Print.
“Mayflower Passenger List.” MayflowerHistory.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Sept. 2016.
Sewell, Jessica Ellen. Women and the Everyday City: Public Space in San Francisco, 1890-1915. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2011. Amazon Kindle.
Silver, Mae. “Women Claim The Vote In California.” FoundSF
. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.