The first four women elected to the California Assembly in 1918 (from left): Grace Dorris, Elizabeth Hughes, Anna Saylor, and Esto Broughton. Image courtesy Sunny Mojonnier, Women in California Politics.

When the first four women were elected to the California Assembly in 1918, the state’s newspapers disagreed on the breakthrough’s significance. The Los Angeles Times called it an “experiment.” The Oakland Tribune, however, said it expected the women to be as competent as the men, although it acknowledged, “The record of the legislature of the last several sessions does not impose inordinately severe tests of fitness.”

The women had scaled unprecedented heights of political participation seven years after California voters had narrowly given women the vote. All four were well-educated professionals and active community leaders. They understood their districts and pointedly eschewed the idea that they were radicals with feminist agendas. “Mrs. Saylor is not a faddist,” noted the San Francisco Examiner, referring to Berkeley’s Anna Saylor, who had won the November election in a landslide. She said she had no “preconceived notions of turning California legislative action upside down” and would represent the men in her district as well as the women.

An Indiana transplant, Saylor had joined the prestigious Twentieth Century Club for women and was exposed to the club’s work in social services and civic affairs. Clubwomen worked tirelessly for her election, and it appeared that winning four of 120 legislative seats was merely the beginning of a golden age for California women in the public arena. In 1923, the Oakland Tribune asked, “Do the [Assemblywomen] hold the balance of power? That is the question which is agitating the old-time politicians.”

A mere 12 days after that article appeared, San Francisco’s Mae Nolan made the newspaper look prescient when she won a special election to succeed her late husband in the U.S. House of Representatives. Noland was the first California woman elected to Congress, but she played down gender issues. “A capable woman,” she said, “is a better representative than an incapable man, and vice versa.” In 1925, Florence Prag Kahn, the daughter of Polish immigrants, similarly won a San Francisco House seat that had been vacated by the death of her husband. Kahn secured funds to expand Bay Area military installations — even as the peace movement was taking hold — and build the Bay Bridge.

Kahn also was the first Jewish woman in Congress. Once, she was accused of being a puppet of U.S. Senate leader George Moses of New Hampshire. With a nod to her religious heritage, she replied, “Why shouldn’t I choose Moses as my leader? Haven’t my people been following him for ages?” Kahn served 12 years in the House, a record for California women that stood until San Francisco’s Nancy Pelosi shattered it in 1999. Kahn also didn’t consider herself a feminist but insisted that women must be roused to take an active part in politics “to realize the importance of their voice.”

As Anna Saylor, Mae Nolan, Florence Kahn, and other women were leaving their imprints in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., activists had little reason to question the Tribune’s prophecy. They anticipated a quantum leap for women in electoral politics. Saylor, for example, reasoned that since legislators toiled for so little pay — $1,000 for each session — business and professional men would be reluctant to leave their personal interests for lawmaking duties. The void, she reasoned, would be filled by a new generation of activist women. But a combination of events mixed with cultural mores conspired to impede women’s electoral advances.

After ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, many activists concluded that the battle for gender equality had been waged and won. The National American Woman Suffrage Association — for 30 years a driving force in the suffrage fight — had re-invented itself as the non-partisan League of Women Voters. The League wanted women to be at the forefront of social and government reform by taking advantage of the new political power they fought so hard to achieve. Gone, however, was the passion and fervor that had characterized the struggle for suffrage.

For the most part, politics remained a man’s endeavor in the decades after ratification. As heads of households during the Depression, men were expected to fill scarce job openings, both in and out of politics. Journalist Norman Cousins noted that the number of working women in the country equaled the number of unemployed. “Simply fire the women, who shouldn’t be working anyway, and hire the men. Presto! No unemployment. No relief rolls. No Depression.”

In the 1940s, women were urged to work in defense plants instead of roaming capitol hallways. In the ’50s, popular culture suggested that women belonged at home using modern kitchen conveniences and taking care of the children. In fact, in the 56 years after that historic California election in 1918, only 10 other women won legislative campaigns — none in the State Senate. And after Florence Kahn left the House in the mid-1930s, the state sent only three additional women to Congress before the 1980s.

Kickstarting the Modern Environmental Movement
Despite their long absence from elective office, many women achieved remarkable influence outside formal political structures, particularly in grassroots environmental activism. It was a legacy of that first wave of feminism, which had culminated in winning the battle for suffrage. Clubwomen had adopted conservation as a natural extension of their traditional roles as caretakers of their homes and families. They pressured lawmakers to save large swaths of ancient redwoods from being turned into lumber and fought to secure protections for bird species.

Similarly, in the early 1960s, shortly before the second wave of feminism took hold, women fought more modern environmental battles against over-development and air pollution. When Sylvia McLaughlin, Kay Kerr, and Esther Gulick read about the city of Berkeley’s plan to fill in 2,000 acres of San Francisco Bay, they were incensed. Other cities also were intent on developing the bay for subdivisions, shopping malls, factories, and airports. The women, wives of prominent University of California figures, beseeched existing male-led national environmental groups to take up the cause but were politely rebuffed. “They said the bay is being filled, but we’re saving the redwoods and saving the Sierra,” McLaughlin told the San Francisco Chronicle. “They filed out and wished us luck.”

Save the Bay founders Esther Gulick, Sylvia McLaughlin, and Kay Kerr. Photo courtesy Save the Bay.

The women then took it upon themselves to pressure state and local governments to preserve the bay’s future. Over cookies and coffee in their kitchens, they created Save the Bay, a campaign to prevent further bay fill. They consulted scientists and learned everything they could about the bay’s fragile ecosystem. The women built a coalition of supporters and attracted news coverage and prominent endorsements and in 1963, Berkeley backed off its bay-fill plan.

Since other cities and businesses still sought to fill the bay, the women lobbied for comprehensive state oversight of bay development. Save the Bay ratcheted up its grassroots efforts and organized busloads of activists to lobby politicians in Sacramento. The result was creation in 1969 of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), which became a model for regional planning and motivated local activists throughout the Bay Area to create grassroots campaigns to stop the bulldozers and preserve open space. In subsequent years, Save the Bay broadened its efforts to include wetlands restoration, pollution reduction, and science and nature education.

Ardent environmental activist Ellen Stern Harris of Beverly Hills recalled that as the fight over development was being waged in the Bay Area, she was driving along Highway 1 through Malibu one day with her family. Peering out the car window, her young son could only see long stretches of fancy beachfront homes. “Where’s the water?” he asked. That innocent question launched the drive to restrict development along California’s coastline. Known as the mother of the state’s Coastal Conservation Act of 1972, which she co-wrote, Harris said she was inspired by the Bay Area women to push for a statewide regulatory authority.

Meanwhile, Marge Levee had helped launch a grassroots campaign in the late ’50s to lessen the scourge of Southern California smog. Smog alerts had become frequent and severe, not surprising given the city’s rapid growth, automobile culture, and infamous inversion layer that trapped the smog close to the ground.

Levee had rushed her two-year-old daughter to the hospital after a severe asthma attack, and doctors recommended she move out of the Los Angeles area. “I decided instead to stay and do something about air pollution,” she said, joining eight of her friends to form Stamp Out Smog, or SOS.

The women learned about catalytic converters and other smog-abatement technology. They met with mayors and held colorful protests, parading their children wearing gas masks. From nine determined women, SOS eventually attracted more than 400 groups as coalition partners, representing tens of thousands of concerned citizens.

The women of SOS pushed for a coordinated state response to the smog crisis and a mandate that vehicles in California be equipped with exhaust-reduction devices. They activated phone trees and chain letters — the social media of the day — and packed Capitol hearings with advocates, helping to secure passage of the nation’s first statewide air pollution control legislation. The resulting California Motor Vehicle Control Act in 1960 created a board to regulate tailpipe emissions. That board — which included scientists, academics, auto experts, public health officers, and Marge Levee — developed the nation’s first vehicle emissions standards.

At a PTA meeting, one mother had asked SOS president Afton Slade, “Sure, air pollution is bad, but what can a bunch of women do about it?” The women of Stamp Out Smog would go on to provide an emphatic answer: their major role in the passage of 150 pieces of state and local anti-pollution legislation.

Breaking More Political Barriers
Whereas the first wave of feminist activism had focused primarily on voting rights, the second wave — in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s — addressed broad issues of equality, discrimination, and justice, and new opportunities enabled more women to work for change from within the political system.

The U.S. Supreme Court in the mid-60s forced the rural-dominated California Senate to re-draw its districts based on population, and many entrenched urban Assemblymen sought greener pastures in the Senate. They were succeeded by a new breed of trailblazing female legislators who aggressively fought for social causes, such as women’s rights, consumer affairs, and civil rights.

Yvonne Brathwaite of Los Angeles, the first African-American woman elected to the legislature, was joined in 1967 by Oakland’s March Fong, the legislature’s first Asian-American woman. Fong conducted a memorable five-year fight for gender equality by successfully sponsoring legislation to ban pay toilets in public buildings, arguing that urinals for the men were free. Fong, who years later became March Fong Eu after she married businessman Henry Eu, attracted international media attention by smashing a porcelain toilet bowl on the steps of the Capitol. A member of her local League of Women Voters, she later served nearly 20 years as Secretary of State, expanding voter outreach, ballot access, and election reform — three chief League priorities.

Assemblymember March Fong smashes a toilet on the steps of the State Capitol to protest pay toilets in 1969. Photo by Walter Zeboski, Associated Press.

In subsequent years, term limits for statewide and legislative office holders would force veteran, mostly male lawmakers out of office, opening more doors for women seeking political careers. Further, women finally had a highly visible role model in Dianne Feinstein. Perhaps inspired by her 1990 breakthrough as the state’s first female major-party nominee for governor, a record number of California women ran for seats in the legislature and Congress two years later in what the media dubbed the “Year of the Woman.” Feinstein, of course, would join Barbara Boxer, then Kamala Harris, to give California 27 consecutive years of two-woman representation in the U.S. Senate.

Still, California is one of only 20 states that has never elected a female governor, and women comprise less than one-third of the 120-member legislature, despite holding a record 38 seats. State Senator Toni Atkins, the only woman to lead both the Senate and Assembly, has a theory about why so few women have held positions of electoral power. “Much more than men,” she said in an interview for Paving the Way: Women’s Struggle for Political Equality in California, “women tend to hesitate when opportunities arise. We think about all the juggling acts with career and family … and too often we wait for a sign, or permission that it’s okay to go for it.”

Women’s organizations are changing the paradigm by training activists how to apply for state and local political appointments. Women also are being taught the building blocks of electoral politics — how to assemble a record of community achievement, organize a campaign, raise funds, gather endorsements, and build coalitions. In cities throughout California, scores of women now serve as mayors, including in two of the state’s most populous cities, San Francisco (London Breed) and Oakland (Libby Schaaf). More than a century after the Los Angeles Times characterized women in politics as an “experiment,” it’s clear that today’s women leaders are prepared to write the next chapter in the long struggle for gender parity in self-governance.

Susie Swatt and Steve Swatt are coauthors of Paving the Way: Women’s Struggle for Political Equality in California, published by Berkeley Public Policy Press.