Becoming Citizens

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Gayle Gullett. Becoming Citizens: The Emergence and Development of the California Women’s Movement 1880-1911. Champaign: University of Illinois Press. 2000. Pp.272. Cloth ISBN 0252025032. Paper ISBN 0252068181


The book covers the women’s movement in California between the years 1880 to 1911. Author Gayle Gullett has divided the movement chronologically into four stages taking place over those 31 years. She captures how the women’s movement began in California with women seeking to achieve their goal of citizenship, which, as Gullett describes it, refers to their desire to show they were capable of supporting themselves and could “think and vote independently.” (p.5) In the beginning the women’s groups were white and affluent in such areas as Pasadena and Los Angeles. Gullett also looks at how the movement spread to northern California and the different challenges that faced the women of San Francisco, particularly in the area of labor issues. Gullett seeks to write the definitive history of the California women’s movement, and in doing so gives the reader great insight to the local and state level women clubs. It was within these clubs that women found the confidence and skills needed to show they were capable of being active participants in political events.

In the first of the four stages, 1883-1893, women were more concerned with the traditional issues of the home and morality. Through organizations such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and other clubs, women began to organize and believe that organized womanhood could improve their lives. The second stage Gullett describes is from 1893 to 1896 when women supported the state’s populist movement and campaigned for a suffrage referendum to seek the right to vote. Women during this period demanded more radical changes such as women office holders. The referendum was defeated and women found themselves under attack from both political parties and the press. The women, however, still saw the need for women’s voices and started to regroup. Moving on to the third stage, 1897 to 1905, Gullett describes how the women began to promote a program of civic altruism to show they were capable of working and thinking on their own in the public sphere. Women promoted temperance and slum prevention etc,.(p.170) The women also analyzed election returns carefully to see where the suffrage vote failed and what needed to be done for the future. During this time the women reached out across social classes, but not across racial groups, in an effort to strengthen their positions. The white women’s refusal to reach out to other races slowed their progress and forced African-American women to create their own clubs and organizations. Mexican and Chinese women were left out completely.

In the final stage, 1906 to 1911, Gullett describes how the final pieces of a strong movement came together. Using alliances with other organizations, under the title of the “Good Government Movement,” women worked with men to promote an end to political corruption in government, a popular theme of the Progressive Party. (p. 151) Through this type “good government” movement and networking, women finally won the support of men in the various political parties. The last two hurdles to clear were the support of labor and working women, which finally came together during this period. Gullett believes that by this time politicians had begun to see the advantages they could gain in giving the women the right to vote. Although the women may have won the right to vote in 1911, Gullett points out they did not win equality with men. Gullett acknowledges that she couldn’t have written the book without the resources of the various women’s clubs in both southern and northern California. Using many of the club archives, she blends letters, diaries and other primary sources into the story to give it more authority and authenticity. There are many good books on the history of suffragettes in general, but there are not many that give the local history as Gullett’s does.


Pat Kelly, Fall 2007

Gayle Gullett has given readers a great bottom-up view of history of the women’s movement in California. In an easy-to-read manner, Gullett writes not only about what the women accomplished, but how. Throughout the different chapters, she raises and tries to answer important questions about the movement, such as: did the term “citizenship” mean something different to the women in 1880 than the women in 1911; who defined citizenship to begin with; and how can women get this right if men are the gatekeepers? Another question that might be raised is how do women define citizenship today?

Most importantly, she looked at what rules had to be followed for women to win the right to vote and become equal partners with men in political matters. The women never broke the race or ethnic boundaries of the era, but the book shows how they networked within their own social and racial groups at first and then saw the need to expand to other social groups if they were to succeed. This shows that although women weren’t allowed in the smoked-filled rooms of politics, they must have inhaled some secondary smoke because they learned how to outmaneuver their opponents. Overall, the book offers a positive look at the California women’s movement. If there is an area where Gullett comes up short, it’s in the fact that she doesn’t really examine is the negative side of the movement. Except for a few minor run-ins with men in power positions, such as newspaper editors and different board members, Gullett never mentions anything negative. These women must have been ostracized by family members and others for joining the various clubs and organizations she mentions. One thing Gullett could have done to help give the reader a better sense of what the women went through might have been to describe how the middle class woman balanced her obligations to the club and her family.

Gullett also looks at how the movement differed in the northern part of the state from the southern part. This at times could be confusing to readers not familiar with the long history of real differences between the politics and just about everything else in the two portions of the state. Gullett states in her epilogue that “the California women’s enfranchisement changed the political landscape of national suffrage”. (p. 201) Gullett in her research looks only at the women’s movement within California and hardly mentions what was going on with the national movement. The book makes the reader wonder what these early pioneers of women’s right would think now that a woman, Hilary Clinton, is running for president.

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