The invitation read “Please join us for a 100th anniversary celebration of Congress passing the 19th amendment to the US Constitution on June 4, 1919.”
It was from Heidi Bamburg Tucker at The Saint, the wine bar at 1351 Main St. in St. Helena. What a great reason for a party, I thought. The Saint invited musician Piper Hays and provided bubbly and snacks. Tucker had done some research and decorated the venue with historic facts about women’s struggle to get the right to vote. In a festive atmosphere, everyone commemorated this historic event.
This sent me on a quest to find out how St. Helena fit into the national conversation on women’s suffrage. In the archives of the St. Helena Star, the earliest mention of suffrage was an 1874 article about Wyoming and that women could vote in that state since 1869 — the first state to enfranchise women. Suffrage was debated and covered in the news from that date forward. In fact leaders of the national movement visited Napa Valley on more than one occasion.
In October 1895, the Rev. Anna Howard Shaw spoke on “The Fate of Republics” in St. Helena. Rev. Shaw was a doctor and one of the first ordained female Methodist ministers in America. She was a member of the National Women’s Suffrage Association, who became a leader in the American suffrage movement.
Her lecture in St. Helena was described thus: “She walks over the men in a beautiful manner. A feast of wit and eloquence” heard by a “large and intelligent audience.” And, “In woman the spiritual and moral are strongest — essential to the life of republics and “none ever went down that did not lack these elements.” She said withholding the ballot from women was taxation without representation.
Soon after her visit, the St. Helena Political Equality Club was formed by Louisa Pratt, Jennie Thompson, Virginia Graham and Fannie Pithie. In 1896 Susan B. Anthony lectured at the Veterans Home in Yountville. After she gave a speech to the California Republican party, the party voted to support women’s suffrage.
California Constitutional Amendment 6 was on the ballot on Nov. 3, 1896. It was rejected by 55 percent of men voters. Interesting to note are the returns in Napa County. St. Helena and Rutherford men voted no, but Pope Valley men voted yes. The lowest support by any county was San Francisco with 26 percent yes. The battle continued.
In 1911 California voters got another chance to vote for suffrage. It was a heated battle in the editorial pages. “Possession of the ballot will not help woman, socially or industrially. It will make exactions upon her time and strength. It will invade the home and destroy its charm. It will not result in wiser laws or better government,” says the Los Angeles Times, Aug. 19, 1911.
“It is the mannish female politician and the little effeminate, sissy man, and the woman who is dissatisfied with her lot and sorry that she was born a woman,” wrote Democratic State Senator J.B. Sanford in the Los Angeles Times on Oct. 1, 1911.
Proposition 4 squeaked by with 50.7% voting yes. There was strong opposition from the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. The county with the lowest support was again San Francisco (38.1%) and rural Modoc County had the highest yes vote at 70%.
Numerous attempts in Congress to pass nationwide suffrage for women failed. In 1918 President Woodrow Wilson endorsed the 19th amendment. It failed to pass Congress by two votes. A few months later it failed to pass by one vote.
In the next six months it failed five more times. Each vote was extremely close and southern Democrats continued to oppose giving women the vote.
Finally on June 4, 1919 Congress passed the 19th amendment. The House voted 304 for, 89 against. In the Senate the vote was 56 yes to 25 no. Next came the battle for ratification by two thirds of the states, but that is a story for another day.
Mariam Hansen is the research director for the St. Helena Historical Society, a freelance writer for the St. Helena Star and a St. Helena resident.