In commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the founding of Lake County this year, Lake County News is publishing a series of historical stories about the county, its people and places. This week's story by Jan Cook – the second of two parts – explores the work of Lake County's suffragists.
LAKE COUNTY, Calif. – Following the 1896 loss for suffrage, California’s woman suffrage fervor diminished for a few years, but by 1911, the tide had turned and pro-suffrage energy revitalized the movement. The women’s suffrage amendment was on the ballot again.
In the weeks preceding the Oct. 10 election, Lake County voters took time from another hot local issue, the Clear Lake Railroad, to consider women’s suffrage.
The Lake County Bee of Oct. 5, 1911, published articles by Nancy Kastner, wife of the Rev. W.F. Kastner, supporting the suffrage amendment and the Rev. James L. Woods, firmly against the amendment.
Woods opened his article with these words: “While I am opposed to the woman suffrage amendment to the constitution, in the elective franchise what man accepts as a privilege the suffragette woman demands as an absolute right. It is claimed to be equal and exact justice, as human beings under common civic institutions and laws. But no sooner will the fundamental law be changed than woman, while grasping its honors and emoluments will evade its duties and responsibility by demanding immunities and privileges made necessary by the limitations of her sex and nature. At once the equilibrium is destroyed and man becomes the weaker sex. I do not believe this to be nature religion law or fact. The religion discussion belongs to another forum.”
Woods commented that “fifteen years ago the Lakeport lecture of the celebrated Anna Shaw was a strong weapon for the defeat of the suffrage amendment.” Woods did not elaborate on his objections to Shaw’s lecture.
In the same issue of the Bee, Kastner asked, “Why should voting be any more degrading than standing in a line with neighbors and strangers at the Post Office, paying taxes, purchasing railroad tickets, or the many other things which women do, and to which no men seem to object? How can she sacrifice her dignity by putting on her bonnet and walking down to the polling booth? The woman who thinks she is making herself unwomanly by voting is a silly creature.”
Kastner expressed some of the cultural and racial attitudes of her day in her suffrage arguments. “Women as well as men are human beings and the right to self government is one which is demanding the attention of the whole world. Women will add a distinct moral element to the present vote. They loathe to have their mothers, wives and sweethearts rated with chinamen, idiots and insane persons at the ballot box.”
Arthur Dewdney, another Lakeport minister, spoke at Winter’s Opera House about his 18 years’ experience with women’s suffrage in New Zealand.
The Clear Lake Press published his comments on Sept. 23, 1911: “The arguments opposing the suffrage of women, the speaker said, were mutually destructive, citing some of [Bay Area journalist] John P. Irish’s contradictory declarations. “All the arguments met in this [California] campaign, said Mr. Dewdney, had been urged in New Zealand, and eighteen years experience under equal suffrage law had dissipated every one of them. Not a man of note there will oppose it now, in fact, the test of years has dissipated all the fears.”
On Oct. 10, 1911, California men voted on the suffrage amendment and made history. Early returns indicated that suffrage was headed for defeat, but slowly, county by county, the returns came in and the picture changed.
When all statewide returns were finally received and the official totals were announced two days later, they showed a majority of only 3,587 votes in favor. Once the suspense of the election was finished, women were ready to exercise their hard-won rights.
Within a few days of the election, women began to register in Lake County.
The Clear Lake Press for Oct. 21 named early registrants Virginia Mathews, wife of county clerk Shafter Mathews, Mary Tripp, Nancy Jane Dinsmore, Margaret Dinsmore Lane, Sydney Maude Milberry and Sylvia Hazell.
Lake County’s newly-enfranchised women placed their first votes in a “local option” election in November 1911, a vote on local prohibition. The First Supervisorial District voted “wet” 125 to 87.
The new suffrage law required a new registration form, effective Jan. 1, 1912.
The Clear Lake Press on Jan. 27, 1912, related the story of a remarkable woman who registered in January.
“Mrs. Iley Lawson Hill, Lake County’s centenarian, who will be 104 years old on the 5th of May, was the first woman and the first person to register on the new blanks this year. County Clerk Mathews personally went to the home of her daughter, Mrs. Mary Arnold, and registered the venerable lady. Mrs. Hill is possessed of most of her faculties and can write her name, but does not see very well. When asked with what party she intended to affiliate, this daughter of the American Revolution replied 'I am a Whig.'” The daughter of a Revolutionary patriot, she remembered the days of the Whigs.
Women wasted no time in making their presence known in the voting booth.
The Clear Lake Press on April 6, 1912, reported that the “school election was of unheard of excitement in Lakeport, and apparently in most other districts of the county, yesterday. Think of a school election polling 358 votes in Lakeport when in former years fifteen was about the average vote cast, and consider whether or not women will vote when they have the opportunity. The women not only voted yesterday, but it is evident they stimulated, or shamed, the male sex into exercising their right and duty of electing school trustees.”
With the franchise came other civic privileges and responsibilities, and women soon expanded their political horizons.
Judge Morton Sayre named 10 women to the 1914 grand jury, an “innovation in Lake County.”
Now eligible for all elective offices, not just school offices, women began to throw their hats into the ring.
Luemma Kemp, widow of murdered sheriff George Kemp, was elected Lake County tax collector in 1914, the first woman to hold a countywide, non-school office.
When the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, Lake County seemed to take little note of it. By 1920 California women had already voted in two presidential elections and were anticipating their third. Voting had become routine.
Editor G. E. Nichols of the Lake County Bee urged women to remember that “feminine suffrage was not achieved in a day, nor in a month, nor a year. It has required many years of ceaseless effort and countless disappointment to place her on a political equality with man.
“The laudable ambition of womanhood is a better government and a more enlightened citizenry. This can be accomplished gradually, but it can not be done with a stampede.” (Lake County Bee, Sept. 2, 1920).
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Suggested reading: Robert P.J. Cooney, Jr. Winning the Vote: The Triumph of the American Woman Suffrage Movement. Eleanor Flexner, Century of Struggle. Gayle Ann Gullet, Becoming Citizens: the Emergence and Development of the California Women’s Movement, 1880-1911. Rebecca J. Mead, How the Vote was Won: Woman Suffrage in the western United States. Anna Howard Shaw, The Story of a Pioneer. Will A. Linkugel and Martha Solomon, Anna Howard Shaw: Suffrage Orator and Social Reformer.
Juvenile titles: Anna Bausum, With Courage and Cloth: Winning the Fight for Woman’s Right to Vote. Marlene Targ Brill, Let Women Vote! Don Brown, A Voice from the Wilderness: The Story of Anna Howard Shaw. Deborah Kops, The Women Suffrage Movement. Carol Rust Nash, The Fight for Women’s Right to Vote. Dana Meachen Rau, Great Women of the Suffrage Movement.
Lake County newspapers, microfilmed and filed at the Lake County Library, hold the foundations of Lake County history stories that will be published during the Lake County Sesquicentennial celebration.
Research in books, in other local history sources like the “Mauldin Notes,” and on the internet, fleshes out these stories and allows glimpses of Lake County’s past. Through these articles, the library will introduce modern Lake Countians to little-known stories of “the good old days” in Lake County. Each article includes suggestions for further reading.
The microfilmed newspapers are housed at the Lakeport Library, 1425 N. High St, 707-262-8817, and at Redbud Library in Clearlake, 14785 Burns Valley Rd, 797-994-5115. Each library has a microfilm reader-printer machine. The library’s website is http://library.co.lake.us. A list of the newspapers in the library’s collection is on the Web site under “Local Genealogy and History.”
Thank you to the Lake County Office of Education and California State Archives for their contributions to this article
Early 20th century newspapers referred to married women as wives of their husbands, not by their own names. Ada Clendenin was “Mrs. W.P. Clendenin.” Census searches on www.familysearch.org revealed the first names of women mentioned in these old articles.
Author's note: In researching this article, the writer was not able to find photographs of any Lake County suffrage events in the collection of the Lake County Museum. If any reader knows of photos of any suffrage events, please contact Jan Cook at Lakeport Library, 707-263-8817.
Visit the Lake County Sesquicentennial Web site at www.lc150.org or the Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Lake-County-Sesquicentennial/171845856177015.
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