One hundred years ago California was a classic battleground state in the presidential election that pitted incumbent President Woodrow Wilson (D) against Charles Evans Hughes (R). The front page of the New York Times declared, “California was the pivot on which the election of 1916 swung.” The outcome was unknown until late in the evening of November 9. (The election took place on November 7). The Democratic stronghold of San Francisco pushed Wilson toward victory, taking the state by just 4000 votes. The Times credited women and progressives in San Francisco with keeping Wilson in office four more years.
The year 1916 was the second time California women could vote in a national election. (Women in the state won the vote in 1911 and voted in the 1912 contest); The contest posed a conflict for feminists. The Republican candidate, Charles Evans Hughes, tried to distinguish himself from the president by supporting the adoption of the Susan B. Anthony amendment to the U.S. Constitution as soon as possible. President Wilson, on the other hand, declared his support for suffrage at the right time – soon, but not immediately. He had his mind on the European War underway for two years with a threat to pull the United States into the conflict. Wilson promised to keep the country out of the war. Should women have faith in the President’s promise for “someday soon” and return him to office? Or should they back Hughes to push their voting rights agenda as soon as possible.
Most women to the north, in Oregon, supported Republican Hughes. But one of them, the lesbian feminist doctor and political radical Marie Equi, backed Wilson “because he promised to keep us out of the war.” She voted for the Peace Candidate over the Suffrage Candidate. Wilson won all of the suffrage states, except Oregon and Illinois.
“Without the city of San Francisco Woodrow Wilson would have had to quit the White House on March 4th next,” according to the Times report. Democrats vowed to resolve the suffrage issue before the 1918 mid-term elections. Five months after the election Wilson led the nation into World War I. His Department of Justice later charged Equi with sedition after an anti-war talk she gave in Portland, Oregon. She was sentenced to San Quentin prison. .
Marie Equi: Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions" Michael Helquist, Oregon State University Press, 2015
“Women & Progressives in San Francisco Deciding Factor in National Results” - New York Times, November 10, 1916
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