Becoming Citizens: The Emergence and Development of the California Women’s Movement, 1880-1911. By Gayle Gullett. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000. Illustrations, Notes, Index, xiv + 272 pages. $42.50 Cloth; $18.95 Paper.
Reviewed by Danielle J. Swiontek, Ph.D. candidate, Department of History, University of California, Santa Barbara. Ms. Swiontek is currently working on her dissertation, which examines California women’s reform efforts in the post-suffrage period.
Gayle Gullett provides us with the first extensive examination of the California women’s movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Beginning her study in the 1880s, she investigates the origins and development of “organized womanhood” in California, a unified movement of elite, white women who fought for and won state woman suffrage in 1911. As Gullett notes in the introduction, very little has been published on California suffrage, even though the 1911 victory helped revitalize the national suffrage movement. In this detailed state and local history, which focuses primarily on Los Angeles and San Francisco, Gullett mines elite women’s private papers as well as local newspapers and journals in order to piece together a complicated narrative of women’s efforts to use their public work to strengthen both their standing as citizens and their claim to the franchise. Attentive to differences in economic, social, and political conditions in these two cities, she shows how Los Angeles proved to be more supportive of suffrage than did San Francisco. Unfortunately for students of San Diego history, she does not examine San Diego’s active suffrage community during this period. Her selectivity reflects, in part, the difficulty of conducting research on a geographically large state, where archives containing primary sources are widely scattered. While the book does not claim to be an exhaustive study of California woman suffrage, it nonetheless makes an important contribution in showing how elite women claimed the franchise based on a new political identity constructed through their public work. Gullett’s argument is that elite women not only created an unique kind of “women’s politics,” but also placed “organized womanhood” at the center of the state’s Progressive reform movement.
Divided into four chapters (the “Politics of Women’s Work,” the “Politics of Politics,” the Politics of Altruism,” and the “Politics of Good Government”), the book examines the two-stage development of the California women’s movement. In the first stage (1880 to 1896), elite women, working through women’s clubs, philanthropic and professional organizations, engaged in public service, redefined women’s work, and created a new public consciousness that they called “organized womanhood.” Relying on the rhetoric of domesticity, they expanded women’s sphere outside the home while simultaneously restricting legitimate public work to elite, white women. As organized women, Gullett argues, they claimed a special public authority based on morality, altruism, civic-mindedness, and nonpartisanship to legitimate their pursuit of local reforms.
In the second stage (1897-1911), California women transformed “organized womanhood” into a statewide movement. After the 1896 defeat of woman suffrage, elite women developed a new strategy designed to: (1) strengthen ties among women’s clubs throughout the state and (2) reach across class lines to woo working-class voters. Engaging in the politics of “civic altruism,” these women sought to bolster their claim to the franchise by making their public work central to civic life. To that end, they forged alliances with male “Good Government” reformers to achieve progressive reforms and engaged in local “booster” campaigns, such as the City Beautiful movement. This strategy of civic altruism proved effective, Gullett argues, as organized women gained the much-needed allegiance of male reformers during the 1911 suffrage campaign. While Gullett concludes that this alliance was central to the suffrage victory, the election returns suggest the story is even more complicated.
Although organized women attempted to de-radicalize woman suffrage to appeal to elite men, it was trade unionists and socialists who provided crucial votes. Working-class districts in both Los Angeles and San Francisco returned “a larger majority in favor of suffrage than wealthy districts” (p. 191). Despite their efforts to the contrary, elite women seemed ineffective in building ties with working-class suffragists. The book thus points to the need for further work on working-class suffragists in urban locales and latent Populists in rural areas to explain fully both the narrow suffrage victory in 1911 and Progressive reform in California.
The strength of the book lies in its broad perspective on organized women, suffrage, and political reform. Gullett shows how elite women were central to Good Government reforms and the state’s Progressive movement and details the relationship between women suffragists and male reformers. Women, after all, needed male voters to give them the franchise, and male reformers needed organized women to help fight for reform measures, especially when they feared defeat. By placing the interactions between male reformers and female activists at the center of her analysis, Gullett provides a complicated narrative of the elite women’s movement and Progressive reform. While by no means an exhaustive study, it lays a foundation on which future research can build. In the end, Becoming Citizens offers an important new synthesis of woman suffrage and women’s political activism in Progressive-era California.