Their names are mere footnotes in history, but in California’s rich and colorful political past, Grace Dorris, Esto Broughton, Elizabeth Hughes, and Anna Saylor occupy rare space. One hundred years ago – seven years after California women won the right to vote – they were the first females elected to the California Legislature.
Each had deep community ties and mastered the arcane rules of politicking to crush male adversaries at the ballot box. They transitioned from novelties to respected assemblywomen, breaking down stereotypes and traditional gender roles. And, together, they left lasting imprints on California public policy.
Those 1918 game-changing elections did not herald a sustained wave of women’s electoral success. In the following 56 years, only ten other women won Assembly seats.
Dorris, a school teacher, excoriated wealthy Kern County land barons for keeping their land out of production and refusing to share water rights with neighboring farmers. The landowners, in turn, bankrolled one of her opponents.
Once in office, Dorris pushed for shorter work hours for domestic servants and creation of a public defender’s office to provide legal services to indigent defendants. Her victory made news nationwide.
“She weighed 103 pounds. They owned 1,000,000 acres. They were fighting for their lives, and knew it. But the little teacher won,” one Oklahoma newspaper reported.
In Stanislaus County, Broughton’s victory at the age of 28 also was hailed in newspapers as far away as Arkansas and Michigan, although the coverage contained some cringeworthy prose: “The folks at home are going to miss her raisin pies, but she just had to get her fingers into a bigger confection,” one reporter wrote.
Broughton had overcome spinal tuberculosis as a child that left her crippled and her growth stunted at four feet, six inches. She became a lawyer and an expert on irrigation issues, leading the fight to bring water to San Joaquin Valley farmers. She also authored legislation that reformed California’s community property law.
Hughes, an Oroville teacher, faced a male primary opponent who made a crass appeal to gender stereotypes. “It takes a virile man,” he insisted, to do the tough work required of lawmakers. “It’s no ‘pink tea’ job.”
Hughes fired back: “Are the brace of Red Cross nurses, working night and day at the front [during World War I], caring for the wounded, serving in ‘pink tea’ jobs?”
Hughes cruised to victory and became a leading advocate for rural schools. She also helped secure funding for what later became California State University Chico.
Berkeley’s Anna Saylor, the fourth 1918 pioneer, was a former librarian who led a high-profile campaign in the Assembly that abolished the death penalty for minors.
“Women, and wealthy young, never hang,” she said. “It’s always the friendless and poor boy who faces the gallows.”
She also established psychiatric clinics in state prisons. Later as state welfare director, Saylor built child detention homes so delinquent children as young as eight years old wouldn’t be sent to county jails with hardened criminals.
A century later, record numbers of women – energized by marches and accounts of abuse – have been motivated to run for office throughout the country in the belief that more women need to be elected to foster change. But California’s experience offers a cautionary tale.
Those 1918 game-changing elections did not herald a sustained wave of women’s electoral success. In the following 56 years, only ten other women won Assembly seats, and it wasn’t until 1995 that a woman finally was elected by her peers to be speaker.
Rose Ann Vuich broke the Senate gender barrier in 1976; on March 21 – 168 years after statehood – Toni Atkins is scheduled to become the Senate’s first female leader. Still, the current Legislature is more than three-fourths male. California has never had a woman governor or even lieutenant governor.
Effecting political change can be lengthy struggle, but securing gender equality has proven to be particularly elusive.
Steve Swatt and Susie Swatt are lead authors of the forthcoming book, “Paving the Way: Women’s Struggle for Political Equality in California.” They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.