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Celebrating women’s suffrage: Jennie Colvin was the first woman in Sonoma County to register to vote in 1912

Do you suppose Jennie Colvin thought for one minute she was walking into local history when she went down her front steps that winter morning in 1912 and headed for the courthouse?

It was Tuesday, Jan. 2, the first business day of the new year, and Jennie, accompanied by her husband, Paul, was on her way to become the first woman to register to vote in Sonoma County.

This is the 100th anniversary year of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. The official centennial will be next year, since the ratification of the amendment by the required number of states was achieved in 1920.

Some states acknowledged equality much earlier. California was one of them. Which is why Jennie was on her way that morning. It wasn’t planned. There are no photos of the event. Just a small story on an inside page of the newspaper telling readers (and posterity) it happened.

Jennie wasn’t one of the outspoken women who had led the campaign for woman suffrage in the area. She was busy with The Alpha, a rooming house she and Paul ran at 456 B St. But she was clearly aware that what she was doing, as she climbed the marble staircase to the county clerk’s office on the second floor, was very important.

Her right to register - and subsequently, to cast ballots for city and state offices - had been won in a close election the previous October (1911) when an amendment to the California Constitution made women’s suffrage state law. It wasn’t a landslide by any definition. Women’s voting rights squeaked in by just ?2,069 votes statewide; in Sonoma County by just 186.

Researcher Joann Mitchell, who assembled much of this information four decades ago for a graduate degree from Sonoma State, took an even closer look. What she learned is that only Santa Rosa, Cloverdale and Sebastopol voted in favor. Sonoma voted against the women’s vote 94 to 57. In Healdsburg it lost by ?18 votes and in Petaluma by just four votes. But the totals were enough to set Jennie Colvin on her path to voting glory.

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We don’t know how Jennie voted in her first city election in April 1912. But we do know that a proud contingent of women - Cora Boyes, wife of Santa Rosa’s police chief, was the first in line - led a march to the polls that caused the men of Santa Rosa to take note of this new political wave. In fact, the election results proved a dramatic upset to the city’s political status quo.

The “victim” of the feminist assault on politics and government was John Rinner, the favorite candidate for mayor. He was a respected optometrist with a long record of public service, approved by the city council and endorsed by The Press Democrat. But, somewhere in the campaign, he became known as being opposed to the suffrage amendment. It must have been word-of-mouth, but the news got around. When the votes were counted, the first write-in candidate in the town’s history, a traveling salesman named John Mercier, was elected.

Well ahead of the next election, Jennie’s and Cora’s and all the other women’s election activities had stopped being news. It was: women are voting, gentlemen, get over it and get on with it.

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The real drama in this story is what led to these landmark events.

Figuratively speaking, Rinner’s comeuppance and Jennie’s morning walk to the town square were part of a triumphant parade, led by Frances McGaughey Martin, the leader of the Political Equality Association of Sonoma County. “Fannie” Martin was not only an attorney and a former teacher, her election as county superintendent of schools made her the first woman elected to public office in the county.

She came from a family that left a clear equal rights stamp on Santa Rosa. Fannie’s older sister, Anabel McGaughey Stuart, was one of the earliest women physicians here, greatly admired by her many patients who generally referred to her as “Doctor Dear.” Their younger sister, Elizabeth McCaughey, was the third woman accredited from the University of California’s School of Pharmacy. She owned a drug store at the turn of the century, across from the courthouse.

There was another woman who helped open that path to the polls. Sarah Latimer Finley was a persistent force for women and for change. She was in her 70s, an elderly “gentlewoman,” poet and writer, who was a lifelong supporter of women’s rights. She not only led Santa Rosa’s “society” to the cause but, most assuredly, influenced her son to play an important role.

Sarah was the mother of Ernest Finley, the young man who bought the Sonoma Democrat in 1897 and merged it with his much-smaller Santa Rosa Press.

Exactly what role Sarah played in the Press Democrat’s support of the 19th Amendment can’t be measured, but it can certainly be imagined. Finley’s ownership and editorial control had already brought a notable change in attitudes on race and gender equality to the opinion pages of his newspaper. His was a softer, gentler voice than the harsh tones of the Democrat’s longtime editor/publisher Thomas Thompson, whose chauvinism and lingering Confederate sympathies colored his editorial comments and the paper’s political influence.

Finley, on the other hand, was unconditional in his espousal of woman suffrage. The Press Democrat was among the first newspapers in the state to endorse, unequivocally, the state amendment giving women the vote with the promise that voting rights would make women “brighter and more intelligent.”

Editor Finley was scornful of the opposition’s arguments that suffrage would “remove woman from her rightful sphere, take her from the home and make her bold and unwomanly.”

He was far from alone, standing firmly in favor of the amendment. Hiram Johnson, California’s extremely popular governor, came to town to lead a rally; and John Connolly, a former State Department official who did a tour of duty in New Zealand before retiring to Occidental, took the stage at the Columbia Theater (corner of Third and B streets) to tell the crowd gathered for an Equality Association rally about all the “splendid achievements” that were the result of the women’s vote in that distant country.

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Regrettably, that poem is apparently lost to the ages. But there will be an opportunity to learn more about Sarah and her determination at a 6 p.m. program at the Central Santa Rosa Library on March 20. Leasa Graves, assistant director of the National Women’s History Alliance, an organization with roots in Sonoma County, will talk about Sarah and the others - women and men - who led the way to victory in the election of 1911. Graves has titled her talk “Ripe for Picking: The Impact of the Sonoma County Suffrage Campaign.”

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We understand that true equality, if ever achieved, doesn’t happen with one or two triumphs. It would be 60 years before Helen Rudee breached the male barrier on the county Board of Supervisors and Donna Born became the first woman to sit on the Santa Rosa City Council - and become mayor.

Oh, there were women who tried. Ruby Codding Hall (Hugh’s mother) ran for supervisor before World War II but didn’t make it past the primary. And there was an occasional woman appointed to a city commission.

In fact, it was 1922 - a decade after the 19th Amendment was ratified - before the first women were seated on a Superior Court jury. It was a trespass case, presumably safe enough to trust to feminine judgment.

However, while the right to vote did not translate to total equality, Jennie and Cora’s “firsts” were certainly milestones on that long suffrage road both women and men still travel.

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