Efforts to grant women the right to vote may have started back East, but the wave for the 19th Amendment’s ratification actually swept in from the West, with our region playing a significant role.
State-by-state, western states approved women’s right to vote before the federal government. The territory of Wyoming was the first to put women voting into law, in 1869. California approved their participation in 1911 and Nevada in 1914. Come Aug. 26, 1920, when the 19th Amendment granted the right to all (noting that in practice, many barriers remained in place blocking women of color from voting), almost the entire western half of the United States allowed full women’s suffrage.
Early women’s suffrage efforts had a direct tie to the central slope of the Sierra Nevada in the form of a longtime instrumental player in the suffrage movement. Ellen Clark Sargent, who arrived during the Gold Rush in the early 1850s with her husband and settled in Nevada City, became a critical link between suffragists in California and Washington D.C.
Sargent’s well-known political accomplishments were in San Francisco, explained Fran Cole, a member of the League of Women Voters of Western Nevada County. Locally, however, Sargent was focused on educating women about their rights and worked to provide resources for women and children in need.
“She was more a behind-the-scenes worker,” Cole said. “She wasn’t necessarily interested in public speaking or really promoting herself, but she was dedicated to community service, to family, to educating women. I think if we plopped her in our world today, she would be very timely.”
Sargent served as president of Nevada County’s Women’s Suffrage Organization, a group she founded in 1869 and which eventually merged into the League of Women Voters. She also held such titles as treasurer of the National Woman Suffrage Association, president of the California branch of the suffrage association, co-founder of the Century Club (San Francisco’s first women’s club), and honorary president of the California Equal Suffrage Association.
Her husband, Aaron Sargent, a U.S. senator for California, introduced the first draft of what would become the 19th Amendment to Congress in January 1878.
Wrote Sargent in the July 4, 1909 issue of The San Francisco Call, “[Women] must step out into the open and make ourselves so well acquainted with government in all its bearings that we will be considered authority upon the points we shall have investigated and thus command the respect of the most intelligent people, men and women. Our watchword should be duty — not what we individually want, but what will be for the general good.”
Advocacy efforts for women continue today in several organizations around the region. Looking back on Sargent and other women who paved the way for political rights, Linda Smith, president of the Incline Village Crystal Bay Republican Women (IVCBRW) club, says her group’s appreciation for the steps taken in years past imbues their work today. “We respect and understand that we stand on the shoulders of our sisters who were really quite brave in going against the status quo,” she said.
While women of all colors now are able to vote as citizens of the United States (voting rights for people of color were fully established through the 1965 Voting Rights Act), efforts for continued equality still trudge forward. Women began combatting the shackles of what historians call “true womanhood” (the idea that women were to possess the virtues of piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness) in the 19th century. In addition to advocacy for political representation, the suffrage movement also pointed out a lack of educational and economic opportunities.
“Education, I think that’s where we’ve been the most successful in terms of opening up and allowing women to participate in both lower education and high education opportunities,” Smith said. But she believes there’s room for improvement in other areas, such as equal compensation, family leave, and gender blindness in political candidates.
The IVCBRW — Nevada’s second-oldest female Republican club — is celebrating its 55th year as a 100% volunteer organization. Smith told Moonshine Ink the club was originally founded in 1965 by Joyce Anderson Bock, who “recognized there was already a [Republican] group for men [in Incline Village], but there wasn’t really for those of us who were women who were very civic-minded.”
On Aug. 26, South Lake Tahoe’s American Association of University Women gathered over video conference to celebrate Women’s Equality Day, which commemorates the adoption of the 19th Amendment. The association, explained membership vice president and treasurer Barb DeGraff, supports “women and girls, equity in education, in public life, in work life, etc.”
At the celebration, where the women spent the first few minutes playing catch-up on one another’s lives, the small group popcorned its way through the efforts of key suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Sojourner Truth, referring to them as the country’s “Founding Mothers” and commending their free thinking in a time more conservative than now. Yet the convening wasn’t just to discuss the past. Jeanne Benin, vice president of programs for the South Tahoe branch, told attendees that talking about women’s suffrage is “not a celebration of antiquity, but a celebration of something current.”
Each woman shared her current outlook about the political scene, frustrations with voting shortcomings, and the difference female politicians have made on the national stage.
With the types of bills being introduced today (mentioning improved social justice efforts and more rules on the protection of children) and the increasing ratio of female representatives, Benin told her fellow members and friends that the government functions better when women are present. At the end of the day, she said, “my voice is my vote.”
It might not have been so before August 1920, but it is the case today.
Milestones for Women in California & Nevada
1925: The first woman elected to chair a congressional committee is Rep. Mae Ella Nolan (R-CA), who oversaw the Committee on Expenditures in the Post Office Department during the 68th Congress.
1973: Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, a Democrat congresswoman from California, is the first to give birth while serving in Congress.
1975: March Fong Eu (D) is elected as California’s first Asian Pacific Islander to hold a statewide elected executive office.
1980: The first Asian American female to serve as mayor for any major city in the United States is Eunice Sato, who filled the role for Long Beach, California from 1980 to 1982.
2001: Ann Veneman (R) is the first female Secretary of Agriculture, appointed by President George W. Bush. Prior to the position, Veneman was the first woman to serve as Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
The highest-ranking woman ever to serve in U.S. Congress is Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), elected as the House Democratic Whip in 2001.
Heather Fargo becomes the first Latina elected mayor of the U.S.’s 100 largest cities, serving in Sacramento.
2002: Nancy Pelosi is elected by her colleagues as House Democratic Leader, the first female to head her party in Congress.
Sisters Linda Sanchez (D-CA) and Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) serve together in the U.S. House of Representatives. Linda is elected in 2002 to join Loretta, who was elected in 1996.
2007: The first woman to ever serve as speaker of the House is Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).
Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-CA) joins two other Democrat representatives to become the first congresswomen of color to chair congressional committees. Millender-McDonald oversaw the Committee on House Administration.
2008: When selected as speaker of the California State Assembly, Karen Bass (D) is the first woman of color to serve in the position, as well as the first Black woman to head either house of any U.S. state .
2016: Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) is the first Latina voted into the U.S. Senate.
Kamala Harris (D-CA) becomes the first South Asian woman and second Black woman elected into the U.S. Senate.
2019: The state of Nevada is the first to see women hold a majority of state legislative seats, 50.8%.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) is one of six women to announce her candidacy for the Democratic presidential nominee. Previously, two women were the most to ever announced their candidacy for the same major party in a presidential race.
2020: Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden selects Kamala Harris as his running mate for vice president. Harris is the first woman of color to be selected on a major-party ticket, the third woman picked as the potential veep, and the first multi-racial woman, first South Asian woman, and first Black woman.