Suffrage and Spiritualism

Historical Essay

by LisaRuth Elliott, 2011


After California granted women the right to vote in 1911, other states followed suit. Here Oregon, Kansas, Arizona, Montana, and Utah have joined the other six western states with women's suffrage.

A look at how part of San Francisco’s women’s suffrage movement derived from Spiritualism, a practice based on communication with the Spirit world. As Spiritualism grew popular in the mid-nineteenth century, women were deemed the more spiritual sex and granted authority as mediums. This allowed Spiritualists to recognize their own oppression and advocate for women’s rights through the lens of the Spirit. These early Spiritualists became activists, traveling to speak to large crowds and creating publications that remained primary avenues for promoting women’s suffrage into the twentieth century. Spiritualists paved the way for future women leaders and laid the foundation for California to become the sixth state to grant women the right to vote in 1911. 

On October 10, 1911, in a statewide election, around 250,000 California men voted on a suffrage for women amendment to the State constitution. The amendment passed by only a little over 3,500 votes. With this slim majority California became the "Sixth Star", only the 6th state in the US to grant women this right.

How was this achieved? Though men voted it into law, the long road to this point was largely paved by women over decades, as they became politicized and passionate about being recognized as political actors. They used various strategies to convince men - and other women - this was a necessary step toward "progress", and were strongly influenced by Spiritualism within the suffrage movement.

A 19th Century Activism

It's possible to go all the way back to the early 1800s to trace the beginnings of the fight for the right to vote, although it wasn't identified as such then. In the mid-nineteenth century Spiritualism emerged and 1848 saw the first women's rights convention in Seneca Falls calling for the "social, civil, and religious rights" of women. It is also important to note the ongoing influence of the abolitionist movement on women's consciousness.

A shift in the organization of the Quakers was key in connecting these elements, as the focus of Quaker ideology was to honor each individual's "inner light" as a way to access religious truth. The abolitionist movement was strong starting around 1835, and as those who felt moved to talk about their reactions to slavery were restricted and silenced within the authority of the Quaker structure, there began to be a move away from the establishment, with some leaving entirely and others creating their own communities. Around the same time, in the same communities, the spirit began to speak through a couple of young women, other clairvoyant mediums emerged, and many former Quakers started coming together in sessions to contact deceased family members. The popularity of communication with the spirit world was attributed to the anxieties of being separated from loved ones, but also the combination of the increasing anti-slavery sentiments, settler culture's expansion into previously unknown areas, the fear of Native Americans, and guilt over their extermination also contributed to people seeking wisdom and absolution from those who had passed into the other realms. These were people who felt things deeply, who had been taught to keep open channels to spirit, who were taught about the dignity of each person and who were becoming aware - in the case of women - of their own oppression. These were radical concepts, and women were beginning to be given a platform for speaking to these issues, as, in 1848, Spiritualism became a new religion.

Spiritualists traveled widely and spoke to large crowds, often being given a topic by the audience and speaking spontaneously for hours about the subject. These speakers were both men and women, but women were seen as having "moral natures in which was found the rhapsodic gift of communication with the spirit world," and thus were held as superior trance mediums for speaking to eternal truths and learning the way toward Progress. Proof of the connection to the spirit world was given in the fact that these "innocent" women could speak authoritatively to any subject, not, in fact, due to their own intelligence. Said differently, how could they know so much, it must be divined? At the Golden Gate Spiritualist Church in San Francisco on Franklin and Clay, one still today hears a similar rationalization of early Spiritualists.

Yet, here these women were, gaining valuable experience as orators, honing their public speaking skills and learning the nuances of what issues resonated with their audience; traveling widely and coming into contact with thoughtful, intelligent people along the way; encouraged to use their talents and gifts; and being listened to as having voice of authority. It can be seen as an apprenticeship, being on the trance medium circuit, where young women were actually entering the masculine sphere, having a concrete experience of this space of independence not afforded to them otherwise or in their lives back home. Ann Braude says that, "trance speaking was a transitional phase that enabled both individual women and women as a group to break through limitations on their role." One source says not all women's rights advocates were Spiritualists, but all Spiritualists were women's rights advocates - including men who were Spiritualists.

In the 1850s, as Quaker splinter groups explored radical religion and radical politics, inviting speakers such as Sojourner Truth and fugitive slaves, Spiritualist meetings were also concerned with political and social reforms, offering resolutions like the endorsement of "Equal enlightenment, enlargement, and consequent ultimate liberty of all human beings, and the abrogation of all oppression, civil inequality, domestic tyranny or mental or spiritual despotism, because freedom is the birthright of all, and the instinctive demand of every growing spirit."

Who Were These Women?

The 18 year old Laura de Force began speaking in the Spiritualist movement In Boston in 1860, then traveled in New York and New England, promoting women's rights along the way. She gave a speech in 1868 on woman suffrage and women's rights, the first in San Francisco, where there had not been a women's rights movement prior to that point. This speech is seen as launching the suffrage movement here, as her words set the course for political action for women in San Francisco. Laura went on to give 100 lectures across California in 1870, ran for state senate in 1871, wrote the Woman Lawyer's Bill in 1878 giving women the right to practice law in CA, was the second female lawyer in California, successfully sued Hastings in 1879 for not admitting women, and died in 1907 before suffrage was made law.

The co-author of the Woman Lawyer's Bill, Clara Shortridge Foltz, was from Southern California, and was the first woman lawyer in CA. She was introduced to the San Francisco scene of radical women by a Spiritualist she met in Oregon. She also sued Hastings with Laura and when she moved to Los Angeles, she used all the proceeds of her law practice to promote and further the cause of suffrage. Many of these women lawyers worked on divorce cases.

Mary McHenry Keith of Berkeley was the first woman graduate of the Hastings School of the Law in 1881. She was a close personal friend of Susan B. Anthony and led the suffrage campaign in 1911.

The California Woman Suffrage Society, later called an Association, was formed in 1870 and although many of its organizers were outspoken and had developed their public voice through Spiritualism and other ways, they found the rest of the delegates to its first meeting were timid and needed encouragement to participate. Widespread opportunity to become informed and develop woman's consciousness as political beings began to come in the form of a number of publications and journals for woman's suffrage.

Publications Promoting Women's Suffrage

At 24, Emily Pitts Stevens was the editor and publisher of The Pioneer, which was the first journal for woman's suffrage in the West. She bought and transformed the California Sunday Mercury, hired women to set type, founded the Woman's Publishing Company, and promoted the Women's Cooperative Printing Union, where she printed the journal until 1869. She was also a co-founder of the California Woman Suffrage Association. In the first issue of The Pioneer, she declared, "We shall insist upon woman's independence - her elevation, socially and politically, to the platform now solely occupied by man. We shall claim for her each privilege now given to every male citizen of the US. In short we shall claim for her the right of suffrage."

Here Emily, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the radical suffragettes were getting into some complicated concepts of social power, as related to political privilege vs. economic independence. Though the contemporary view saw the right to vote as connected to economic independence, the suffragists advocated that women were not looking to express their social power through gaining the right to vote, but that through being granted political privilege women would gain social power.

Julia Stevens Fish Schlesinger of Oakland was the editor/publisher of The Carrier Dove, which had been a Spiritualist weekly for children, and which she used to push forward women's right to vote. The Women's Co-operative Printing Union also printed this weekly. A note about the WCPU is that this did not operate as a co-op as we understand it today, but it WAS woman owned and operated. At one brief point the Union was of the opinion that they didn't want the vote, based on the fact they felt women weren't behind it.

Astrea title page with box.jpg

This Spiritualist book of poetry was printed at 612 Clay Street in San Francisco in 1881.

Image: San Francisco Public Library, San Francisco History Center

Amanda Slocum and her husband printed and edited the weekly Spiritualist journal Common Sense for one year starting in 1874. It was also a pro-suffrage platform. In 1881 Amanda Slocum published a book called Astrea or Goddess of Justice by Mrs. E P Thorndyke which contained mostly poems, many of which were delivered through mediumship, some even from the spirit of Milton, through women. Dominant themes are the call for equality of women, imminent societal change, and struggle. She has a page-long essay on Conservatism vs. Spiritualism. In her introduction, Mrs. Thorndyke writes: "These poems were written during an eventful epoch of the world's history, and were penned amid the cares of domestic life, as well as the more onerous duties of a work devoted to Spiritual advancement and the cause of Woman. I claim that the positive source of the ideas herein contained, lie in the Spiritual realm, and point with prophetic finger to coming events."

Religious papers that were also political or social in nature

Banner of Progress - 1866, a weekly spiritualist newspaper which published news about the woman's movement. Golden Gate - 1886-90 Hesperian - 1862-3, a women's monthly. The Searchlight whose tagline read: "The world needs women who do their own thinking, a journal devoted to the upbuilding of a higher civilization through the emancipation of the mother of the race."

In addition, the San Francisco Call included a "Woman's Column" in 1888 where women had a chance to discuss topics of general interest to women in what Philip J. Ethington calls "a critical-rational operation of the political public sphere." (pp. 329-30)

The use of public space to further the rights of women, including suffrage, encompassed a whole host of forms in addition to the articulate Spiritualist speakers on the circuit and educational publications. Benevolent Associations were so successful, the state became dependent on them to provide public relief. Mass meetings were places women could meet and discuss their aims. In public schools, most educators were women. The bicycling craze of 1890s was important for women's independence, when women began wearing bloomers offering freedom of movement and bicycling allowed women to travel independently of family or men.

Women's Clubs

Women's Clubs were another location of organizing which began in 1869. They were big in the 1870s and took off in California in the 1880s. They were an innovation of sorts in society as they shunned elitism and were secular institutions and combined a forum for discussions on various issues of the day as well as lighter topics. Contained in the name was a direct challenge to the established order of things.

Ellen Clark Sargent was the wife of CA senator Aaron A. Sargent and was a major link between suffragists in CA and the nation's capital. Her husband wrote a suffrage amendment to the US Constitution, and Ellen was the secretary for the National Suffrage Association. She was the president of the California Woman Suffrage Assn. during the 1896 campaign, and her home was open to all suffragists. San Francisco's first woman's club, the Century Club was founded by women who came together at Ellen's home on Folsom Street. The Century Club still exists today at 1355 Franklin St.

Votes For Women Club was opened by Selina Solomons at 315 Sutter Street in 1910. Her loft in the retail district housed a rest room, reading room, serving room, and kitchen. It was aimed specifically at the local women clerks and salesgirls, as well as women shoppers. It became a headquarters for suffrage and it was self-supporting. She wrote a suffrage play as part of the 1911 campaign, and in 1912 wrote How We Won the Vote.

Women in Printing: Northern California, 1857-1890 by Roger Levenson (Capra Press, 1994)
The Sixth Star by Mae Silver and Sue Cazaly (Ord Street Press, 2000)
The Public City: The Political Construction of Urban Life in San Francisco 1850-1900 by Philip J. Ethington (University of California Press, 2001)
Timeline of women printers based in San Francisco from 1854 - 1893 compiled by Karen Hannah, a local woman printer
"Printing at the Margins: An Ink-stained history of women & work", a talk by Kathleen Walkup given at the San Francisco Public Library, 10 December 2011