Ashley Gardner stands inside the three-by-three-foot Women’s Hall of Fame mini-Greek temple and says three words to me as if they were Holy Scripture:
“A hundred years.”
She pauses. “Since 1911. That’s how long — that’s only how long — it’s been since we women were allowed to vote.”
That thought has never struck me before. It does now. I’m helped by the atmosphere. This is a hole in the wall of the Art Union building at 23rd and Broadway, halfway up Golden Hill, a couple of doors down from the Flying Panther Tattoo parlor. A poster stuck to the window reads “Discover a New World: Women’s History.” The sandwich board on the sidewalk shows an ancient black-and-white photograph of flowery-hatted dames in long dresses gathered in front of picket signs. “Come On In and Learn Why Women Ought to Vote,” a sign in the photograph reads.
Suffragettes in San Diego? Who were these people, these women from the time when the words from William Ross Wallace’s poem, “The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world,” were taken to mean: your place is in the home bringing up kids? Leave the running of that world to us men. Looking at those sturdy women, it also hits me that it’s largely because of them that today, in 2011, Western women have more freedom and choice and basic power than at any time in the past, oh, 3000 years. Maybe 10,000 years. It was agriculture that gave people more reliable supplies of food and, ergo, leisure time — to make war, for specialization and more narrowly defined roles, and for the domination game, where muscle preceded mind. It also hits me that women’s whole struggle to get here from there has been a sideshow for many of us males. Interesting, admirable, but no biggie. The only way I helped was in having an open mind and by not joining men’s rearguard actions in trying to keep women from joining clubs, getting jobs, being in positions where they might tell us what to do. Even so, who could resist the out-of-earshot jokes about women drivers, women wearing the pants, men being “pussy-whipped”?
Which brings me to the thought: We always talk about San Diego’s “Founding Fathers”: Juan Bandini, William Heath Davis, Alonzo Horton, John Spreckels.
Never our “Founding Mothers.”
“We women have lost so much of our history,” Lynn Schenk, lawyer and one-time congresswoman, said recently when I called to ask her why historians talk only of founding fathers. “There must have been so many who did extraordinary things, but we don’t know because unless they were an Ellen Browning Scripps or a Kate Sessions, their history wasn’t recorded. Until modern times, history has always been written by men, and women have not been included. We’ve lost the record of the founding mothers, the ones who came here by boat or stagecoach and either alongside, or singularly, helped build San Diego.”
This Women’s Museum may be the place to start righting this historical wrong. That’s why I’m here.
I enter the museum into a room filled with old photos hung on bright red walls, mannequins wearing suffragette-era dresses, an alcove filled with books on women, and a little gift shop selling women-made articles and iterations of a T-shirt with a quote by the Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: “Well-behaved women rarely make history.”
“There are so many San Diego women I admire,” says Ashley Gardner. She’s the live-wire leader of the Women’s Museum of California, recently changed from the Women’s History Museum and Educational Center, and before that, the Women’s History Reclamation Project. Gardner could pass for Julie Andrews with her vivacity, clear speech, and chiseled face. Behind her, a screen (“made possible by the generosity of councilmember Donna Frye and the Honorable Lynn Schenk”) flips the names and bios of Hall of Fame inductees, such as Madge Bradley, “Trailblazer” (each honoree gets a descriptive label), who became San Diego’s first female judge in 1953. And Alemi Daba, “Empowerer,” who, after being tortured and imprisoned in her native Ethiopia, has become a leader in San Diego’s 10,000-strong refugee community. And Jane Dumas, “Historian,” the Kumeyaay elder and teacher who helped found the American Indian Health Center. There’s “Dede” McLure, who’s been speaking up for women, African-Americans, and other minorities for 30 years. And Tanja Winter, who’s been out there on the streets, agitating for peace and nuclear disarmament (remember when we cared about that?) since she escaped as a child from Nazi Germany. Or how about Madame Tingley, the Theosophist who set up a lavish utopian colony on Point Loma in 1897 and was soon housing war orphans from Cuba, partly to “promote a better understanding of world cultures.” Or Amy Strong, the seamstress who made a fortune sewing the latest European fashions for San Diego’s matrons and retired on the profits to her “castle” in Lakeside. Or Margaret Robinson, who was African-American and married Albert Robinson, an ex-slave, and together they created the Robinson Hotel up in Julian — still prospering, the oldest continuously operated hotel in Southern California; Margaret was much-loved in the Julian community — and this was the redneck gold country of the 1870s, 1880s.
Women, all women… except who has heard tell of them, heard any one of them mentioned in the same breath as Alonzo E. Horton and John D. Spreckels?
Ms. Gardner can see I’m starting to get lost in this whirlwind of candidates. “Certainly, women in San Diego with drive and ideas were less constrained by tradition than, say, back East,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean they weren’t suppressed. I think of founding mothers as women who nudged, just a little, the direction we as a city have taken. Call it the ‘trim-tab effect.’ Buckminster Fuller made that concept famous. You don’t have to cause violent turns, just nudge your society into a better direction. We have an amazingly high caliber of women who have helped lay down good roots in this town.”