Wednesday, November 25, 2015

“We Demand…” Women, Suffrage, and a Century of Change

One hundred years ago, in 1915, three women drove an open car from San Francisco to Washington DC to petition Congress and President Wilson for a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote.

Let’s stop right there for a moment. Yes it’s true, American women didn’t always have the right to vote. The framers of the constitution referenced men and never mentioned women specifically. They, and later readers, opted to interpret the language narrowly and use the omission to justify women’s legal status as little more than the cows in the barn. Women gradually chipped away at this lowly status and won greater legal rights, and the industrial revolution’s need for workers brought them into the workplace in increasing numbers, changing their relationship to the home and their families. In some states, all west of the Mississippi, women were even successful at winning voting rights through state referenda. But nationally, the US Constitution still did not recognize women’s right to vote and stiff opposition remained in the conservative eastern states, and in the racist south.

That’s the way things stood in 1915 when Alice Paul, leader of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, sent the suffrage envoys on their road trip. They weren’t the first to drive cross country, and not even the first women to do so. But it was still an arduous, uncertain journey over bad roads that were not well signed, and where, in some cases, getting lost could spell their doom.

The three women were Sara Bard Field, Maria Kindberg, and Ingeborg Kinstedt (a fourth, Frances Joliffe, was supposed to make the trip but bailed in Sacramento, not rejoining them until they arrived in New York City.) They left the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in late September, and arrived in DC the first week in December.

So why should we care about this? What makes it interesting?

First, it was a gutsy thing to do, and putting their life and limbs at risk helped symbolize women’s ability to take on the dirty work of voting (I know it sounds weird to equate driving over the Sierras by moonlight to entering a polling station but that’s just the way things were in those days.) Three women roaring through small town America in their open car helped reframe, not just for men but for women as well, what was possible for the gentler sex.

Secondly, the envoys themselves were fascinating people, and their stories deserve a closer look. Sara Bard Field was a lapsed Baptist and a divorced mother of two who supported herself through suffrage organizing and other freelance work. She was also a poet and a champion of workers’ rights. In her mid-thirties at the time of the trip, she had a lover who was 30 years her senior, attorney Charles Erskine Scott Wood. Her journey to the East deepened her love for him, even as its physical and emotional demands strengthened her and reduced her dependence on him. 

Maria and Ingeborg were Swedish immigrants; these two “Swedes”, as Sara referred to them, were fascinating as well. At age 55, Maria purchased the car and served as the driver. Ingeborg was the mechanic (among other feats she changed 12 flat tires in the course of their journey.) Maria was mild-mannered and motherly, a midwife who had by her count delivered some 2000 babies. Ingeborg was, in Sara’s words, “a full-fledged radical, a Syndicalist (first cousin to an Anarchist) and a friend to any movement that will bring greater freedom to mankind.” She reportedly had also been released recently from some sort of mental institution, and had some anger issues. More later on all of that.

Finally, the trip helped change the tone of the discussion about women, voting rights, and the rules for proper female decorum. The banner the envoys draped over the car prior to their arrival in towns of any size read “We Demand an Amendment to the United States Constitution Enfranchising Women.”

“We Demand…”

Not “wouldn’t it be nice if” or “we respectfully request” or “pretty please.” We demand…It wasn’t the first time this banner had been used, but it was the first time many people in the West had seen it, and especially outside of the larger cities. Who were these strumpets driving into town with no male escort, and demanding things? What would they want next? What indeed…?

This trip is an attempt to uncover more of the details of this trip that have been lost to time, and to reflect on the many changes that have taken place- and that still need to be made- in the 100 years since the suffrage envoys took the first road trip for a social cause. 

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Off to San Francisco!

Yesterday I flew from my home in Maine to San Francisco, where the suffrage envoys launched their trip. I wedged myself into my narrow seat, pulling my elbows in close to avoid encroaching into my seatmate’s space, and began reading some of the correspondence I’d gathered from the envoys’ trip 100 years ago. We were cruising along at about 30,000 feet, taking less than a day to travel in relative comfort a distance it took the suffrage envoys weeks of difficult driving to traverse. I kept picturing them in their little car, maneuvering over rough roads from early in the morning until late at night, and the contrast to my mode of travel was stark.

Today I visited the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, taking the BART over from San Francisco. I wanted to look at issues of The Suffragist, the weekly newspaper of the Congressional Union (CU.) The CU had launched the suffrage envoys on their trip, and had included a number of articles covering their journey. I’d already read what Sara Bard Field and Mabel Vernon had sent back to headquarters about what was happening, but it was fun to see how the editors then packaged that material into a news article that maximized its appeal and political message.

Courtesy of Library of Congress
It occurs to me that I failed to introduce Mabel Vernon in the first blog, a grave oversight. Mabel was
one of the CU’s key organizers, an able and effective public speaker and a real workhorse. To Mabel fell the job of leapfrogging the country ahead of the envoys, drumming up support from prominent men and women, organizing rallies in the larger cities, and praying the envoys would arrive on time to the scheduled events. Since she traveled by train and generally stayed in larger cities with better accommodations, Mabel had a little easier time physically but she had a very demanding and stressful job nevertheless. I think of her as one of the unsung heroes of the later years of the suffrage campaign; she gets mentioned, but no one knows a lot about her and she hasn’t been the focus of much research, at least as far as I know. Mabel was from Wilmington, Delaware, a Quaker, and had graduated from Swarthmore College a couple years ahead of Alice Paul. I wonder if Wilmington knows they had such a cool native daughter?

Alice Paul. Photo courtesy of the
Library of Congress.
Alice Paul was the co-founder (along with Lucy Burns) of the CU, and served as its president. She was also a Quaker, from New Jersey. Before joining the suffrage movement in the US Alice and Lucy had spent several years in England, working with Sylvia and Emmeline Pankhurst, who were known as radical suffragists for their more aggressive approach to demanding voting rights for women. In their service Alice & Lucy had been jailed, had gone on hunger strikes, and been force-fed through feeding tubes pushed up their noses and down into their stomachs. But they hadn’t done anything like that in the US. Yet. 

Alice and Lucy formed the Congressional Union in 1913 to advocate for an amendment to the US Constitution enfranchising women (which they thought would be a lot faster and more direct than getting it state by state.) Around 1916 it formed the National Woman’s Party, the world’s first women’s political party, whose one-plank platform was passing the federal amendment as quickly as possible. The two organizations merged in 1917, and it was the NWP name that stuck. Unless there’s a reason to mention the NWP, I’m going to stick to the CU in this blog.

OK, that’s a lot of background stuff, but if you don’t know these basics then some of what I talk about in future blogs won’t make sense. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Getting to Know San Francisco’s Activists and Radicals, Past and Present

It’s fitting, perhaps, during these few days in San Francisco that I’m staying with my husband’s cousin, Marian Doub, her partner Bob Thawley, and her Dad, Bill Doub.  

Poster on Marian & Bob's kitchen wall
I say this because they embody the sort of non-violent activism that the suffragists employed in their fight for women’s political rights. All of them have been arrested, countless times, mostly for protesting nuclear weapons and power plants, but they also raise their voices against racism, gentrification, and reckless development that puts profits ahead of neighborhoods. But I don’t want to suggest that they simply oppose the things or systems they don’t like; over the years they’ve also worked to create or support recycling programs, cooperative childcare, and affordable housing, to name a few. Bob has worked with people diagnosed with AIDS/HIV, and is currently helping to develop harm reduction strategies for youth who are homeless and struggling with addiction. Their walls are adorned with posters from the Occupy movement, notices of upcoming non-violent protests, and anti-gentrification actions. I've included a few of my favorites.

Poster on Marian & Bob's bulletin board
Marian, who majored in Women’s Studies undergrad, has been helpful in thinking about the questions I want to ask people about how women’s lives have changed, and how they haven’t, in the 100 years since the envoys did this trip. There are lots of different lenses through which this could or should be considered; issues of class, race, sexual orientation, and gender are some examples. The impact of incarceration, both of women themselves and on women when their fathers, sons, brothers, or partners are imprisoned, is another. While I know it makes this topic impossibly broad, my current plan is to stay open to all of these and talk to a wide range of women along the way, and see which themes rise to the top. Maybe I'll narrow it down as I go along.

Yesterday I had a fascinating visit with another activist, graphic artist and author Robert “Bob” Cooney, who put together a stunning book called Winning the Vote: The Triumph of the American Woman Suffrage Movement. Bob spent years researching suffrage history and rescued a lot of images and artifacts from obscurity, featuring their images in his book along with insightful narrative. He’s also recently released Remembering Inez: The Last Campaign of Inez Milholland, Suffrage Martyr. Inez literally worked herself to death for suffrage, and her sacrifice was used as a springboard to rally women to fight harder for their political rights.  Remembering Inez is about the campaign she was working on leading up to her collapse.

Bob and I had a great chat on his beautiful deck overlooking the Pacific Ocean, nibbling on cookies his wife had provided and enjoying the rare chance to geek out around suffrage history. Both of our spouses have been patient and supportive, but their eyes glaze over after a certain point… We traded stories and information about sources, and Bob was a wealth of information and wise advice about how to approach this trip. I’m grateful to him for his generous support of my project, and for his determination to further explore and share this amazing chapter of American and women’s history.

This afternoon I met with Sue Englander of Bolerium Books, in San Francisco’s Mission District. The bookstore has played an integral part in San Francisco’s radical politics over the last several decades, and its collections are helpfully arranged by social movement. The bookstore is on the 3rd floor and you have to get buzzed in, which was a first for me and made me feel right away like I was a member of some select radical club.

Sue is a lecturer at San Francisco State University and at the City College of San Francisco. She’s also the author of, among other things, Class Conflict and Class Coalition in the California Woman Suffrage Movement, 1907-1912: The San Francisco Wage Earners' Suffrage League. We talked about Sue’s book, some of San Francisco’s notable women of 100 years ago (such as Maud Younger and Mrs. William McHenry Keith), radical politics, and her concerns about gentrification and evictions that are displacing long time city residents. Sue is a blast to talk to and I could easily have spent hours with her, but she had to get back to work and I needed to move on with my day. I spent some time perusing the bookstores incredible collections. Here’s the selfie we took with a poster in the background that reads “Sisterhood is Blooming.”

I wandered back toward Marian and Bob’s clutching Sue’s book and some other Bolerium purchases I couldn’t resist, including a US Dept. of Labor pamphlet on Married Women in Industry that was written in 1924 by Mary Winslow (a former Congressional Union/National Woman’s Party organizer); The President’s Address from the 9th Annual Meeting of the American Association for Study and Prevention of Infant Mortality (1918); a book called Leave the Dishes in the Sink: Adventures of an Activist in Conservative Utah by Alison Comish Thorne (2002); and another book of essays entitled Race-ing Justice, En-Gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality, edited by Toni Morrison. Whew! Why these? I don’t know, why the hell not? They seemed interesting and will be useful background reading.

As I made my way home Mission St. was booming with lots of people out and about, a rap concert, an amazing graffiti art-making event in an alley, street vendors, and lots of trendy new bars and restaurants catering to the city’s more affluent residents, while their less fortunate peers stagger past, checking garbage cans for food and hugging the walls for support. Quite an eyeful.

My husband Rick flies in from Maine tomorrow and we leave on our trip Monday morning. I’ll be sad to leave San Francisco when there's so much to see and explore, but I’m also eager to launch this trip that I've been thinking about for a long time and actively planning over the last year.

Love this poster from Marian and Bob's collection

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

And Now we Begin

48 cities
20 states and the District of Columbia
Eight weeks

That pretty much sums up our itinerary. The 48 cities are those in which the envoys spent at least one night, and we’ll be following their route pretty precisely, except for a few days in Kansas when they backtracked a bit and we’ll take a more direct route. 

The weather here has been crystal clear and hot the last couple of days, with cool, starry nights, which sounds similar the weather leading up to the envoys’ departure. (Pretty much all similarities between our departure and theirs end at this point, however.) Alice Paul and the Congressional Union (CU) were masters at staging political theater, so the envoys’ send-off came at the end of a three-day conference that was the country's first-ever meeting of women voters. The CU recruited delegates to the conference from the 12 states that had already granted women voting rights, and the schedule was carefully orchestrated to bring women to the point where they “elected” the envoys to be sent to DC. In fact, Alice Paul had already cajoled Sara Bard Field and Frances Joliffe into serving as the envoys (some earlier picks had refused), and of course the Swedes had the car, so while their identity was kept a secret until they were nominated, that had all been agreed to ahead of time.

The women voters of the west were sending the envoys as messengers to Congress and the President to demand an amendment to the US Constitution enfranchising women. Implicit in this was a warning; support the federal amendment or we’ll organize the 4 million women voters to oppose you in 1916. President Wilson would be running for re-election then, as well as a third of the Senate and all of the Representatives, and the Democratic Party was in the majority. If you don’t support our amendment, the women were telling the Democrats, you risk losing the Presidency and your majority in Congress.

This was a flexion of women’s political muscle the country was not accustomed to and which many found abhorrent. Women simply weren’t supposed to behave this way. While it didn’t produce the amendment immediately the strategy sure got the Democrats’ attention.

The envoys were launched at night from the Court of Abundance at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE). According to the San Francisco Bulletin, a crowd of some 10,000 people was on hand to witness the event. The CU had recruited a huge women’s chorus to sing “The Song of the Free Women,” which Sara Bard Field had written and set to the tune of the Marseillaise, a French freedom song. A couple of the verses went as follows:

We are women clad in new power.
Detail of the Palace of Fine Arts- courtesy of Bob Thawley
We see the weak. We hear their plea.
We march to set our sisters free.
Lo! Has rung the chime from Freedom’s tower…

No more we bend the knee imploring.
No longer urge our cause with tears.
We have rent asunder binding fears.
We are women strong for women warring.

At the appointed hour, the crowd escorted the envoys to the gates. Here’s how the Bulletin reporter described it:

"Then, all at once, the great brightly colored picture and its dark background began to disintegrate and fade. The court darkened, but bright masses of women were forming in procession to escort the envoys to the gates of the Exposition. Orange lanterns swayed in the breeze; purple, white and gold draperies fluttered, the blare of the band burst forth, and the great surging crowd followed to the gates."

Close to midnight the Swedes met the procession in their car in front of the gates, and then the two envoys climbed in. Finally the gates opened and the car slipped through into the night, followed by the cheers of the crowd, “…ending the most dramatic and significant suffrage convention that has probably ever been held in the history of the world.”

Okay, so our departure isn’t going to be anything like that. It will be daylight, and there won’t be any crowd cheering us on, except maybe in my head. I like to imagine that scene at the PPIE, though. It also amuses me that the envoys didn’t actually leave San Francisco for another week or so; they apparently needed to register their car and it took a while to sort that out (no Fed-ex in those days…) So in the end they left just as we plan to this morning, they got in their car and drove away.

Yesterday we went and strolled around the Palace of Fine Arts, which is the last remaining building from the PPIE. It’s set in a lovely park, fronted by a narrow lagoon filled with swans, ducks, and egrets. While it’s only a tiny portion of what was there (the PPIE covered some 640 acres) it was fun to imagine people strolling around the grounds 100 years ago.
Rick and me at the Palace of Fine Arts

So off we go. It’s been great reconnecting with the Doubs, and exploring San Francisco a little, but I’m looking forward to our adventure.

Marian Doub, her Dad Bill, and husband Bob Thawley
Thanks for a great visit. Love you much!

Monday, November 16, 2015

Why Don’t Women Run?

For public office, that is.

According to Paula Lee, an electoral system reform activist and co-President of the Sacramento League of Women Voters, only about 19% of our Congressional representatives (the US House and Senate) are women. On the state and local levels, only one out of four legislators is a woman (check on your state’s legislative gender parity at this website created by FairVote- it's alarming.)  Why such a low number? 
Paula Lee and me in Sacramento, 

Paula pointed out that women toiled over 70 years for the right to vote (if you date it from the 1848 Seneca Falls conference), and while things have improved in many arenas there are still not that many female politicians. “One thing that hasn’t changed in the last 100 years,” she noted, “is that women are still dependent on men to vote in our best interests- on issues such as equal pay for equal work, funding for Planned Parenthood, family leave, and so on- because there are so few women in public office.” Paula says that women should be working as hard for equal representation as they did to get suffrage in the first place.

The US has also been slow, relative to other western countries, to elect women as top leaders. Angela Merkel has been Chancellor of Germany since 2005, and Margaret Thatcher served as Prime Minister in the UK from 1979-1990. Maybe Hilary Clinton will make history in the US in our 2016 presidential election; or just maybe her choice of fashion styles will cost her the election. It would be so nice to get beyond this.

Politicians are the ones who set policy and decide about how public money gets spent, and we women are leaving these tough decisions up to the men…Which might just be why the military gets more and more funding while our schools crumble and people in need lack food, housing, health and mental health care, and treatment for substance abuse. But it isn’t all our fault; there are structural issues within the two-party system that discourage women from running and make it harder for them to run, win.  See this great article, Men Rule: The Continued Under-Representation of Women in U.S. Politics, for a longer discussion about this.

The article explores seven reasons that women don’t run, including “women are much less likely than men to think they are qualified to run for office,” and “female potential candidates are less competitive, less confident, and more risk averse than their male counterparts.” Women are doing amazing things now that they certainly weren’t doing when I was growing up; running big companies, going to space, serving in battle, becoming research scientists, whatever. There’s no question we can do whatever we put our minds to. But politics has just not been a popular choice for us. I’ve been asked several times to run for state representative and have said no, pleading family responsibilities and the demands of running a small business. While those were real issues for me, I’ve also done a ton of volunteer work for nonprofits and in my town. So if I’m willing to devote considerable time to serving on the school board, land conservation, or supporting affordable housing development, why hasn’t running for public office been an option I’d consider? Need to do some soul searching on that one…

One of the electoral reforms Paula has been working for over the last 20 years, and which she thinks would make it easier for women to run for- and win- state and local elections is called proportional representation. Our current system is all or nothing, winner-take-all. A simple majority gets a candidate elected, and even when the losing side has a substantial minority (think of a 51-49% split), they get no power. Paula and other believe that multi-winner ranked choice voting, used in cities such as Cambridge MA and Minneapolis, MN, offers voters better options and fairer representation.

Paula and I didn’t just talk about politics, though. She spent 10 years working for the El Dorado Women’s Center in Placerville, CA (now the Center for Violence-Free Relationships). Another thing that hasn’t changed for women in the last 100 years is that they’re still victims of sexual and domestic violence; in childhood, in high school, on college campuses, and beyond. “’No’ still does not mean ‘no’,” says Paula.  

I can vouch for that because I stopped by the Stockton Public Library on Monday to look for articles about the suffrage envoys’ trip in 1915 (and found some!). When I browse through old newspapers I always like to look at what else they were talking about at the time; in 1915, WW I in Europe was frequent front page news, for example. But it was sad and disturbing to see articles about a man having “unnatural relations” with his 7-year old niece who was left in his care after her mother died, a farmer who murdered his wife and four children, or a man who, when he found his mistress with another man, shot and killed her. We have rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters to help protect those who can escape, but 100 years later we’re still not doing a great job as a society preventing this violence from happening in the first place.

Maybe if there were more women in public office we could create policies and programs that support families better, treat mental illness, and provide education to prevent violence against women and children.

Rick, Harry and me in Stockton
Monday night we stayed in Stockton with an old friend from college, Harry Mersmann, who’s doing amazing work as a professor at San Joaquin Delta Community College, and having fun playing the ukelele. Great to catch up with him after all these years.

Then it was a short drive to Auburn, CA, en route to Reno, NV. We stayed in a nice AirBnB, ran in the beautiful Auburn State Recreation Area and cruised old town Auburn for evidence of the Lincoln Highway, which the envoys followed for a big chunk of the trip. 

It was nice to decompress for a night from the intensity of the last few weeks, but I'm meeting with some history buffs in Reno later today and really looking forward to that. Sara Bard Field had spent quite a bit of time in Nevada in 1914 helping women win the vote there, and had also lived there for a year when she was divorcing her first husband, so she had a lot of friends and the envoys' arrival was cause for quite a celebration.

Auburn started as a gold rush town- here I'm hanging with
the statue of a prospector in old town Auburn

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Reno Welcomes Suffrage Envoys (and Me!) with Open Arms

Yesterday we left California behind us, heading east out of Auburn on I-80 and up over the Sierras. The dry oak forests of the Sierra foothills gave way to pine and fir as we climbed, the darker green of the pine needles providing some welcome color after the sere landscape of the San Joaquin valley.

Sara and the Swedes, Maria and Ingeborg, did the drive at night, hiring a man in Colfax to drive them over the steeper parts of the Sierras (the first of two times they hired a driver.)[1] Sara loved the trip. “The moonlight drive through the wooded mountain roads was indescribably beautiful,” she wrote her lover, Erskine. “Now and then we dropped on a bit of crystal wonder- a clear, mountain lake lying face to face with the moon.” The only negative was that Ingeborg wouldn’t shut up. “She talked all the time from Auburn to Reno- about ten hours,” Sara complained. They reached Reno by midnight, staying at the Riverside Hotel and having an event at the 20th Century Club, as well as at least one street meeting.

Even for a desert,this land is dry. We dropped down out of Donner Pass toward Reno on old Route 40 (which is what they would have traveled) and wound through Truckee past Donner Lake. Donner Lake is many feet below its normal levels, as this photo shows. The docks all have these little signs on them warning against diving…Yikes. 
Sign at the end of the docks on Donner Lake
Water levels are low at Donner Lake

We couldn't linger by the lake because waiting for me in Reno, at the lovely home of Lynn Bremer, was an amazing group of women who have taken it upon themselves to document and record Nevada women’s history. Nevada women got the vote in 1914 through a statewide referendum, and the website these women put together for the Nevada Suffrage Centennial is a terrific model for other states as we enter the five-year countdown to the centenary of  national suffrage getting approved. Another great idea they had was to write a play highlighting different aspects of their suffrage history, which they performed all over the state. Finally, through the Nevada Women’s History Project they’re continuing to document women’s experience and contributions through oral histories. What a tremendous gift they have given us.

I told them some about the envoys' trip and what I've learned about them so far. I also listened to them talk about changes that have happened for women since 1915. There was a palpable frustration as they described the obstacles they had faced and overcome in their lifetimes that were solely related to their sex. I have to say I found their stories disturbing because they didn't happen that long ago. It was an important reminder for me that even as we enjoy the benefits that activists have won for us in the past, we have to remain vigilant against slippage and continue to press for protection of women’s rights, both in law and policy. I actually remember the business about pregnant teachers having to leave from when I was in grade school. 

Here are some of the stories they told:
  • In 1970, a woman who was a teacher wanted to buy a house with her husband. She earned more money than he did, but when they went to the bank to get a mortgage, they wouldn’t count her income, saying that there was a risk that if she got pregnant and stopped working they wouldn’t be able to repay the mortgage (this was standard practice in the mortgage industry.)
  • A woman couldn’t take out a loan without her husband’s signature, and couldn’t make changes on her insurance policy without his permission, even after a divorce.
  • Another woman said that in 1966 she had gotten a credit card and had established credit in her own name. When she married, the company automatically extended credit to her husband (he had not previously had a card of his own.) Twenty years later they divorced, and the credit card company attributed all of the credit history to her husband; hers had been wiped clean although she was the one who had opened the account in the first place.
  • As late as 1970 school districts were still requiring women who became pregnant to either quit or take an unpaid leave of absence after the first trimester (once their pregnancy started showing.)
  • In the 1960s, women couldn’t get hired in the History Department at the University of Nevada. The Department simply wouldn’t hire women even if they were equally qualified.
Crazy stuff. Let’s always remember that the rights we take for granted today once had to be fought for.

As we continued to connect the dots between the suffrage road trip of 100 years ago and women's experience today, the group decided that they wanted to send a message along with me to DC. So Lynn whipped out a yellow legal pad, and they wrote a petition that said “We support passage of the Equal Rights Amendment,” and all ten of them signed it. They asked me to carry it along with me and have other people sign it along the way as I drive to DC.

Another great suggestion they had for me was to track a few indicators, such as community property for married couples, treatment of pregnancy and family leave, and equal pay for equal work, and see whether there was a pattern for how soon more progressive laws were enacted. Did the western states where women already had the vote adopt more progressive, pro-woman legislation earlier than the eastern states where women only got the vote through the federal amendment?  It would be interesting to know. So I'll try to see if I can get hold of that information in every state (and in DC.)

It was a great discussion and hours later I was still fizzing with excitement over it. I look forward to more of these types of meetings in the days and weeks ahead.

Some of Reno's Women's history buffs.
Thanks for a great discussion and exchange of women's history! 

Feel free to enter your personal stories in the comment section of the blog about barriers or opportunities you’ve encountered in your life that are directly related to being a woman. It would be great to have more examples, especially if there are issues that are still unresolved and need addressing.

Before leaving Reno earlier today I spent a couple of hours at the Nevada Historical Society looking at old photos and newspaper articles. It was great fun and I’m deeply indebted to the staff of the Research Library for letting me in before it was officially open! Later in the day we stopped in at the Churchill County Museum in Fallon, NV, and got a chance to look at some old suffrage papers as well as their wonderful exhibits. Even when their material doesn’t directly reference the suffrage envoys it can help provide background to, for example, what traveling across country was like 100 years ago. All food for thought.

[1] Sara Bard Field to C.E.S. Wood, September 27, 1915, WD Box 276, C.E.S. Wood Papers, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California

Friday, November 13, 2015

Crossing Nevada’s Great Basin- Then and Now

The envoys started in San Francisco with a brand new car, as did we, but after that the similarities between our trips are pretty much over.

The Swedes had traveled by boat from their home in Rhode Island to San Francisco to visit the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE), rounding the tip of South America en route. They had planned all along to drive back, buying a car in San Francisco in which to make the trip. So when they stopped by the Congressional Union booth at the PPIE and learned about the petitions and the desire to drive them to DC, they offered the envoys a place in their car. A good thing they did, too, because the departure date was coming up fast and if Alice Paul had another plan no one seemed to know about it.

Ad for the Overland Six that Maria and Ingeborg purchased. 
There were lots of different car companies back then, and in an effort to grab some market share the Willys-Overland company of Cleveland OH had put together a special deal for the PPIE. The deal came with a special price of $750, fully $325 less than the previous year. According to Old Cars Weekly, "The car offered 35 hp, high-tension magneto ignition, five-bearing crankshaft, thermo-siphon cooling, underslung rear springs, demountable rims (with one extra, which was not a common addition back then), electric starting and ignition, headlamp dimmers, a one-man top and cover, magnetic speedometer and left-hand drive…" Whew! Everything you'd need for a cross-country road trip. 

We spent quite a bit more in today’s dollars, but our car has glass windows and a roof that allow us to motor along in air-conditioned comfort, and at far greater speeds than the Overland could achieve. We also have a computer in the dash, Bluetooth capability, GPS, and the ability to lock our gear in the car, all of which add to the ease and comfort of our journey. We like it, except for being one of the 11 million car buyers duped by Volkswagen into thinking the car was less polluting than it is. Not too happy about that.

We also have much better roads. Here is a map of the envoys itinerary, which was put together by Amelia Fry, who did oral histories with Sara Bard Field, Mabel Vernon, and Alice Paul, among others.

Map of the envoys' itinerary created by Amelia Fry

A good chunk of the trip followed what was then called The Lincoln Highway, a pretty grandiose name for what was really no more than a cart track, especially in rural areas. Directions were always a little iffy; these are the ones the envoys followed from Laramie to Cheyenne, for example. They seem pretty specific, but…I wonder how clear they were at night, or in rain or snowstorms? And forget about street signs.  Who needs those when you’ve got an abandoned mine to serve as a guidepost?

Directions the envoys followed from
Laramie to Cheyenne. 

Within larger towns and cities the road beds were pretty solid, but once you left them behind they abandoned all pretense of being anything other than a glorified game trail. Sarah describes jolting along for hours in the Overland, so pummeled that by the end of the day every part of her ached. In some stretches she said they were almost ploughing through deep dust. And while the Overland did sport some sort of top that could be raised, they were mostly exposed to the sun and wind.

This isn't from their trip, but illustrates Sara's "ploughing through dust" comment.
Courtesy of the Churchill County Museum, Fallon, Nevada. 

Their passage east from Reno and through Nevada’s Great Basin, which has been our route the last few days, must have been terribly unpleasant. The so-called Fallon Mud Flats, 12 miles of road through alkali “salt pan”, were considered to be the worst section of the entire Lincoln Highway. Interestingly, the region was also going through a long dry spell, so conditions were very dry and dusty, and hellishly hot during the day. We felt parched sitting in our climate-controlled car; I can’t imagine how they brought enough water to quench their thirst.


Nevada’s Great Basin is a stunning series of vast, sweeping desert valleys punctuated by mountain ranges. You climb up and up through passes and then descend to cross an immense valley floor, only to repeat the process over and over again. We read in a guide book that the Great Basin is the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined, but with only about 21,000 residents. Even on today’s well-engineered roads, as you crawl across a valley floor you feel like a very small speck in the universe, separated from all humanity. It’s hard to convey in a photo. While the Lincoln Highway was gaining in popularity, there might be only a handful of cars crossing that area in any given day; serious car trouble, or losing the way, could potentially be fatal. While they appreciated the beautiful scenery, it must have been a huge relief to get across it safely.

Today Rick and I took a rest day, if by rest you mean hiking to the top of 13,000 foot Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park. Such amazing country, and the aspens were at peak color, a stunning gold color against the blue sky and deep green of the pines. It was a magical day. Tomorrow we drive all the way to Salt Lake City; I'm looking forward to being back on the suffrage trail.