Suffragists’ success: League of Women Voters, others record history of movement in SLO County

One hundred years ago today, 54 percent of San Luis Obispo County men voted to grant women the same right. Proposition 4 passed with just 50.7 percent of the state vote, and California became the sixth state to allow women’s suffrage.

Though men ultimately cast the fateful vote, suffrage was achieved through the efforts of oft-forgotten women who articulated, cajoled and shouted to their menfolk the message of equality.

In San Luis Obispo, some traversed the countryside at a time when the county was formally classified as the edge of the wilderness, with a population density of just two people per square mile, and a round trip journey on the potholed road from Morro Bay to San Luis Obispo was a two-day affair.

“The default setting for American history is guy’s history but if you ignore one half, you probably get the other half wrong, too,” said Morro Bay resident and historian Dick Miller.

He is one of several local researchers working with the League of Women Voters this centennial to scour archives and assemble a history of local women’s suffrage.

The “other half” included young women who shunned skirts for bloomers and took to the streets of Arroyo Grande — a hotspot of suffrage where an impressive 72 percent of men voted “yes” in 1911.

Or outspoken young farm women such as Ida K. Laughlin, who was quoted in the pro-suffrage Arroyo Grande Herald in 1896 as saying: “Men and women go hand in hand from the cradle to the grave and I see no reason why they should not go together to the polls.”

Local groups, such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and the socialist “Radical Farmers” were strong suffrage supporters who lobbied their neighbors.

“Suffrage politics is intensely personal — the politics of back fence and front porch, and I suspect, the bedroom,” Miller explained.

But it was also outside agitators who relentlessly carried the message of equality.

In 1896, leading suffragist Susan B. Anthony transfixed a sellout crowd in San Luis Obispo, urging that “to settle the matter and have peace in the family the men might just as well vote ‘yes’ this time.” (Note that the term “suffragist” is preferred to the commonly used “suffragette,” as the latter was originally coined by a British newspaper as a derisive and diminutive insult to female suffragists.) A majority of San Luis Obispo County men indeed voted “yes” in the first election for women’s suffrage in 1896, though it lost statewide that year.

Anthony also paid the charming and sophisticated Harriet May Mills to negotiate San Luis Obispo County’s notoriously bad roads to speak at every town and meeting house — even to hot tubbers at Sycamore Hot Springs.

And it was Therese Staniford Crittenden and her mother, Sarah Staniford — founding members in 1896 of the San Luis Obispo Political Equality Club — who lobbied their influential father and husband, George Staniford, for thorough and supportive coverage of suffrage issues in his newspapers, The Tribune and The Breeze.

And while most outspoken suffragists were the daughters of well-established merchants, San Luis Obispo clubwoman Mary Ella Ridle — a newcomer to the county and wife of a masonry contractor — was the fifth woman to register to vote in the county and the first to run against a man for state Assembly as a Democrat.

These stories and many more are in the process of being written and uploaded to www.votes4women.org, a growing local history resource. Representatives from cities, historical societies, political parties, educators and the American Association of University Women are collaborating with the League of Women Voters on this and a variety of educational and celebratory events for the centennial. County Clerk-Recorder Julie Rodewald is assisting the group in critical research, providing access to antique voter rolls.

“We hope that the little pieces will all eventually add up instead of piling up,” said Miller, adding that “the hope is that if we make enough noise, someone will say, ‘I think grandma’s letters are in the garage somewhere,’ ” and knowledge of San Luis Obispo County women’s history will continue to grow.

Ultimately, the local League of Women Voters wants the public to remember that the suffragists’ legacy is alive and evolving. After California allowed women to vote, the message spread eastward until the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution enfranchised all American women in 1920.

Today more than 30 percent of state and national elected officials are women, and they comprise more than 33 percent of elected officials for San Luis Obispo County, schools, cities and special districts.Marilee Hyman, who is leading the research, wants women to remember: “Don’t waste all that effort. Go vote. Sign up. Run for office — all of those things that come with this privilege.”

Time to celebrate

SLO County League of Women Voters is hosting a 100-year anniversary celebration of women earning the right to vote from 4 to 7 p.m. today at the Dallidet Adobe in San Luis Obispo.

To see its growing historical archive on women’s suffrage or to contact the League’s history committee with new local leads, visit www.votes4women.org. A historical brochure is available in all 15 branches of the county library system.