Historian, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wrote “well-behaved women seldom make history” to describe colonial women who were included in the community, but whose records and lives are largely forgotten. (1) For historians, finding artifacts of every day women’s activities can be a daunting task to find, track, and detail. That is why the discovery of a scrapbook documenting the saga of suffrage, first in California and then in the United States, sparked such excitement and curiosity at Pasadena Museum of History.
The scrapbook titled, “Early Days of Suffrage in California,” drew us in because of its owner’s choices in clippings, pamphlets, and ephemera. A sweeping saga of the excitement, drama, and complexity of the fight for suffrage spread out before us. In honor of the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment, PMH will be periodically posting articles written by various contributors on suffragette topics taken from Mary A. Holmes’ scrapbook. Holmes’ scrapbook allows us to follow women’s pursuit of the vote. Documenting the process to convince male voters to give women the right to vote in California, and a remarkable registration drive to allow women to vote in the very next election. We witness the bravery of California women fighting to run for local office, sit on juries, and make a new place for themselves as citizens. We hope to share this journey with you through our blog posts this year.
The question of who created this scrapbook and her story was initially a mystery to all of us at the Museum, but through a series of sleuthing activities reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes’ books, we slowly revealed the producer of this artifact was none other than Mary A. Holmes, the sister of Delos Arnold and aunt of Ralph Arnold of Pasadena.
Born in 1843 in Chautauqua, New York, Mary Arnold lived within ten days travel of Seneca Falls. She was five when the first Women’s Convention at Seneca Falls was held in July 1848. She came of age during the emergence of two national women’s suffrage parties: The National Women’s Suffrage Association (NWSA), who advocated for a national amendment to the United States’ Constitution, and the American Women’s Suffrage Association (AWSA), who believed women’s right to vote could be achieved state-by-state. The AWSA believed securing the right to vote in a majority of states could tip the scales in favor of national women’s suffrage. This debate served as a backdrop to Holmes’ youth. Many Western states gave women partial voting rights. Partial voting rights gave a voice to female voters on women’s issues such as sanitation, education, and other issues associated with motherhood. In some ways the West offered many opportunities unavailable to women on the East Coast.
In the 1860s, Holmes made her first move into the West. She established herself in Marshalltown, Iowa with her brother just after the Civil War ended. It was here that she met her husband, Joseph Holmes. In Iowa, Mary A. Holmes joined women’s clubs, led church services, and organized dinner parties for her brother and husband. Both traditional and progressive in her affiliations, Holmes straddled a very thin line of appropriate behaviors available to her as a woman.
By 1886, she and her husband Joseph decided to join her brother in California. While her brother Delos Arnold had settled in Pasadena, the Holmes family established their household in the nearby neighborhood of Los Angeles. Mary A. Holmes could not have relocated to Los Angeles at a better time for women’s rights and the issue of suffrage. In 1890 the largest suffrage parties joined forced to create the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Agitation for women’s suffrage at the state level increased in popularity. In 1893, Colorado and Idaho granted women the right to vote twenty-three years after Wyoming and Utah had done so in 1870.
The momentum was growing, and California suffragettes began to agitate for their own suffrage rights in 1896. The first pass at obtaining the franchise failed in California. Not to be deterred, women decided to move into public spaces: giving speeches on public sidewalks to promote their political demands, marching in parades asking legislators to take up their cause, and meeting with local political parties to assert their agenda. Mary A. Holmes had a front row seat for the exuberance, drama, and disappointment of California’s first attempt to obtain the vote for women.
In 1911, the legislators of California did something unexpected. Despite the previous failure in 1896, the suffrage issue was put on the ballot for the male voters of California to decide. Once again, Holmes reluctantly sat on the sidelines of history. She could not participate in the vote for suffrage, but this time, however, she decided to document the occasion. Her scrapbook captures what Caroline Severance called “organized womanhood,” a mass campaign to persuade Californian men that women were ready to vote. (2)
Holmes carefully collected and organized the efforts of Angelino clubwomen in the Ebell Club, Women’s Progressive League, Socialists, Good Government Club, and Friday Morning Club into a scrapbook. Articles documenting parades at the park, leaflet droppings from hot air balloons, auto tours, and more were gathered together for the pages of her scrapbook. Holmes detailed the saga of the second major campaign for suffrage in California. After women became voters, her scrapbook keeps a running record of women’s progress in California as they pushed for a redefinition of their rights as citizens. The “what if” and exuberance women in California felt in the early days after the passage of suffrage leap from the pages of her scrapbook.
Mary A. Holmes’ interest in suffrage did not wane after she gained the right to vote in her own state. Her scrapbook continued to grow alongside the nation’s ongoing dialogue on women’s suffrage. The fight for suffrage remained just that, a fight. Holmes’ scrapbook documents the protests, continued agitation, and activism of women in the United States. Her scrapbook even made it to the International convention for Women’s Suffrage in Christiana, Norway in September 1920. Myra Kingman Merriman wrote with “pride and pleasure” to thank Holmes for allowing her scrapbook to be one of “the principal exibit[s]” from the United States. (3) One hundred years later, the fragile yellowed pages still tell an exciting story.
Please stay tuned as we collectively flip through the moments Holmes so carefully sought to preserve for future generations. There is a lot to cover between 1910 and 1923, but we promise you discussion about all women juries, classes teaching women how to vote, registration drives, and how the hearts and minds of Californians were won over to suffrage for women.
– Robyn D. Fishman
(1) Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “Vertuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668-1735,” American Quarterly, Volume 28 (1976): 20-40. 20
(2) Gayle Gullet, Becoming Citizens: The Emergence and Development of the California Women’s Movement, 1880-1911. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2000. 15
(3) “Thank you Note from National Federation of College Women,” Early Days of Suffrage in California (Scrapbook Collection, 112)