City Beat

Sacramento had the state’s first woman in office. She’s finally being honored

Luella Johnston was the first woman elected member of a City Council in Sacramento and California history. She was elected in 1912.
Luella Johnston was the first woman elected member of a City Council in Sacramento and California history. She was elected in 1912. Sacramento Union, Sacramentality

Luella Johnston was a pioneer. She was the first female City Council member in Sacramento and California history, and is believed to be the first woman elected to the City Council of a major U.S. city.

Never heard of her? You’re likely not alone.

The Sacramento City Council, led by Councilwoman Angelique Ashby and local history buffs, is trying to change that. The council voted unanimously Tuesday to name the City Council Chambers in Historic City Hall after Johnston and to install a plaque honoring her role as a groundbreaker.

Ashby has been the only woman on the City Council since former Councilwoman Bonnie Pannell stepped down due to health issues in 2014. But Sacramento has a rich history of women holding political office, from former Mayors Heather Fargo and Anne Rudin to the 12 women who have been council members since 1971.

“We want Luella’s memory to remind everyone of all of those women over 100 years,” Ashby said at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. “And even more importantly to inspire the next 100 years of women who will serve in the city of Sacramento.”

Johnston’s role in the city’s history came to light recently through research conducted by Nicolas Heidorn, who wrote a series of articles on Johnston for the Sacramentality blog. He tagged Ashby in those blog posts and Ashby’s office has helped pay for that research to be printed into a book.

Women were granted the right to vote in California state elections in 1911, nearly a decade before the 19th Amendment gave that right to women throughout the United States. Johnston didn’t wait long to make her run: she was elected as part of a slate of progressive council members in 1912 that replaced a council with close ties to the railroads.

“This is someone who had a profound role in launching the women’s rights movement in this city,” Heidorn told the City Council on Tuesday. “There is not a single memorial honoring her and she is largely forgotten.”

According to Heidorn’s research, Johnston was a founding member of the Woman’s Council, an umbrella organization of 30 women’s clubs in Sacramento that would successfully campaign for a new high school in the city and street markers. In 1911, she helped lead the local campaign to pass the amendment granting women in California the right to vote after voters in this region had defeated a similar measure 15 years before.

“It is so easy to forget our history and the people who often sacrificed in order to pave the way for things that we sometimes take for granted now: equality, the ability to vote, the ability of women to participate and lead in every single way,” Mayor Darrell Steinberg said. “Now we all know Luella Johnston broke a great barrier. She was a Sacramentan who broke a barrier.”

Ashby wasn’t breaking a barrier when she was first elected. Three other women were on the City Council at the time and Fargo had just completed a nearly 20-year run in city politics. But in the years since, Ashby has seen her female colleagues replaced by men –a trend she said has become common in other large cities around the country.

Of the 90 elected officials serving on city councils in California’s 10 largest cities, just 30 are women. Fresno, Bakersfield and Sacramento are the only large cities in the state with just one woman on their councils.

Ashby was the driving force behind a recent internal audit that showed women and ethnic minorities working for the city make far less on average than their white and male counterparts. And she said she mentors women interested in entering politics as she seeks to replenish the city’s once robust roster of female political leaders.

“If I find a woman who asks for help, if I can help them get there, I do,” she said in an interview. “There’s just a big vacuum, there’s a big gap for women who want to run for office.”