California’s First Councilwoman – Part I

Luella Cover

When we first started Sacramentality in January of this year, I knew I wanted to do more than talk about the vivid present and unfolding future of Sacramento. I also wanted to write about the hazy and forgotten local icons – the heroes, villains, and indifferents – who shaped our city’s identity. Perhaps because the presidential election had so recently concluded, there was one name, of an early political figure, I kept returning to: Luella Johnston.

Luella was an early twentieth century society grande dame who metamorphosed into a local political crusader. She had a transformative impact on Sacramento politics and policy, helping to propel our city into the modern era of municipal governance. She was also a pioneer in the march towards gender equality as California’s first elected city councilwoman.

Early Life

Photo - Sacramento Union - March 1, 1913
Sacramento Union Headshot (1912)

Like many of her era, Luella Johnston (née Buckminster) was not originally a Californian. She was born in New Hampshire in 1861, the daughter of a Union soldier who died in the Civil War. She moved West to California as a child in 1869, ultimately becoming a teacher in San Francisco in her teens before marrying Alfred Johnston in 1884.

Alfred ran a successful Sacramento printing business, the A. J. Johnston Co. He was by contemporary accounts a self-made man and his business flourished. So much so that, by 1891, the Governor appointed him Superintendent of State Printing. A short time later, that position was converted into an elected office, which he won in 1894 and won again in 1898.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Johnstons were wealthy, well-travelled in political circles, and, thanks to Luella, among Sacramento’s leading socialites.

High Society & The Club of ’99

Society - SF Call - 9-24-1899

San Francisco Daily Call Society Page (1899)

Luella had a knack for organizing people, events, and parties. In 1899 she founded the “Club of ’99” to entertain the wives and daughters of state elected officials. Newspapers recount lavish soirées with distinguished guests, catered suppers, and orchestral accompaniment. These were light and fun affairs receiving the same type of coverage we might read in People Magazine today. “Mrs. A. J. Johnston wore a dress of blue taffeta, silk trimmed, with white satin bowknots and lace,” gushed one account.

The Club of ’99 was purely social, and might even be described as frivolous. It embodied the acceptable role for high-society nineteenth century women. And while the ladies may have been surrounded by politics, they weren’t themselves to participate in politics.

From Socialite to Activist: The Tuesday Club & the Emergence of Women as a Political Force

But that was about to change. With the turning of the century, America’s women were becoming more political. There’s a notable shift in the historical record when Ms. Johnston’s interests moved on from parties to politics. The socialite became suffragette and civic reformer.

At first, the Tuesday Literary Club was just another entry in Luella’s social calendar. Founded in 1896, the club was originally a weekly reading group for prominent Sacramento housewives. But, as club ranks swelled from a few dozen to a few hundred, members started discussing, studying, and engaging with the problems of the day in Sacramento.

Painting of Tuesday Club Clubhouse circa 1912

Painting of the Tuesday Club Clubhouse (circa 1912)

Luella Johnston’s 1899-1901 club presidency, reports the Center for Sacramento History, was the catalyst that “changed the mission and direction of the organization.” Under her tenure, the club started getting involved in civic affairs and – heavens! – even lobbying city officials for change. A reading group no more, the club shortened its name to the “Tuesday Club” and adopted a mission statement to “encourage all movements for the betterment of society.”

City vice became the Club’s primary target. Early twentieth century Sacramento had not quite shed its Wild West past. Prostitution was rampant, writes Sacramento historian Steven Avella. Similarly, “saloons, gambling, illegal lotteries, opium dens, and bars that stayed open all night were as hard to erase as original sin.” Who better than women, then-regarded as the “moral guardians” of the home and society, to take on these mostly male failings? The club scored its first victory in 1900 when, under Luella’s leadership, it convinced the city council to ban any new bars in residential areas, improbably besting the politically-powerful saloon owners. The law became known as the “Tuesday Club Ordinance” and lasted until its obsolescence with Prohibition.

Tuesday Club Ordinance - Sac Bee - 9-15-1911

Sacramento Bee Cartoon (1911)

Other successes quickly followed, reports the Center for Sacramento History: “The club petitioned the city trustees for a matron at the city jail, started a cooking school for young girls, [and] convinced the city to establish McKinley Park in East Sacramento.”

The Tuesday Club had become everything the ’99 Club was not: a political player.

An Organic Union: The Woman’s Council

These accomplishments galvanized other women’s groups in the city. In 1904 Luella organized a coalition of 30 women’s clubs known as the “Woman’s Council” to act as a more purposefully political, sister-organization to the Tuesday Club. (Thereafter the Tuesday Club retreated to being once-more a primarily social and philanthropic organization. After a 117-year run, the Club disbanded in 2014.)

Woman's Council Constitution

Woman’s Council’s Constitution

The Council was an immediate success. The log of its early activities report win-after-win in early Sacramento’s rough-and-tumble politics. For example, in 1904 the Council proposed and helped pass a bond to create a high school. In 1905, the Council successfully petitioned for the city hospital to hire a receiving matron. In 1906, the Council convinced the city to add name plates to every street in the city.

Luella was president of the Woman’s Council from 1907 through 1909. These were energetic and successful years. Contemporary Council log books report that, “again and again,” local elected officials, business associations, and neighborhood organizations asked the Council to “plan and promote campaigns for City improvements,” including street electrification, installing public drinking fountains, adding residential mailboxes, working on city canals, and building a public swimming pool.

The Council pushed the city administration to be more modern and to professionalize. For example, in 1907, at Luella’s instigation, the Council brought University of Chicago professor Charles Zueblin to Sacramento to deliver lectures on the new science of city planning. His lectures enthralled the business community and launched Sacramento’s “modern period of city planning” as a succession of planners were hired to map out the future of different city neighborhoods. (For his efforts Zueblin, for a time, became known as the “father of Sacramento’s civic planning.”)

But of all Luella’s accomplishments with the Council, she was personally proudest of having convinced the city’s schools to require the teaching of “manual training” (e.g. woodworking) and “domestic science” (e.g. cooking) courses to all children. A former teacher, Luella viewed education as her lifelong calling. This was a sweet victory: she had been advocating for practical education since 1901, when, under her presidency, the Tuesday Club launched a free girl’s cooking class to, in her words, “further the education of women for the responsibilities of life.”

Single Mom & Businesswoman

Alfred had passed away in 1906, just prior to Luella’s Council presidency. The Governor, Secretary of State, and State Printer all closed their offices for a day in his honor. At age 45, Luella became a single mom of five children, three of whom were still minors.

She also became the head of the A.J. Johnston printing empire, undoubtedly one of the few women in the city actively running a major company.

It’s hard to imagine how someone could find the time to be a single mother, executive, and civic reformer with only 24 hours in a day. I get the sense that Luella simply felt she had no other choice: there was too much that needed to be done.

The Fight of a Generation: Women’s Suffrage

California Next Postcard

Postcard: “California [Was] Next” (sent 1918)

1911 had the potential to be a life-altering year for California’s women and Luella was not going to sit it out. For the second time, the men of California would be deciding whether or not to give women the vote.

A decade and a half prior, in 1896, California voters (all men) voted down a proposed amendment to the state constitution which would have granted women the right to vote in state and local elections. The campaign for women’s suffrage had fared particularly poorly in major cities in the northern half of the state, including Sacramento where 60% voted against. Saloonkeepers and liquor interests, influential in working class areas, had staunchly opposed the initiative, fearing (correctly, as it turns out) that enfranchised women might push for prohibition.

Success in California in 1911 would be a springboard for a national constitutional amendment to secure for women the right to vote in all elections. A second defeat might devastate the movement.

Recognizing the need to reverse the vote in the northern cities, state suffrage organizations reached out to the Woman’s Council to co-lead the campaign in Sacramento. According to late Sacramento historian Dian Self, Luella was a “leader of the get-out-the-vote effort” for the campaign. The Council allocated funds for outreach and conducted an extensive persuasion campaign: it included street oratory, sending speakers to church groups and civic clubs, placing campaign materials in storefronts, distributing handbills to homeward-bound schoolchildren, house-to-house canvassing, and concerted lobbying of labor unions.

In the evening of October 10, 1911, the polls closed. They had done it: women had won the franchise. Sacramento County voters, reversing their prior opposition, voted 52% in favor.

The women of Sacramento had once again shown their political muscle, but this time in direct political campaigning. It was experience that would soon come in handy.

A Singular Moment: Progress Seizes Sacramento

Late 1800s to early 1900s California politics were dominated by the Southern Pacific Railroad. The “SP” was one of the most powerful economic forces in the state. It had an interstate rail monopoly in Northern California and jealously guarded this prize against competition or government regulation. Politicians were greased to support the railroad’s interests, and opposed them at their peril. As one late nineteenth century journalist wrote,

it didn’t matter whether a man was a Republican or Democrat. The Southern Pacific Railroad controlled both parties, and he either had to stay out of the game altogether or play it with the railroad.

By 1901, author Frank Norris nicknamed the railroad the “Octopus” because its tentacles of influence reached to every area of the state. “The Southern Pacific,” notes the Economist, “bribed and cajoled legislators, judges, journalists and mayors.”

Octopus - The Wasp (Aug 19 1882)

The Wasp Cartoon (1882)

This included Sacramento local politics, where the SP was particularly influential. Sacramento was strategically important to the railroad. The SP’s sprawling Sacramento railyards employed more than 2,000 workers and, per local historian William Burg, “produced everything from hand tools to full-sized steam locomotives and was the main repair and supply facility for Southern Pacific’s national system.”

City Hall at the time was controlled by a political patronage machine lead by Mayor Marshall “Boss” Beard and Councilman Edward Carraghar. Both were firmly in the railroad’s pocket. In 1907, for example, the council thwarted an effort by the Western Pacific to build a new rail line into the city which had threatened the SP’s monopoly.

However, across the state and in Sacramento, the tide was beginning to turn against the Southern Pacific. Hiram Johnson, a Sacramento native, was elected governor in 1910 promising to curtail the power of the railroads and to move the state forward “calmly, coolly, pertinaciously, unswervingly and with absolute determination, until the public service reflects only the public good and represents alone the people.” The Progressives, as they came to be known, swept into power in 1911 and enacted a series of wide-ranging reforms intended to blunt the SP’s power.

Locally, Progressives were also riding a string of victories. They had recently passed a referendum, over the Council’s objections, to let the Western Pacific into the city. And, although they had failed to defeat Beard and Carraghar in the last election, they had passed a new city charter, significantly changing the structure of Sacramento city government and its elections.

1912 would be the first election under the new charter, and the Progressives, mobilized as the “Municipal Voters’ League,” were eager to evict the SP cronies who had held office for so long. “The question” for voters, wrote the sympathetic Sacramento Bee, “is between the forces of the Machine and the forces of Good Government.”

Block-by-Block: The 1912 Campaign

1913 Map

Map of Sacramento (1913)

The 1912 election was marked by many firsts. In descending order of importance, this was the first city election that:

  • Women could vote in.
  • Included the newly annexed suburbs of East Sacramento, Highland Park, and Oak Park.
  • Would be held under Sacramento’s new charter, which created a five-member council with greatly expanded executive powers.

Add to that another first: Luella was the first candidate that year, man or woman, to pull candidacy papers for city council.

Suffragettes had sometimes run for office, for example Mayor, Governor, or President, to make a rhetorical point about gender inequality; these were half-hearted campaigns at best because they had no delusions of actually winning. Luella’s was not.

Her whole life had prepared her for this moment. On paper, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more perfect candidate: leading citizen, business owner, former president of two of the city’s largest civic organizations, accomplished reformer, and conversant in all the major municipal issues.

Perfect, of course, except for her gender. One Bee story reported the difficulty she was having in overcoming the “peculiarity of some male temperaments – they will not admit that a woman has brains enough to hold public office.” Like many women before and since, Luella would repeatedly have to justify her intrusion into the male world. “My interests in civic questions has taken me out of the usual lines,” she once acknowledged, “for I have worked on the clear water problem, levee improvement, economy of administration, fire protection and general civic issues of importance to the whole city.”

Her stump speech centered on eternal political themes; it could just have easily been delivered in 2012 instead of 1912. She pitched herself as a law-and-order candidate, citing public safety as her top priority and pledging firm enforcement of all city laws (a possible allusion to unenforced bans on gambling and prostitution). She told the Union that bolstering the Sacramento River and American River levees must “come before every other consideration.” (Still an important cause today.) Her platform encompassed many issues, reflecting how attuned she was to the municipal challenges of the day. She campaigned on municipal ownership of utilities; developing William Land’s land gift as a great park; and adopting the latest reforms in public education.

Finally, to the city’s women, she promised to “do all in my power and within my province to maintain the laws bettering the condition of women, and will bend every effort in that direction.”

The Municipal Voter’s League quickly endorsed her, praising both her civic accomplishments and her “marked executive and constructive ability and well-balanced judgment.” The Women’s Council also publicly endorsed her, then promptly held a tea party with “fashionable gowns and picture hats” to begin registering women to vote. Campaigning can be fun. The Sacramento Bee, a vocal enemy of the incumbent council, lavished her campaign with positive coverage, praising Luella “as a woman of progressive ideas and sound judgment, level-headed and full of energy.”

Complementing and perhaps dwarfing these endorsements was Luella’s own formidable organizing prowess. She assembled a “Women’s Precinct Organization” to run her campaign and drive newly enfranchised women to the polls. Sixty-four women – a veritable campaign army, even by today’s standards – enlisted as precinct captains for her campaign. On election day, her volunteers staked out polling stations to hand out endorsement cards and organized automobile house calls to bring women to the polls.

And go to the polls they did. The Sacramento Call reported that “the big vote in the residence district was due largely to the fact that the women got out in force.” Female turnout exceeded expectations. One poll-worker joked to the Sacramento Union that women were only voting for the free car rides; a female voter overheard him and “immediately emerged from the [voting] booth, went up to the clerk, took him to task for his remarks and demanded an apology. … That ended the talk about joy riding for the afternoon.”

With the dust settled and the votes tallied, the Municipal Voters’ League’s slate had prevailed with a clean sweep. Luella was elected. It was a stunning victory for local Progressives and the city’s women. As one paper effused,

The women of this city have taught the men a lesson in practical politics. By organizing a machine of their own, they routed the professional politicians, defeated all five candidates put up by the Southern Pacific Machine … and swept into office the five commissioners of their own choosing. … Among them is Mrs. Luella B. Johnston, head of the women’s machine…

Cartoon - Municipal League Wins - 5-20-1912

Sacramento Bee Cartoon (1912)

An Historic Win

Luella was the first woman elected to the Sacramento City Council. More than that, “Mrs. Johnston is the first woman elected to city office in the state,” reported the San Francisco Call. (While records are sparse, she may even have been the first woman elected to the city council of any major American city.)

Luella was not the first woman elected to public office in California; but I would argue her election was of greater societal importance than her predecessors. Prior to 1912, women were prohibited from running for all state and local offices except one: women were permitted to run for (but not vote in) elections for county education offices. (For example, Sacramento County’s first female Superintendent of Schools was Minnie O’Neil, elected in 1907.) This accommodation was, however, sexist in its own way, reflecting contemporary gender norms that women should be the primary caretakers and educators of children.

What Luella and Sacramento had done was something new.

For the first time, the voters entrusted a woman with general governmental power.

It was the start of a new era.

New City Hall, circa 1912 - Greater Sacramento Publication (1912)

The Recently Completed City Hall (photo circa 1912)

***

Stayed tuned in the coming weeks for Part II, where  I conclude my short biography of Luella by examining her term in office and later years.

Abridged Bibliography

In putting together this account of Luella’s life and 1910s Sacramento I drew heavily on, and am indebted to, the following sources:

 

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