Aunt Susan Meets the Rampant Suffragist of Crown Hill; Or,
How Outside Agitators and Uppity Locals Conspired to Win SLO Women the Vote in 1896
In 1896 San Luis Obispo County was the literal American frontier. The total population of 16,000 put the county squarely at the two person per square mile density the census bureau had recently defined as the boundary between civilization and wilderness. The male-heavy population ratio typical of frontier communities had been shifting here for decades, however, so that in the ‘90s SLO was edging ever closer to a 50/50 balance of men and women.
The old mission town county seat then boasted a well-established regional narrow-gauge railroad, the recently arrived Southern Pacific, a commercial port at Avila Bay, but only 3000 people – which made it about the same size as Cayucos today. The next-biggest towns were Paso Robles, population about a thousand, and Arroyo Grande, with about half that number. The other country hamlets were smaller still. Roughly a third of the county population lived above the Cuesta Grade in what locals called "North County," about a quarter below the grade in "South County," and the rest in an around San Luis Obispo city or westward to the coast.
Balkanized by rough terrain, bad roads, history and habit, SLO voters were hard to reach and all but impossible to organize. Save for the Farmer's Alliance, the WCTU, the Odd Fellows and a few other county-wide organizations, there weren't many established social networks to bridge ingrained provincialisms. Any project that required North Countians, South Countians, and SLO cityfolk to meet in the same place at the same time for the same purpose was likely to fail. There was even serious talk in ‘96 of splitting the county into two at the grade. The genius of Aunt Susan's outsider-directed but insider-realized suffrage campaign was that it did not require county-wide gatherings. All it needed was a latent community of interest that outsiders could focus and mobilize.
Before the mid-90s SLO activist women had channeled their public efforts almost entirely through left wing agrarian politics and temperance reform, especially though the Farmer's Alliance and the WCTU. Both well-entrenched in North and South County, the two provided the homegrown foundations on which Anthony's outside agitators built their local suffrage campaign. The WCTU sponsored the initial county-wide suffrage convention in May of ‘96, which in turn spawned the first San Luis city suffrage organization, the Political Equality Club. The latter, the Alliance, and the WCTU promoted suffrage meetings and precinct canvasses throughout the summer and fall, building momentum toward Anthony's celebrity appearance in October. By election time over eighty SLO county residents had become sufficiently active in the cause to leave some trace in the public record. More than a third lived in or near Arroyo Grande.
SLO suffragists were a mixed lot. San Luis city activists tended to be the wives and daughters of upper middle class county seat business and civic leaders who naturally gravitated toward the woman's clubby Political Equality Club. North, South, and coastal county suffragists were more widely spread along the economic and social scale. They were as likely to be farmers and townies, were generally more radical than their city sisters, and more often than not had been long-time Alliance agitators and WCTU crusaders. A telling number of both town and country suffragists were the uppity daughters of uppity mothers. Openly supportive SLO menfolk were everywhere few and far between, and most often left-wing Alliancemen or liberal clergy, attorneys, and journalists. Notable exceptions were the SLO drayman William Sandercock, and Arroyo Grande hotel keeper Joel Apsey.
SLO county journalists provided generally supportive news coverage and editorial endorsement. Early-on the radical Alliance paper, The Reasoner, and the Paso Robles Record added woman suffrage to their regular coverage of Alliance and WCTU affairs. SLO's Tribune and the Breeze became enthusiastic backers, perhaps in part because both editors' wives and one of their daughters were founding members of the Political Equality Club.
The most ardent paper of all – and the only one in the county that could be described as proto-feminist rather than merely pro-suffragist, was the Arroyo Grande Herald, co-edited by Stephen Clevenger and his wife May. Stephen was perhaps the ablest journal in the county. May had served as President of the county WCTU.
The Herald both led and reflected local opinion. South County had long been the hot spot of SLO suffrage. In 1892 the Nipomo WCTU chapter had staged an elaborate theatrical farce titled "In the Year 1900; or, Shall We Allow Men to Vote?" Shortly after Anthony launched her statewide ‘96 campaign, defiantly Bloomered women appeared on Arroyo Grande streets, and before it was over Arroyo Grande high school girls Edith Carpenter and Claudia Eddy were giving rousing suffrage speeches in local public halls. The Clevenger's Herald serialized women's right essays by Tennessee Clafin Cooke, sister of the notorious Victoria Woodhull, and in October published a hard hitting special suffrage issue guest edited by a committee of local women. One especially notable Herald piece, probably contributed by Clara Paulding, was an account of a fictional coffee klatch conversation between characters named Mrs. Moderation, The Rampant Suffragist, The Conservative Lady, the Dutiful Wife, and The Woman Who Had Never Thought About it.
SLO was fertile ground for outside agitators Sarah Severance and Harriet May Mills. The county had long been a regular stop on Severance's statewide WCTU political circuit. Mills, a newcomer to California, was Anthony's hand-picked operative for San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties. Both were upstate New Yorkers born near Seneca Falls, in 1836 and 1857 respectively, and both embodied its reformist spirit. Both women first became teachers, and later, full-time political operatives constantly on the road, married only to their cause.
Severance came West in the 1860s to teach at a San Jose academy, then founded her own girls seminary in nearby Gilroy and threw herself into Santa Clara Valley civic and social reform. In 1886 the California State WCTU appointed her the organization's chief political strategist and lobbyist, a position she held for the next twenty years. Severance would be the first outside suffrage agitator to speak in SLO during the run-up to the 1896 general election.
Sarah Severance was a tough-minded politico with an acid wit and little patience with reactionary men. Her admirers described her variously as "the Gladstone of the WCTU," and "Sarah the Sarcastic." She wrote the most remarkable campaign document of the ‘96 suffrage crusade, a satirical play titled Extra Session of [the] California Legislature. It dramatized a fictional all-female Sacramento legislature debating the question of whether or not men deserved the vote. Severance drew her character's lines from the daily journals of the actual all-male California assembly. Gender-bent, of course, their anti-suffrage arguments sounded absurd.
Mills, in contrast, was gentile and unconfrontational, though no less politically astute. She previously had perfected grass roots suffrage organizing techniques in Syracuse, and had written a brilliant how-to-do-it manual for the New York State Suffrage Association. Mills brought tactical experience, people skills, and tireless energy to her Central Coast assignment. During a grueling two week period over the summer, for example, she braved scorching heat and wretched roads to visit inland Santa Margarita, Paso Robles, Adelaide, Shandon, San Miguel, Templeton, Creston, and Estrella, as well as the coastal villages from Cambria to Pismo Beach. No crowd escaped her, whether a village hall sociable, a tent city of campers on the beach at Morro Bay, or a group of hot tubbers taking the waters at Sycamore Mineral Springs. May's field notes, published in far-away Boston, remain remarkably perceptive but sadly under-utilized descriptions of Central Coast culture.
Susan B. Anthony's eagerly-awaited October 12 appearance in San Luis Obispo was a grand affair. Organizers hired the largest hall in town, installed special lighting, and got out the broadsides. People came in from the surrounding area, including a contingent from Arroyo Grande. Thought gaunt and exhausted after weeks on the road, Aunt Susan nevertheless confirmed her reputation as a Force of Nature, holding the standing room only crowd spellbound for more than an hour. To rousing cheers she concluded, "and to settle the matter once and have piece in the family, the men might as well vote ‘yes' this time." She was scheduled to travel by steamer the next day to Santa Barbara, but somehow Joel Apsey and other South County admirers convinced her to take the narrow gauge south instead so she could make a whistle stop appearance at the Arroyo Grande station.
As election day approached the suffragists realized they'd been had. The Populists and Democrats ran a fusion ticket, the price of which was Democrat insistence that the Populists withdraw their suffrage support. The GOP, fearing that the prospect of voting women would spook McKinley men, repudiated their own suffrage amendment. Several initially supportive big city newspapers went silent or joined the opposition. Meanwhile the political dirty tricksters were at work. State election officials renumbered the suffrage amendment from 11 to 6, sure to confuse some pro-suffrage voters, and placed it either at the beginning or end of the ballot, where anti-suffrage men could more easily find it. The long-ominously quiet liquor lobby now launched a noisy anti-suffrage blitz, especially in populous San Francisco and Alameda counties, where it mobilized saloon patrons to vote early and often. Platoons of prostitutes hired for the occasion paraded through fashionable San Francisco neighborhoods waving yellow suffrage banners and singing bawdy parodies of suffrage songs. Since the two bay area counties contained a third of the state population, the odds were that as they went so would woman suffrage.
On November 3rd California men rejected woman suffrage 55 to 44 percent. The anti-suffrage plurality came overwhelmingly from San Francisco and East Bay urban precincts, and from rough and tumble Gold Country counties. Sarah Severance's assessment was typically incisive: "What defeated us?" she asked. "Greed, liquor, lust, and ignorance....It looks as if we had been traded for McKinley.... California ought to teach women better than to put faith in politicians. Our work should be with the voters, each woman making a few unbelievers her especial mission."
Severance might have added that for all her strategic brilliance, Aunt Susan had misread California political demographics. By 1896 the state was already more urban than rural. Only a few over half the counties had populations larger than 1% of the state total, whereas more than half of all Californians lived in the five most urbanized regions – the Bay area, the Santa Clara valley, Fresno, and Los Angeles. The simple fact was that women had to win the cities to win the vote. However effective, pro-suffrage campaigning in rural counties such as San Luis Obispo did not carry much weight state-wide. The outcome was close enough that relatively more emphasis on urban rather than rural politicking might well have won the day.
Converting unbelievers face-to-face had worked best in rural and small town settings, especially in central and southern California. Unlikely Tulare and Alpine Counties voted for suffrage two to one, the highest pluralities in the state. San Luis Obispo County men approved by 54%. SLO returns confirmed that suffrage politics was far more personal and partisan, and not obviously patterned. The turn-out was pretty good; nearly 80% of the SLO men who voted at all expressed themselves on the suffrage issue. But there were no significant correlations between how they voted on woman suffrage and how they voted on anything or anyone else. Where they voted was equally unrevealing. Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo split about evenly, and smaller village votes defied easy explanation: Cambria and Cayucos no, Morro and Nipomo yes; Santa Margarita no, San Miguel and Templeton yes. As one might have expected, Arroyo Grande men voted strongly pro-suffrage – though a local outbreak of nasty anti-Chinese agitation during the summer of ‘96 makes it hard to judge their deepest motivations.
Defeat crushed the campaigners. The state woman suffrage convention, long scheduled to be a victory celebration the day after the election, turned into a wake. Anthony and her crew left California within a few days. Except for ongoing WCTU efforts organized woman suffrage floundered in the state for nearly a decade. In 1910 the crusade revived and finally succeeded, appropriately enough with Anti-Saloon League backing and the aged but redoubtable Sarah Severance as honorary chair.
In October 1911 voter registration rolls opened to California women. At least twenty of the SLO suffragists of ‘96 still living in the county triumphantly signed up to vote in their first national election. One was Martha Frick, Paso Robles Alliancewoman and WCTU stalwart.
Another was Clara Paulding, the probable Rampant Suffragist of Crown Hill. A third was Kate Cox, a founding Vice President of the SLO Political Equality Club, a long-time investor in Arroyo Grande real estate, and still feisty at 76, who listed her party as Democrat, and her occupation as capitalist.
Howard S. (Dick) Miller
South County Historical Society, Oct. 9, 2007
Copyright © 2007 by Howard S. Miller