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Ellen Browning Scripps and allies helped turn California around on voting rights nine years before nation followed suit.
While her politics leaned far to the left, newspaper magnate Ellen Browning Scripps couldn’t resist a luxury automobile. In the years before World War I, the millionaire tooled around La Jolla in a gleaming Pierce-Arrow limousine that she adored for its “beauty and real ‘womanliness.’”
In 1916, the car took on a new task: “Taking all sorts and kinds of people to the polls,” as she put it to her half-sister. Scripps didn’t feel the need to mention that the voters included women who couldn’t cast a ballot just a few years earlier. Nor did she mention the obvious: Nearly a decade before the nation granted women the right to vote, she and her local allies played a crucial role in pushing the Golden State to lead the way.
“San Diego helped California come through for suffrage, and that was a shot in the arm for the national movement,” said University of San Diego historian Molly McClain, author of a 2017 biography of Scripps. “What happened here mattered.”
This month marks the 100th anniversary of the United States granting women the right to vote via an amendment to the Constitution. While historians often focus on the national battle for suffrage in 1920, several Western states – most notably California – had already set the stage by themselves granting the vote to women.
Wyoming went first in 1890, followed by Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Washington. Then, in 1911, California, by far the most populous state in the West, joined them when voters supported suffrage by a tight margin of 51-49 percent. Earlier, in 1896, state voters had turned down women’s suffrage by 55-45 percent, even though feminist leader Susan B. Anthony traveled the state in support and drew a full house at a Methodist church in San Diego.
What changed over 15 years to turn the state around on women’s rights? Ellen Browning Scripps happened, for one thing. In the late 19th century, she and her half-brother built the nation’s largest newspaper chain. Unlike other rich women of her time, Scripps worked for her fortune instead of marrying or inheriting it, McClain said. Around the turn of the 20th century, she moved to La Jolla and donated much of her fortune to local institutions, including many that still bear her last name.
Scripps may have been a millionaire – the equivalent of a billionaire today – but she was no shill for the idle rich. Instead, she leaned far to the left. “She’s a capitalist and so is her half-brother, and they make an enormous sum of money,” McClain said, “but they see the flaws in the system that’s allowed them to become so extraordinarily rich. She believed in the hopeful socialism of the early 20th century, when people who thought that equality was within their grasp if only they could undermine the capitalist system.”
Suffragists like Scripps found more fertile California ground in 1911 than in 1896, when Northern California opposed suffrage and Southern California – including San Diego County – voted in favor. Once a rock-ribbed red state, California’s politics were shifting leftward toward progressivism. And Southern California, once a sparsely populated backwater compared to the bustling Bay Area and Gold Country to the north, was growing as Los Angeles boomed.
San Diego’s population was zooming too — it more than doubled in size between 1900 and 1910, and its nearly 40,000 citizens included plenty of progressives. “At that time, there were a lot of funky people in California and San Diego in particular,” McClain said. “San Diego boasted of its perfect climate, and a lot of people moved here for their health. They were a particular kind of type of person – seekers who believed that miracles can happen.” Like, say, women’s right to vote.
While Scripps was generally quiet and reserved, McClain said, she pushed hard for women’s suffrage in 1911, following up on her early feminism dating back to the 1870s. “She thought women would do a better job governing, that they could fix things like child labor, poverty and prostitution that men ignored, issues that tended to get swept under the carpet. She believed women had the power and potential to make the country a better place.”
Scripps helped transform the La Jolla Women’s Club into a major pro-suffrage force, telling its members to reject naysayers who declared women were “too ignorant to vote, or too indifferent.” And she enlisted her chain’s newspapers across the state – in San Diego, Oakland, Berkeley, Fresno, Los Angeles and San Francisco – to support women’s suffrage and urge men to vote yes.
Suffrage supporters “had a highly evolved and structured political organization with precinct captains, representatives in little towns and neighborhoods, and chairs in each congressional district whose job was to keep after elected officials,” said Gary Ferdman, a retired executive who studies local women’s history. “The whole game was convincing guys to vote for the rights of women. They had billboards, leaflets, you name it. A huge amount of thought and action went into how they got the word out.”
One activist, Ferdman said, traveled the backcountry in an automobile, still a fairly new invention, to get men to pay attention. “What’s going to attract guys? A fancy car! This strategy of going out to the exurbs and engaging men by using a car was pretty good thinking because it apparently worked.”
A local campaigner named Florence Watson Toll put it this way: “Every house is to be invaded. Every man whose name appears on the register will be interviewed by a committee of women. Of course, if we find out a man isn’t with us, we intend to keep right on after him until he is convinced.”
Some men – and women — refused to budge. As in 1896, saloon owners feared that women voters would push to outlaw alcohol. (They had a point.) Opponents of suffrage also “argued would women would lose the influence that they already have and their privileges,” said UCLA historian Ellen Carol DuBois, author of a 2020 book about the suffrage movement. “The assumption was that that normal white women didn’t want to vote, their place was in the home, and they were represented by their husbands. One argument was that the kind of women who would rush to vote would be unsavory. In places like California, that might mean prostitutes.”
Many suffrage supporters were Republicans, DuBois said, while Democrats often opposed women’s suffrage because the party was heavily influenced by the South, which feared giving more power to Black voters.
Locally, Los Angeles businessmen sent a woman from New York to urge the San Diego Women’s Press Club to reserve the vote for men. In letters to the editor, one man asked, “What could women gain by depositing a piece of paper in the ballot box?” He also pointed to an elected official in Colorado who supposedly said she blamed politics for causing her liquor-laced “downfall”: “Late caucuses and conferences put me on the highball route and I never got off.” Never mind that women were more likely than men to support outlawing booze.
Nevertheless, the suffrage activists persisted through Election Day – Oct. 11, 1911.
The heavily Democratic city of San Francisco, destined to transform into one of the most progressive cities in the nation later in the 20th century, voted against suffrage by a wide margin. But San Diego County supported it by 3,331-2,464, providing about a third of the votes in the statewide winning margin. Boosted by big margins in other Southern California counties, suffrage prevailed by fewer than 4,000 votes — 125,037 for yes, 121,450 for no.
At a local YWCA, suffrage supporters celebrated at a “jollification”– translation: they partied up a storm – but they knew their work wasn’t done. “Prominent among the decorations was a green mascot banner sent by the women of Washington [state],” wrote historian Marilyn Kneeland in The Journal of San Diego History. “They had sent it with the understanding that it would be forwarded to each state in succession in which women were struggling for the vote.”
Less than a week after the vote, local suffrage leader Dr. Charlotte Baker registered to vote in a November 1911 municipal bond election, and a Normal Heights woman was said to be the first to cast her ballot here.
Other women voters followed. They first cast ballots for president in 1916, when the county went Republican while Democrat Woodrow Wilson carried the state. San Diego would remain a reliable GOP stronghold – both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan called it their “Lucky City” – until the 21st century.
Meanwhile, it would take decades, until the 1980s and 1990s, for local women to rise to political power and get elected to major positions such as congresswoman, district attorney and mayor of nearly every local city. County voters threw their support to Hillary Clinton for president in 2016, and another milestone might be on the way: This fall, San Diego could become the largest American city to have elected three women as mayor.