Last month, I urged the City Council to rename the historic council chambers in the Old City Hall after Luella Johnston, the first woman elected to the Sacramento City Council (and, for that matter, the first woman to be elected to the city council of any major city in the United States).
This past Tuesday, the City Council did just that!
The Resolution, authored by Councilwoman Angelique Ashby, recognizes Luella’s unique contributions to our city and unique place in women’s history. Amazingly, up until this Tuesday, there had never been any significant memorial honoring Luella in Sacramento.
March, appropriately, is National Women’s History Month. “Men and women have worked together to build this nation,” acknowledged the first Presidential Proclamation to establish this tradition, even though “too often the women were unsung and sometimes their contributions went unnoticed. But the achievements, leadership, courage, strength and love of the women who built America was as vital as that of the men whose names we know so well.”
Luella’s contributions, forgotten for more than a century, certainly fall into that category. Renaming the Old Council Chambers, in which she served, is a fitting way to right this oversight and to honor a rich history of women’s leadership in our city.
Thank you to Councilmember Ashby and the City Council for this beautiful gesture.
I recently finished a series of posts on Luella Johnston, who in 1912 became the first woman elected to city council not only in Sacramento, but also in all of California. It seemed probable that she was also the first woman elected to the city council of any major U.S. city, but because there’s no list of first councilwomen this was difficult to confirm.
However, after researching for longer than I care to admit, and with the generous help from city clerks, librarians, and historical societies from across the nation, I am now ready to say with confidence that Luella… *drumroll* …WAS the first councilwoman of a major American city.
And pretty comfortably so. The median major city didn’t elect its first councilwoman until 1956, several generations later. The last city to do so was Kansas City, Kansas, in 1989, when voters elected Carol Marinovich. Luella’s closest contender for the title of first was the fascinating Estelle Lawton Lindsey, whom Angelenos elected in 1915 and have been (falsely!) claiming as the first major city councilwoman ever since.
Since it was difficult to find the first councilwoman for each major city, I’ve decided to host the list here as a public service. Each councilwoman listed here was identified as a city’s first councilwoman either in a secondary sources (like a newspaper) or in direct correspondence with me by a researcher, archivist, or other staff person with a city’s library, city clerk, or historical society. If you see any misspellings, incorrect dates, or other errors, send corrections my way to SacMentality@gmail.com and I will update the list!
A quick note on methodology. First, I only counted women elected in their own right to office, as opposed to appointed to fill a vacancy (but I did note the early appointees I came across). Second, I defined “major city” as the top 100 cities by population as of the 1910 census, which immediately preceded Luella’s 1912 election. Now, lest I receive complaints, technically at 45,000 residents Sacramento fell just short of being in the top 100 cities in 1910. However, in 1911, the City annexed three neighborhoods (Oak Park, East Sacramento, and Highland Park) adding around 20,000 residents to its population, placing it comfortably in the top 100 by Luella’s 1912 election.
The First Elected Councilwoman of Every Major U.S. City
Genevieve B. Earle
Meta D. Thomas
Appointed 1956; elected 1957.
Dr. Bertha Lietze
Appointed 1967 and elected 1968.
Polly Shackleton, Nadine Winter, and Willie Hardy
Bertha Landes and Kathryn Miracle
Hattie E. Hoffman
Elizabeth De Courcy
Cathy Reynolds and Cathy Donohue
Elisa Dasmascio Pallidino was appointed in 1935, but was never elected.
Dorothy McCullough Lee
Olga Anna Jones
Jane M. Kuebbeler
Lucy Dittman was appointed in 1933, but was never elected.
Appointed in 1923 then elected in 1924.
Melanie Kreuzer was elected in 1949.
Grace O’Malley Schimelfenig
Eleanor P. Sheppard
May Guggenheim was appointed in 1943, but was never elected.
Gail Levin was appointed in 1973.
Ellen Anastos Sampson
Florence (Lee) Whitman
Olivia Leggett was appointed in 1974.
Rosalind Poll Brooker
Salt Lake City
Ione M. Davis representing District 6, Sydney R. Fonnesbeck representing District 3, and Alice Shearer representing District 4
Alice B Harrington
Marie C. Wilson
Councilor at large Marguerite P. Kane and District F Councilor Pamela Neilon
Darlene K. Rogers
Elizabeth Hughley was appointed to the Council in 1987 just before Darlene Rogers was elected.
Edith B. Davidson
Mary Kennedy was appointed in 1918, but never elected.
Mary D. Gillen
Catherine Schneiderat (Ward 2), Ann Bourque (Ward 3), and Leona Dykstra (Ward 6)
Joyce A. Savocchio
Sarah Berrien Casey Morgan
Clelia Peronneau McGowan
East St. Louis
Appointed in 1982, elected 1985.
Sallye Brooks Mathis and Mary Littlejohn Singleton
Last updated: July 2020
Suggested Citation: Nicolas Heidorn, America’s First Councilwomen, Sacramentality.com (Mar. 18, 2018) (Updated July 2020).
This post is a continuation of the story of Luella Johnston, Sacramento (and California’s) first elected councilwoman. In Part I, I discussed Luella’s civic and political activism in Sacramento, culminating in her successful 1912 campaign for a seat on the Sacramento City Council. In Part II, I discussed her time on the City Council, then called the City Commission. In this third and final part, I discuss her re-election campaign and later years.
Luella Johnston Campaign Headshot (circa 1912)
Luella Johnston should have been riding high entering into the 1913 campaign season. On the power of the women’s vote in the 1912 election, the anti-corporate Progressives had won every seat of the five-member City Commission governing Sacramento. As part of that wave of reform, Luella was voted into office – the first woman elected to municipal office in California’s history.
In just one year, the reformers had also delivered on much of their agenda. Cronyism seemed to have been reined in. The mighty railcar and utility companies were subjected to greater regulation and rate controls, reducing costs for everyday Sacramentans. And the Commission had proposed and the voters passed several major infrastructure modernization projects, including a levee protection bond that Luella had championed as a candidate.
As the first of her peers to face re-election, Luella was the standard-bearer of the revolution. Luella, proclaimed the Sacramento Bee, “represents the reform and progressive movement which has done so much for the municipality.”
And yet. Despite these successes, Luella’s campaign must have launched with a sense of foreboding.
Sexism would pose an even greater threat in re-election. In 1912 she had won the last of five open seats on the Commission. In 1913, hers was the only seat at issue. “At an election where only one is to be elected,” fretted one of her female supporters, “all the chances favor the election of a man.”
She had also made enemies of some very powerful interests. Early in her 1912 term, she was warned that “if you continue your present course we will see that you stand no chance of re-election.” Nevertheless, she persisted.
That looming threat became very real when the old Political Machine put forth its challenger.
The Machine Strikes Back: Enter E. J. Carraghar
Cartoon of Carraghar, Sacramento Bee (1913)
Edward J. Carraghar was, only one year prior, perhaps the most powerful man in Sacramento. A councilmember until the new charter went into effect in 1912, he was widely seen as the power behind Mayor Beard’s throne in the old City Hall. Under his rule the Southern Pacific, Pacific Gas & Electric, and the city’s public service corporations generally received favorable treatment; they bolstered his reign in return. Carraghar was local Progressives’ bête noire: the “champion,” editorialized the Bee, “of the Machine, the public-service corporations, and the reactionary elements generally.”
If Carraghar won, it would be, the Bee warned, “the opening wedge for the government of this city again by the old crowd. It would herald the beginning of the return to the old condition of Machine and corporation rule.”
Carraghar’s challenge was also personal. In 1912, Luella had terminated his tenure in elective office by narrowly besting him for the last seat on the Commission.
1913 was the rematch. 1913 was the counter-revolution.
The 1913 Campaign: Nasty, Brutish, & Short
Sacramento Union (1913)
Luella came out of the gate with several important endorsements. The Municipal Voters League, the city’s leading Progressive organization, voted overwhelmingly to support her candidacy. The Bee, too, was amongst her most vocal supporters. Luella, the paper wrote, had been “on the right side and for The People, as against corporate selfishness, graft and improper discrimination.” Finally, the Woman’s Council, that powerful coalition of women’s organizations that Luella had founded almost a decade ago, also pledged its full support: “the women of Sacramento,” declared the Council, “as citizens, voters and taxpayers have a legal and moral right to a representative of their own sex in the city government.”
With her indefatigable style, Luella re-constituted a Women’s Precinct Organization to lead her campaign. She campaigned hard not only on her Progressive bona fides, but also her accomplishments as Commissioner of Education, where she had closed a budget shortfall, addressed student overcrowding, and inaugurated several new children’s parks. It must have been quite the sight, at that time, to see a woman campaigning on her executive and legislative experience. At one campaign stump speech in Oak Park, where Luella had recently inaugurated a new, modern playground, women of the neighborhood reportedly showered her with “three minutes of bouquets of roses.”
But Carraghar was nothing if not a shrewd and battle-tested campaigner. He punched back, hard, hitting Luella wherever she was strongest. “Every trick that political ingenuity can conceive is being used against Mrs. Johnston,” criticized the Bee. “No appeal to prejudice is too base, no lie too brazen, to be rejected in an effort by the old Machine to confuse voters.”
If the Bee was exaggerating, it could only have been by a hair. Time and again the Carraghar camp peddled bald falsehoods to the electorate. For example:
As a Commissioner, Luella was a consistent vote to regulate the public service corporations whereas Carraghar, as Councilmember, had cut deals favorable to the Southern Pacific and other corporations. In spite of these contrasting histories, his campaign surrogates praised Carraghar as the anti-corporate candidate.
Luella was an ardent anti-saloon campaigner. Her first political fight was winning a moratorium on new saloons in residential areas. In stark contrast, Carraghar was, himself, a tavern owner. Yet, Carraghar allies implausibly insisted that the “liquor interests” were supporting Luella.
And the harshest blow of all: Luella was a suffragette, endorsed by the Woman’s Council, and the first woman elected to city office in Sacramento. To counteract this base of support, his camp orchestrated a “Woman’s E. J. Carraghar Club,” which attacked the legitimacy of Luella’s Woman’s Council’s endorsement and warned other women not to be seen as “voting for a woman because she is a woman.”
If the city’s corporations and old power brokers had underestimated the Progressive challenge in 1912, they were not set to repeat that mistake in 1913. According to contemporary accounts, whereas Luella’s was a volunteer-powered campaign, Carraghar’s was backed by “great sums of money,” widely assumed to come from the coffers of the public service corporations.
Unfortunately, Luella herself made a few blunders that her opponent was quick to seize upon. At one point, according to a pro-Carraghar publication, Luella took “an army of small boys away from their studies to distribute anti-Carraghar literature, during school hours.” She also failed to appoint a prominent parks advocate, Mrs. J. Miller, to the parks board, causing a nasty rift within her base in the women’s clubs.
When the Election Day finally arrived, it was a rout: Luella was soundly defeated in every precinct except for the annexed residential neighborhoods.
She took the defeat well, reportedly with a smile on her face as she shook the hands of hundreds of supporters. “When I leave this position,” she said, “it will be with the thought that I have given my best efforts to the city in the limited term of office that I served.”
Three months after Luella’s term officially expired, her former colleagues voted to make her the city’s Truant Officer, responsible for boosting school attendance. Outnumbered for now, Commissioner Carraghar cast a solitary, spiteful protest vote against his former opponent “on the ground that a man should fill the position.”
Progressives still controlled four of the Commission’s five seats, but the 1913 campaign was a dark omen for reformers. The old Machine had proven it was not yet vanquished; it was fighting back.
A Ghost Arises: The 1914 Campaign
Sacramento Bee (1914)
As the city campaign draws to a close, there is heard on the air a sound suspiciously like the rustle of grave clothes. Those bosses whom the people thought had been laid to rest for their long sleep, breaking the bonds that held them, in spectral shape again appear among the living.
Sacramento Union (1914)
Reformers and boss revanchists were set to collide again in 1914, but with even higher stakes. Due to an early resignation on the Commission, two seats instead of one were up for election. Progressive control of the Commission, won a scant two years earlier, was now in jeopardy.
Carraghar pounced. “Give me a man – no, give me two,” he told a meeting of businessmen, “that I may once more get in the saddle and work in your interests.” He was not subtle. “The men who once dictated the politics of Sacramento,” warned the Union, “that unwholesome crew of bosses, are trying to patch up the Machine.”
Emboldened by Luella’s defeat the year before, Sacramento’s business interests could not have been more eager to help.
Long used to a pliant city government, Sacramento’s corporate titans chafed under Commission rule. Dr. E. M. Wilder, the staunchly anti-corporate Commissioner of Public Works up for re-election that year, had emerged as their chief antagonist. He had ordered the Southern Pacific to tear out an unlawfully-constructed rail line, strong-armed the railroad into improving the city’s levees, and cleared the SP out of its prime staging area at the wharfs. He had used his commissionership to undermine Pacific Gas & Electric’s electrical distribution and streetcar monopolies while openly campaigning for full municipal ownership of both. He was the anti-Carraghar.
Completing the good government ticket was O.H. Miller, a prominent developer, who ran for the open Commission seat pledging himself to Wilder’s platform.
Carraghar and his allies put forward their own “Machine” ticket: Thomas Coulter, a hop grower and realty dealer, and Dr. Frederick E. Shaw, a civically-active physician. While never publicly admitted, Coulter and Shaw were generally seen as supported, per the Bee, by the full “power, influence, and money of the Southern Pacific, the Pacific Gas and Electric and other selfish public-service corporations.”
What is beyond dispute is that someone spent heavily to defeat Wilder-Miller, even more than was spent to defeat Luella. “Never before was known such lavish scattering of coin in a Sacramento election,” wrote the Sacramento Bee. Thousands of placards, hundreds of canvassers, and even a few brass bands were trumpeting the Machine candidates. The Sacramento Union estimated at one point that thousands had been spent on the 1914 campaign. (In contrast, Luella only spent $10 on her 1912 campaign.)
When the dust of the election settled, the Machine had once again triumphed. Commissioner Wilder took the loss less gamely than Luella: “It was announced two years ago by the leaders of the old gang in this city that they would get me when my time came and they have indeed done so.” Sacramento’s Progressive revolution was over.
One of the new Commission majority’s first acts: firing Luella Johnston.
Within a few years’ time many of the Commission’s 1912-13 Progressive reforms were undercut or undone. The civil service commission was defunded; health and safety ordinances, including the city’s liquor laws, went unenforced; and regulation of the city’s public service corporations, and chiefly the Southern Pacific and Pacific Gas & Electric, were once again relaxed. By the end of the 1910s, writes local historian William Burg, City Hall had descended “to even worse corruption than under Mayor Beard.”
The Commission model, which had started with such promise, was scrapped by voters in 1921 and replaced with the latest trend in municipal governance: the City Manager form of government we have today.
Luella, in her 90s, from Woman’s Council: Silhouette of Service (1955)
Luella quickly bounced back from the Machine’s retribution. Months later, a rare sister-in-politics, Sacramento County’s elected Superintendent of Schools Carolyn Webb, appointed Luella Deputy Superintendent. The assignment was short-lived. Less than a year later, in 1915, Luella would resign in protest over the county pressuring her to take a pay cut to free up funds to hire an additional employee.
In her mid-fifties now, Luella finally seemed content to return to private life. Her name fades from the historical record at this point. From the social notes pages of local newspapers, we know she remained active with both the Tuesday Club and the Woman’s Council, but not leading grand initiatives like she did in earlier years.
Luella working on her book – Sacramento Bee (1953)
Luella’s passion for public service and education never left her, however. In her twilight years she devoted herself to writing a book to help new immigrants learn English. Tentatively entitled American Folklore, she hoped it would spark a love of reading, particularly for newspapers and magazines. “The most vital thing for any newcomer to this land,” she explained, at age 92, “is to introduce him to the newspapers at the earliest possible moment. Particularly, so he can read about the food that he eats and the clothing he wears.”
She passed away in 1958, age 97, her book unfinished.
Sacramento Bee Obituary (1958)
Luella’s Signature (1901)
Luella Johnston played a central role in the social, cultural, and political development of early twentieth century Sacramento. It’s almost overwhelming to describe. She led to prominence the Tuesday Club, which would endure as Sacramento’s premier women’s social club for almost a century. She founded the Woman’s Council, which for decades gave women a seat at the table in making and passing municipal public policy. She was an early education reformer whose successes from the 1900s and 1910s, wrote the Sacramento Union in 1948, still remained decades later “as monuments to the efforts of one frail woman who probably never weighed 100 pounds in her life.” She was integral to the rise of the City’s Progressive moment, which, although short-lived, produced infrastructure improvements (like the Yolo Bypass) and policies (like municipal ownership of electrical distribution, which decades later would evolve into SMUD) that live with us today. She was a crusader for women’s rights in a hostile era and earned the laurel of being the first woman elected to municipal office in California. (And, quite possibly, of any major city in the United States.)
Her accomplishments seem to be too many for a single life.
Sadly, as far as I am aware, there are no memorials to Luella in Sacramento. Neither Johnston Park, Community Center, Pool, nor Road refer to Luella Johnston, but rather to Carl Johnston – an unrelated, early North Sacramento developer. The most I have found honoring her is a small (and sadly inaccurate – her 1913 election was the first in which California women could vote) plaque at her gravesite in the Old City Cemetery.
Old Cemetery Plaque
I can’t help but feel that is a serious oversight. It’s important to honor the city heroes who helped make Sacramento what it is today, lest they be forgotten, like Luella. It’s also important to correct omissions regarding women’s accomplishments, which are sometimes overlooked or minimized in history books.
Imagine for a moment if the Old City Council chambers where she used to serve, today nameless, were re-christened the Luella Johnston Council Chambers. In the march for gender equality, so relevant in the news today, I think it would be a beautiful reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we’ve yet to go.
In putting together this account of early 1910s Sacramento political history, Luella’s last campaign, and her later years, I drew heavily on, and am indebted to, the following sources:
This post is a continuation of the story of Luella Johnston, Sacramento (and California’s) first elected councilwoman. I strongly recommend starting with Part I, where I discussed Luella’s civic and political activism in Sacramento, culminating in her successful 1912 campaign for a seat on the Sacramento City Council. In Part II, I discuss her first year on the City Council.
Tacoma Times (1912)
Rallying behind Luella’s candidacy, Sacramento’s women helped sweep local Progressives to victory in the 1912 city elections. It was a landmark year for Sacramento’s reformers, who had finally succeeded in kicking out the political machine that had long dominated city politics. Now came the challenge of governing.
The New Government: One of Business & Efficiency
Official City Seal (1912)
1912 was unlike any prior year for another reason: The five freshman councilmembers would be the first to serve under the new city charter. Prior to 1912, Sacramento had a traditional “Strong Mayor” form of government with a part-time, nine-member City Council and a full-time elected mayor acting as the city’s chief executive officer. Under the new charter, the office of the mayor had been eliminated and the City Council – renamed the CityCommission – was reduced to a five-member, full-time board. Under this “Commission” form of government, the Commission as a whole continued as the city’s legislative body but, instead of a unified executive, each councilmember – renamed a commissioner – was also individually assigned supervisory powers over a different city department.
The Commission Form was the cutting edge of early twentieth century municipal reform. The drafters of the new charter had promised it would bring about a more “efficient and business like administration.” Popularized in Galveston, Texas, and refined in Des Moines, Iowa, Commissions were thought to promote better management, as commissioners had every incentive to specialize in their assigned policy areas, and better accountability, as the voters could more easily identify and defeat any commissioner whose departments were found lacking.
Sacramento’s charter had five commissioner positions. They were:
Commissioner of Public Works
Commissioner of Streets
Commissioner of Public Health and Safety
Commissioner of Finance
Commissioner of Education
While the voters elected the five commissioners, the commissioners decided for themselves their departmental assignments.
Commission Minutes (1912)
By unanimous vote of her colleagues, Luella was appointed Commissioner of Education. While Luella’s election broke gender boundaries, the education assignment was a (disappointingly) safe choice in line with the era’s social norms. Luella had, however, campaigned for the assignment and, given her background as a teacher and her prior successes around curriculum reform, it was certainly a good fit.
It was also a deceptively powerful post, responsible for a good portion of the city’s budget. Under the charter, the Commissioner of Education had supervision “of all school buildings, property and grounds, and of the construction, maintenance, and repair thereof.” The former Board of Education had also been merged with the new Commission; by virtue of her assignment, Luella also served as Board president whenever the Commission reconvened as that body to decide school matters.
The scope of the Education Commissioner’s duties extended, though, even beyond the schoolhouse doors. The Commissioner supervised all parks and playgrounds; the municipal employment office; all libraries, art galleries, theaters and places of amusement; humane and reformatory boards; and “all matters affecting the intellectual and moral advancement of the city, other than police and sanitary regulations.”
As local historians Elaine Connolly and Dian Self observed, the Education Commissioner’s assignments “sounded like the script [Luella] wrote for the Tuesday Club in 1900.”
The Commission’s First Year: Sacramento Awakened
Commission Chambers (c. 1917)
Under complete Progressive control, the Commission’s first year was a whirlwind of activity as reform-minded Commissioners proposed large infrastructure investments to bring the city into the modern era and set about undoing prior municipal give-aways to the city’s public service corporations.
Luella had pledged that flood control would be her top priority; true to her word, one of the Commission’s first acts was to propose to voters a bond (which passed) to raise city levees and construct the Sacramento bypass at Bryte Bend. Other improvements followed, including extending water mains and sewer lines to the annexed neighborhoods; building of a Hall of Justice including a hospital, court, and jail; purchasing an asphalt-mixing machine to pave the streets; securing land downtown for new state buildings that promised to bring hundreds of jobs Sacramento; and creating a municipally-owned electrical distribution system to light city streets and parks through a combination of construction and eminent domain. The later proposal stoked the ire of the Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E), the city’s private electricity provider, which furiously fought the associated bond.
Like the street light bond, many ordinances the Commission passed took direct aim at the city’s powerful public services corporations. For decades the city’s largest corporations, like PG&E and the Southern Pacific Railroad, had backed and bribed local party bosses and city officials and reaped generous city contracts and franchises, or even a municipal blind eye to their activities, in return. No more. In just one year, half-century streetcar franchises granted by the prior City Council were rescinded as too long; gas rates and telephone deposits were ordered cut; maximum rates for water, electricity, gas, phone, and other private utilities were set or planned; and a new “rental” tax was imposed on all the services corporations that used city streets and alleys to run their pipes, wires, or streetcars — supposedly the first such tax in the state.
The Commission seemed well on its way to delivering on its strident promise of a modern government where the municipality called the shots and not the corporations. “It is evident that the progressive spirit of The People has been awakened,” said Luella, “and that henceforth Sacramento is to take its place among the wide-awake and enterprising cities of the country.”
“A Very Successful Administration”
Sacramento Bee (1913)
Luella was busy with her executive duties as Education Commissioner, too. In fact, probably busier than any other commissioner.
The city charter had been written so that, each year, a different commissioner would be up for re-election. To accomplish this, the inaugural 1912 commissioners were elected to either one-, two-, three-, or four-year short terms or a five-year full term, with higher vote-getters receiving longer terms. Luella had received the fewest votes of the five winners and so would face the voters first: with the clock ticking, she knew “I shall just have to work that much harder to crowd into my present one year term all the improvements of which I am capable.”
The city’s 24 schools, her main charge, seemed to do well under her watch. Attendance increased and teachers received an across-the-board pay raise. Although costs were up as a consequence, and state and county appropriations had decreased over the previous year, Luella’s department still came in under budget. Open bidding requirements for supplies and services, in particular, had cut costs and reduced opportunities for graft and cronyism.
She responded competently to a major crisis in office. When a fire burned down the Capital School, displacing dozens of students and overcrowding nearby schools, Luella ordered the construction of seven portables so classes could quickly resume until a new site was found.
She also celebrated a number of successes. She cleared out the crony hires at the city cemetery, a notorious landing site for supporters of the old political bosses. With a donation from Weinstock, Lubin & Co., she opened the city’s second playground at South Side Park – thousands of kids attended. Library membership grew by several thousands and 11,000 new volumes were added to shelves. Finally, she scored a personal and professional victory when the Southern Pacific agreed to enroll its “shop boys” in night school, demonstrating the value of her longtime vision for integrating vocational training into the curriculum.
Boston Herald (1912)
Luella also took very seriously her charter-mandated duty to advance city morals and squelch vice as well. She fought to curtail illegal gambling, prostitution, and saloons that the prior council had ignored and, of her own initiative, went after “spooning” by youths in the park. Not all of her efforts have aged well. When fighting broke out at a local play over “near-nasty musical numbers,” she threatened to create a Board of Theatrical Censors to “pass upon the moral nature of the shows.”
But, judging her record on the whole, it seems hard to disagree with the Bee’s assessment that Luella had run “a very successful administration.”
A Woman’s Place
Bee Cartoon, lampooning some men’s fear of equal suffrage (1911)
In the lead up to the 1911 election on women’s suffrage, opponents argued that allowing women to vote would destroy society because, next, they would be moving out of the home and demanding greater social, professional, and political responsibilities. Thankfully they were right about that later part. Only a year after gaining the vote, Luella ran for and won a seat on the City Commission. A year out, she had proven that women could participate and excel in what had been the very male worlds of politics and governance.
Decades later, in 1948, Luella was asked to reflect on Belle Cooledge’s election to the Sacramento City Council and historic appointment as Mayor — the first woman mayor of a major American city. In an era where most women were housewives, Luella stuck to her defiantly egalitarian views. “Man or woman has nothing to do with the case,” said Luella, age 88.
You have to do with women what you do with men – balance up their capabilities then judge. … If that type of woman[, i.e. one of Cooledge’s caliber,] is willing to assume the added responsibility of mayor, in my judgment, she is fitted for it.
In thinking about the sexism Luella had to overcome to win a seat and be successful at City Hall in 1912, it is hard to ignore recent headlines documenting the sexism and harassment women still confront in the State Capitol, just a few blocks and a hundred-plus years away. It is also hard to ignore that women remain underrepresented at all levels of elected government, including Sacramento’s nine-member City Council which, once more, has only one councilwoman. We still have far to go.
Even so, I think Luella would be proud of the women leaders following her that have continued to tear down those barriers and insist that people be judged based on their capabilities and not their gender.
Stay tuned for my third and final post on Luella, where I discuss her hard-fought re-election campaign and later years.
In putting together this account of Luella’s time in office and 1910s Sacramento I drew heavily on, and am indebted to, the following sources:
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.
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
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 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.
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 Tuesday Club disbanded in 2014.)
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
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.”
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
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 Woman’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…
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.
The Recently Completed City Hall (photo circa 1912)
Stay tuned in the coming weeks for Part II, where I continue my short biography of Luella by examining her first year in office.
In putting together this account of Luella’s life and 1910s Sacramento I drew heavily on, and am indebted to, the following sources: