For minority groups, social standing, cultural acceptance, and the pace at which these goals are achieved is dependent on the usage and allotment of public spaces in order change the effect of the built and experienced landscapes on the imagined landscapes of urban space and vice versa. This dependency and correlation is especially clear in the the development of racial and gender relations in early San Francisco. While there are extraneous factors, as we can see in the compiled writing of Shah in Contagious Divides and Sewell in Women in the Everyday City, the female and Chinese populations differed greatly in their use of public space and the eventual outcomes of their path to cultural acceptance.

The Troubles

As San Francisco developed as an urban center in California, it continued to reel from the effects of it’s creation as part of the 1800s gold rush craze. As Booth mentioned, and I have previously touched on in other blogs, “Cal. is a world upside down–nothing like home comforts and home joys.” (Booth 1953 31) The environment of the mines and very early San Francisco created a sort of pressure cooker in relations between minority groups and the white male population.

For the women, the issue at hand was that of equality and the fight for the ability to vote. Part of the key of American democracy is the ability to vote, and for many groups in the U.S., the measures of their progress through the gauntlet of minority relations in the United States has been defined by their classification as voters. As the amount of women increased from the tremendously skewed gender ratios of the gold rush period (Johnson), the push for suffrage became more and more necessary for the women, and more and more of an issue for the men in positions of power.


Portraits of suffrage leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton topping SF Chronicle article on their visit to San Francisco. (Silver 2000)

Unfortunately, the beginning of the suffrage movement didn’t seem to have backing from media or the usual power structures in San Francisco. The picture above was criticized by Mae Silver as propaganda against the suffrage movement in the way that the two leaders seem to be represented as criminals in a wanted poster or mugshot style, rather than the champions of a political cause that they were. According to Silver, Stanton only gave on speech on her trip, cancelling the rest due to poor response to the first, and neither were given the respect they seemingly deserved. (Silver 2000) While only one example of the trials the suffrage movement, as a proxy for the female population of San Francisco as a whole, withstood, the treatment of the leaders of the movement early in the suffrage discourse points at a larger issue of respect and social standing for the women of the city.

Much like the women, the Chinese had to face the wrath of the majority in the development of their relations to the landscapes of San Francisco. One of the defining qualities, whether real or imagined, of early Chinatown was the sheer density and unhygienic practices of the people living there. This led to common, and incredibly racially driven (read: racist), notions that Chinatown existed as a literal breeding ground of infectious, and deadly diseases. This seems to have begun, as Shah notes, in the wake of an 1876 outbreak of Smallpox which infected 1600 and killed 450 people. The outbreak eventually was attributed to the existence of “30,000 ‘unscrupulous, lying and treacherous Chinamen.'” by the new city health officer. (Shah 2001) This battle between city health officials and the reality of Chinatown went on for years and only got worse.

chinatownmedical issues.jpg

1882 cartoon promoting racist notion of Chinatown as disease-ridden. (FoundSF)

What really goes down as THE trouble between the Chinese and the (white male) city health officials was the series of quarantines thrown together in order to prevent the spread of a probably non-existent bubonic plague from the fake-disease-epicenter that was Chinatown at the time. In real terms, the Chinese population became a political tool for the Board of Health to use as they needed to increase power and sway in San Francisco. Shah wrote that, “The Board of Health expected that their swift response to a suspected Chinese bubonic plague case would draw enthusiastic support from white politicians and the popular press,” and that “municipal and federal health officials believed they could divide the contaminated from the uncontaminated along racial lines.” (Shah 2001) The Chinese bore the brunt of much of the racial tensions in the late 19th and early 20th century, and ended up being forcibly confined in terms of public space.

Use of Public Space

When the women came together for the second time in 1911 to push for suffrage, they knew what they needed to do. The big difference between their first and second suffrage campaigns ended up being the ability to use public spaces to their advantage. Much of the growth of movement was the growth of women into the usual public spaces once held by the working class. By 1911, the women of the movement had learned that what they were calling there movement was making a difference so they switched their theme from “parlor” to “suffrage” in order to make their message clear. Through their expansion into public space and the public eye, the women of the suffrage movement were finally able to bring to their cause groups of men who otherwise wouldn’t know enough to vote properly. Sewell wrote that “While both the daily lives and the political activities of working-class and ethnic women were constrained by neighborhood affiliation, middle-class suffragists claimed the whole city and everyone within it as their political domain.” (Sewell 2011 166) 

women marching.jpg

The use of public space, as seen in the picture above of women marching under the suffrage banner lent itself well to increasing the spread and acceptance of their message. Even though in the end they were entirely reliant on the voices of voting men, the women of San Francisco didn’t stand by and accept that they had no voice.

The Chinese, on the other hand, weren’t allowed access to public spaces due to the quarantine. While the Chinese did have some members in the public/government sphere as well as an organized opposition, the merchants and many residents of Chinatown were precluded from involvement in these groups. (Shah) In some cases, the residents of Chinatown went against even their own leadership and the merchants in their area. Much like how the women during their push for suffrage had no voice of their own when it came to the actual vote, for much of the time during the “bubonic plague” crisis the Chinese population had almost no representation and minimal availability to public spaces. Some of the more prominent merchants recognized their lack of power and that it seemed that appeasement of the white government officials would be key for bettering relations, but in accepting that concept, they ran against the grain of the popular mindset of the rest of their neighborhood. (Shah) The lack of access to public space seemed to critically undercut any push for more rights and protection for the residents of Chinatown. The glaring lack of pushback and questioning of these racial stereotypes by the rest of the population of San Francisco points to the fact that no counter-propaganda could reach them from the Chinatown lockdown.


Well, the most simple way to state the results for the females is that they won suffrage in the 1911 referendum and were able to vote in 1912, a huge step in gender relations and gender equality in both California and the United States. The movement continued to roll through the US until eventually women’s suffrage was ratified for the entirety of the country through a constitutional amendment. While this didn’t end problems between the genders, it gave women the ability to speak and be represented fully at the governmental level, a huge step for minority groups looking to push changes through in the future.

In Chinatown, the results weren’t as fantastic. Because of the failures of the BoH during the crisis, there existed a fair amount of bad blood between the Chinese and health officials. Even after the 1906 earthquake forced much of Chinatown to be rebuilt, there were some that would have preferred it razed entirely. (Shah) Even after the population began to move out into the suburbs, Chinatown remained incredibly dense, as seen in this map from Godfrey.(pg. 106) The density of Chinatown has caused it to remain overcrowded and has seemed to leave a certain level of racial issues pointing towards it being an unhygienic type of area.

In the end, in the struggle for a safe space and some semblance of power and strength in the San Francisco community, the use and allowance of public space is key for minority groups to reach out and glean support from both other groups as well as from those within the majority who find themselves empathetic to the minority cause. Unfortunately, not every group is allowed the ability to step into those spaces and is refused that cultural growth and acceptance and leads to situations as seen with the Chinatown neighborhood of San Francisco.


Works Cited
Booth, Edmund. Edmund Booth (1810-1905) Forty-Niner; the Life Story of a Deaf Pioneer. Stockton, CA: San Joaquin Pioneer and Historical Society, 1953.American Memory. Web. 19 Sept. 2016.
Godfrey, Brian J. Neighborhoods in Transition: The Making of San Francisco’s Ethnic and Nonconformist Communities. Berkeley: U of California, 1988. Print.
Johnson, Susan Lee. Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000. Print.
Sewell, Jessica Ellen. Women and the Everyday City: Public Space in San Francisco, 1890-1915. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2011. Amazon Kindle.
Shah, Nayan. Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Berkeley: U of California, 2001. Print.
Silver, Mae, and Sue Cazaly. The Sixth Star: Images and Memorabilia of California Women’s Political History 1868-1915. San Francisco, CA: Ord Street, 2000. Print.
Silver, Mae. “FoundSF.” WOMEN CLAIM THE VOTE IN CALIFORNIA –. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.
Trauner, Joan. “Chinese as Medical Scapegoats, 1870-1905.” Chinese as Medical Scapegoats, 1870-1905 –. FoundSF, n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.