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.”
She points out obvious icons like Kate Sessions, the Mother of Balboa Park, or Lillian Rice, who created Rancho Santa Fe and a San Diego style of architecture, or Ellen Browning Scripps, who spent her young 19th-century womanhood setting up profitable newspapers with her brothers in Detroit and Cleveland and, when she retired wealthy to La Jolla in 1896, began a second career financing institutions that are all alive and well today: the La Jolla Woman’s Club, the Public Library, the now-seal-occupied Children’s Pool, Scripps Memorial Hospital, Bishops School, and, most internationally famous, Scripps Institution of Oceanography. And all the while she was spreading seditious propaganda promoting women’s liberation in general and suffrage in particular.
But Gardner says that San Diego’s true heroine when it comes to pushing and persuading the men of California to give women the vote was no millionairess doling out money to buy support. She leads me over to a lady sitting at a little school desk, writing notes. Anne Hoiberg’s wearing a red sweater that almost melts her into the red wall behind her. “Anne’s our expert. Ask her about Clara Foltz.”
Hoiberg is the Women’s Museum president. She’s copresident of the League of Women Voters of San Diego, too. She sees me looking up at a weathered banner that reads: “The Susan B. Anthony Amendment. The right of the citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex.”
“You’ll be seeing a lot of that in the media this year,” she says.
“Why?” I ask.
“Because of the centenary,” she says. “Ninety years ago, American women got the right to vote. But it was ten years earlier, a hundred years ago this year, that Californian women won the right. One of that campaign’s leaders was a San Diegan, Clara Shortridge Foltz. She’s one of our heroes.” Ms. Hoiberg says Clara Foltz was a widow with five children to raise back in the late 19th Century who still managed to become California’s first female lawyer, even though law schools had refused to accept her. She studied at home and passed the bar exam on her first attempt. In the late 1880s, she edited the San Diego Bee newspaper while she lived and practiced law at 1223 Front Street. “Most significantly, she wrote the Women’s Voter Amendment for California, which passed in 1911, almost a decade before the rest of the nation,” says Hoiberg.
It seems they called Ms. Foltz “the Portia of the Pacific” because she could win in court by her wits, like the heroine in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.
So, who are today’s Portias? And what battles have they fought? “You have so many women, children of the ’60s, who took activism to a new level,” Gardner says. “Look at Rachel Ortiz of Barrio Logan.” Ortiz started out fighting the good fight with César Chávez. For 30 years, along with her mentor Gloria Serrano-Medina, Ortiz has helped keep Barrio Logan as an intact cultural entity. Kids came — and come — to her Barrio Station to learn computer skills, to concentrate on homework and sports, and to get away from gangs and drugs. Alums include city council members Ben Hueso, David Alvarez, and Fabian Nuñez, speaker of the California State Assembly.
When it comes to change that ripples out beyond San Diego, where wobble points in our history have provided gutsy women with opportunities to apply Buckminster Fuller’s “trim-tab effect” on San Diego and nudge us in a better direction, two ladies stand out. Their battles have been not just as women, but for women.
The Lunch Counter Affair
Quick, what do you think of when you hear the name Lynn Schenk? The fact that she was a UCSD grad who became the first woman elected to Congress, south of L.A.? Or the first woman chief of staff to a governor (Gray Davis)? Or that she was instrumental in getting the California state senate (at least) to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment?
Probably none of these. Odds are two words come to mind: Grant Grill. Schenk and the Grant Grill incident have become part of downtown lore. Symbolic, like Rosa Parks’s bus-seat protest, but lesser, and yet still a harbinger of profound societal change. I had to track her down.
“What’s amusing to me at this stage in life,” she says, when we finally get to talk, “is that of all the things that I feel I’ve accomplished in my life to advance the cause for women and for men, it’s the Grant Grill that is most remembered and probably will be the headline on my obituary.”
Back in 1971, the Grant Grill, the downtown elite’s favorite watering hole, banned women at lunchtime. “It was really quite simple,” Schenk says. “We didn’t know that we were doing anything historic. I was a young lawyer in the attorney general’s office, and my friend (now judge) Judy McConnell was a young lawyer in the Department of Transportation. Downtown San Diego was a very different place than it is today. It was very rundown, there were a lot of Navy tattoo parlors, that kind of thing, and there weren’t too many places to go to lunch. Today it wouldn’t matter because who has time for lunch? But back then, everybody would go out to lunch, and there were few places that were decent. One was a private club called the Cuyamaca Club. The other was the Westgate Hotel, which was very nice but expensive. And the third was the Grant Grill in the [U.S.] Grant Hotel, and that’s where all the power brokers met for lunch. The mayor, city council members, heads of banks, that’s where business got done. This was not a private club, and it wasn’t a hotel, but it said, ‘Men Only, from Noon to Three.’ Well, this didn’t sit too well with us. We decided we were going to try and change that. There was at that time a case in New York City, an old, old bar, going back to the 1800s, and it was a men-only bar. Some women in New York brought a lawsuit saying, ‘This bar has a liquor license, and it’s not a private club, and they should have to allow women in.’ Well, the [federal] District Court in New York said, ‘These women are right. You have to allow women in because you have a state liquor license.’ Of course, that decision had absolutely no bearing and no precedent value outside that district. But I heard about it. This was before email, the internet. This was before fax. So, I had a friend in New York mail me a copy of the case. I had it in my hand, and we asked a male friend of ours to make a reservation and went over [to the Grant Grill], and we went in, the three of us.
“And the maître d’…I’ll never forget his face. He turned pale. He said, ‘Oh, my. Well, I’m so sorry, but there’s been a misunderstanding and it’s gentlemen only from noon to three.’ And we said, ‘No, we have a reservation.’ He said, ‘Oh, no, no, no. I can’t seat you. Let me escort you across the hall to the Garden Room, where you’ll be much happier.’
“We said, ‘No, no. We want to be in the Grant Grill.’
“And he said, ‘But your ears will be offended by the language of the men.’ We allowed as how that would not bother us at all, by letting him know we knew how to use those words too. Finally, I said, ‘I have here a court case that says you must allow us in.’ He was a short fellow, and I’m fairly tall, and he broke into a bit of a sweat — and took us in. He seated us because there was a table reserved.
“Well. The men, I will say, were not gentlemen. We were booed. We were made to feel like we were from another planet. Not just the opposite sex. Loud, rude remarks, people coming over and jostling our chairs, saying nasty things. Why were we trying to do this? What was wrong with us? Calling us all sorts of names.
“When we made another reservation, they were ready for us. Grant Grill had a vestibule on the side. So they set up a table in the vestibule, and there was a glass barrier between it and the restaurant. So, we were sitting with the coats and the hats. And then, about the third time we showed up, the sign had been taken down, and we said, ‘Thank goodness,’ because we couldn’t afford this place anymore.
“They were not very welcoming for years after that, but women did come. And we were dead serious. This was not a publicity stunt. I mean, that [New York] case had no value in California, no impact. It was poker, and he blinked.”
Schenk has also fought alongside Dr. Anita Figueredo, a doctor from Costa Rica and a lifelong friend of Schenk’s — and of Mother Teresa.
“Anita just died, in her 90s,” says Schenk. “She came as a young girl from Costa Rica. She wasn’t even five feet tall in her maturity, but she became the first woman cancer surgeon in San Diego. She raised eight children in La Jolla, and she was a real force of nature and very active in the Catholic Church. A little Mighty Mouse.”
In the ’70s, Schenk and Figueredo and a number of other women formed a…bank. “It was the first women’s bank to be chartered in California. We called it the Women’s Bank. We did it out of frustration. When I was young and starting out in practice of law, we women couldn’t get credit in our own name. We couldn’t get a bank loan. If we were married and didn’t use our husbands’ names, the banks — at least the bank I went to — refused to put my name on the checking account, insisting that I had to use my husband’s name.
“So a group of us got together and said, ‘Why don’t we form our own bank, where women will be welcome, where women will be treated as a good business risk?’ And we did that. Of course, the reaction from men was predictable: we faced everything from ridicule to dismissiveness. But we were able to do it. We raised $2 million, when a million was real money, primarily from women. And the bank did get chartered. Ronald Reagan was governor at the time. We were such a success that the other banks looked at us and said, ‘Wait a minute. This is a business for us.’ They opened ‘women’s divisions’ and ‘women’s departments.’ We were bought out eventually, but for a number of years, the Women’s Bank [was there] in Mission Valley, and Anita was one of the founders.”
Schenk says the ’70s were bust-out time. “There were more and more women applying to professional schools, inspired by real pioneers in the legal profession in San Diego, people like Marie Herney, who was the first woman partner in a San Diego law firm. She took the bar and passed it the first time. And women like Madge Bradley, who was the first woman to be appointed to the bench. And Betty Boone, now in her late 80s. She was the first woman hired by the county counsel’s office. So, there were women here and there but not in numbers. It was the late ’60s, early ’70s that women started coming through the legal profession, for example, in enough numbers that we had a critical mass. Except, law firms were not hiring women.”
The only job women could get was in a public agency, Schenk says. “That was thanks to the few women who came before us and forced the DA and the county counsel and the city attorney to hire women. But we still couldn’t get hired at public law firms. So a group of us decided, ‘Well, there’s power in numbers.’ And we formed an organization called the ‘Lawyers Club,’ which today is 1000 strong. In two years we’re going to be celebrating our 40th anniversary. Then women started to run for office, and Maureen O’Connor was the first woman to be elected mayor, and I was the first woman elected to the United States Congress from south of Los Angeles.”
Schenk says there are more nuanced challenges to women today.
“It was easier back then, in a funny way. Not that it was easy to get a job or break down barriers. But the barriers were so obvious. You didn’t have to go far to see a discriminatory law. So we were able to fix a lot of that. For example, California is called a ‘community property’ state. That means that the husband and wife have an equal 50 percent [ownership] in the community property. However, back when we started the Lawyers Club, the law explicitly said the husband had ‘management and control’ over the community property. The only time a woman could get her half, or control it, or commit it, was if they got divorced. We were able to change the law.
“We formed this organization to change laws, to change attitudes, and to advance the cause of women in the legal profession, and now it’s the second-largest bar association in San Diego, after the San Diego County Bar.”
The Founding Mother of the World’s First Women’s Studies Department
“I was brought up in south Texas,” says Carol Rowell Council. “My first political awakening was in our Southern Baptist church, where I’d been taught that everyone was created equal, ever since I was in kindergarten. Like the hymn that said ‘Red and yellow, black and white/ We’re all precious in His sight.’ My mother was a teacher, and she professed the same beliefs, and my father did too. I thought everybody else did. I took them literally until one day some black people tried to come in to the church service. The ushers went to the door from this huge auditorium and ushered them out instead of in. And I was really appalled, angry, horrified, confused. Behind me in the pew were three of my teachers from elementary school. My mother was next to me. I said, ‘Why are they doing that? It’s not right.’ She said, ‘We’ll just have to let the men decide this. The deacons. The church fathers. They’ll probably have a meeting about it.’ And nobody said anything. Not even my teachers. I felt that they were such hypocrites. I couldn’t believe that they were these same loving people I had known all my life. But they wouldn’t even turn their heads around. They pretended it wasn’t happening. I was maybe 13.
“So then I became a little more skeptical of people and their beliefs. When I met someone in 1966 who was involved in the anti-[Vietnam] war movement, I ended up coming out here [to San Diego] to be with him. There was all sorts of [ferment at] San Diego State, with groups like Students for a Democratic Society, Young Socialist Alliance, Friends of the Black Panthers, and I got involved with educational reform and antiwar work.
“The watershed moment was going to a conference in Reno, Nevada, on sex roles. It was a marathon weekend. A discussion of the inequality between men and women and basically turning into a focus on sexism, and then: feminism. That was the first time I had heard that word. Feminism. And I heard it from women and men from Berkeley and San Francisco, from the Bay Area.
“We’re talking summer of ’68. I was completely convinced by the time we were driving home from Reno that something had to be done in San Diego. Then I asked myself the question: How is it going to get done? The answer was Well, you’ve got to go out and find some other people who think like you do, or teach them. So when I came back, I started walking around the San Diego State campus asking if anybody knew a feminist. The answer I got was ‘What’s a feminist?’
“I got my nerve up and called Dr. Joyce Nower, who taught literature. And she said, ‘I’m so glad you called. I was expecting your call.’ She started telling me about [French feminist] Simone de Beauvoir. Dr. Nower was about 15 years older than I was. (She passed away just a few months ago.) She was just dynamite. We decided to hold a ‘rap group’ — not the music. This was before that — [it meant] a ‘consciousness-raising’ group.”
This was in itself revelatory.
“You just basically sat down and talked. And the first thing that came up was how little experience we all felt we [women] had about talking in public. Talking in mixed groups especially. Talking where men were. Because men did most of the talking. So that was another earth-shaking thing. Just the act of sitting together in a circle on the floor with only women in the room talking about men...was an act of rebellion. To organize, to meet amongst your own gender was a really rebellious thing. And a very exciting thing, too. We could feel their enthusiasm. It was, like, ‘Let’s meet next week. Same time, same place.’
“I remember Joyce saying, ‘Scratch any woman and you’ll find a feminist.’ A woman wouldn’t call herself a feminist, necessarily, back then, or even today. But if you start talking, you’re going to get a story from someone about being raped. You’re going to get a story about sexual harassment. One of the women was an artist who had to hide all her paintings behind doors and under the beds in her house because her husband wanted her to stay home with the children and he didn’t approve of her being an artist, even at home.
“We very quickly said, this is incredibly personal and incredibly political at the same time. The personal is political. Political ideas are based on personal experiences. This got us more interested in making the connection between the self and culture, society, history, all aspects of civilization. And [to look again at] the history they wrongly taught us.”
The breakthrough came in the summer of 1969.
“On one of the evenings when we were discussing what could we do, one of the women in the rap group said, ‘Why don’t we start a women’s studies department?’ The room fell quiet, we all looked at each other, like… Wow. What an idea. She was married to someone who was in Chicano studies, which was a department that had recently been created. She said, ‘If the Chicano studies can do it, we can do it too.’
“So, then it was, like, not only is it a good idea, but there’s a precedent. We can do it. From there we went and made friends with people in the Chicano studies department, learned what the process would be, the committees we’d have to go through, how we’d get money and budget…”
Things became tough when they made their intention publicly known.
“There was a fence around the construction site of what was to become the library, and it was plain white. So we took brushes and painted sexist quotes and also questions, like, ‘Why is it that there are no women on the Supreme Court?’ As soon as we began putting ourselves on the line and started passing out leaflets, we got reactions, a lot of unprintable things. One of the most frequent was ‘What she needs is a good lay.’ It was pretty uncomfortable. It was, like, ‘Yeah, I’ll get up at six in the morning and hand these fliers out to anybody and know that I’m going to get insults hurled at me, mainly by guys.’ And some girls would frown and look the other way with ‘Don’t talk to me about that.’ It was like signing up to be on the front lines. You were definitely shunned if not insulted. We still get it, 40 years later. The whole process was a year and a half that seemed more like 5 years. I was working around the clock and studying public administration. At one point I had to stop studying. I didn’t have time to do that anymore.”
Was she the leader?
“The women’s movement liked to think it didn’t have leaders. With us, it was supposed to be ‘We’re all a collective.’ But then when the newspaper called or the TV wanted to speak to a spokesperson, there was a problem. So, the others said I should be the spokesperson, and later I was called the coordinator. I was the one taking the heat, the visible one. I could work 24/7 for the movement. It was no problem. I had decided that I was going to dedicate my life to the women’s movement, to eradicating sexism. I clearly said that to myself when I was in the car coming back from the Reno conference. I said, ‘This is going to be the rest of my life.’”
But as the campaign clashed with studies and tensions rose, it became more difficult.
“The stress that I was under was enormous and growing all the time. Having rallies, lobbying professors, studying who’s on a committee, who’s going to be opposed, who’s going to be neutral, who’s a possible swing vote. All the maneuverings had to be thought through very carefully.”
Came the day, finally, May 21, 1970, after months of demonstrations involving as many as 2000 students and six different committee presentations and grillings, when the senate of the faculty of the College of Arts and Letters sat down to vote on whether or not SDSU should become the nation’s, and Council says the world’s, first university to create a department devoted exclusively to the study of women.
Counterintuitively, it wasn’t a grand climax.
“Our group had dwindled. People were finishing final exams. Some people were already leaving campus, the killings at Kent State University had taken place, it was a very somber time. A couple of hundred college campuses had closed early. The day of that final meeting, I walked to the faculty senate meeting by myself and sat down with all the professors. Joyce [Nower] couldn’t be there. I think she was giving a final, and the other people who had been involved either couldn’t or didn’t much want to anymore. People got ‘burned out,’ that was the expression. And I was burned out, but I couldn’t give up because I had signed on for life.
“That was the moment that it became official. There was no debate. There was a motion that had already been typed up. It was on the agenda. They read it and then asked if there was any discussion. There wasn’t.”
Perhaps the deciding moment had already happened the week before.
“At a previous meeting, there was a really dramatic moment when an elderly faculty member stood up to object after we had made our presentation. ‘The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world’ is what he said. Meaning, the females are the mothers, the mother’s arm rocks the cradle, that’s all the power that she needs because she has the power to raise children.
“That made another man angry. He stood up and said, ‘That’s exactly the kind of attitude that’s been keeping women down.’ Then someone else said the same. Interestingly, they were all men. That’s when I realized that [the elderly faculty member’s] attitude was being seen as out of date, out of step with the times. We’d won.”
Of course, then came the work of actually setting up the department. And guess who had to do it?
“We the students had do all that work. Not [the university]. We did it. Our group. We had to hire people, we had to write job descriptions, write the curriculum, call people for interviews, fly them into San Diego. We had to try to find office space, design the brochure, we had to set it up for registration. We did all that and hired the faculty and all the other things that went on with it. I became an administrator, so to speak. I was paid then to be the coordinator of women’s studies, until we hired somebody to be the chairperson of the department. I had to give a course in the fall of 1970. I was 19, or something, and I didn’t have my degree yet!”
But it was a supreme moment after an 18-month saga. “I walked out the door after that vote. We had just created a women’s studies department! It was a beautiful sunny Thursday. I was walking along beside a green lawn. I felt like there should be a parade. I could hear the triumphal march from the opera Aida in my mind. I thought, This is that kind of a moment when there should be rejoicing and trumpets playing, and yet I’m walking silently by myself back to my car to drive away, and history has just been made but nobody was there to celebrate it.”
Last year, 40 years on, there were plenty who came to SDSU to celebrate. Because today there are over 600 women’s studies programs on campuses in the U.S. and many more around the world, and they all recognize San Diego, and San Diego State, as the fountainhead where it all began.
You have to think San Diego’s grand old founding mothers, women such as Ellen Browning Scripps, Kate Sessions, Clara Shortridge Foltz, and Margaret Robinson, would be proud. But for Council, Schenk, and others, the fact that in this year that celebrates the centenary of Californian women winning the right to vote — 80 years after they won the right to vote in national elections — and 47 years after the Civil Rights Act, an actual Constitutional guarantee of equal rights for women is still a far-off dream. On that thought, they all might well be turning over in their graves.
Note: Council will be reading from her new book The Centaur for Women: Memoirs of the Student Founder of the First Women’s Studies Program on February 12 at the Women’s Museum of California, 2323 Broadway, suite 107, Golden Hill, 619-233-7963.