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'Women should not be placed on a level with lunatics': Suffragists recognized for 1896 speeches

Susan B. Anthony sent speakers to California to campaign for women’s suffrage in 1896. Those speakers stirred enthusiasm for women’s voting rights in Sonoma County that spring.|

In the fight for women’s suffrage, national activist Susan B. Anthony sent as many speakers as she could to campaign in California during the 1896 election season.

Among them was Elizabeth Upham Yates of Maine, who stirred enthusiasm for women’s voting rights when she spoke to a receptive crowd in Sonoma County that spring.

Yates is now one of two suffragists recently recognized with a historical marker downtown Sebastopol, a significant public acknowledgment of local women’s history.

Although women’s suffrage wasn’t passed in the state until 1911, the 1896 campaign “was definitely a big step in the advancement of women’s right to vote,” said Mary Dodgion, a volunteer archivist at the West County Museum.

The marker honors Yates along with Helen Hurlbut of Sebastopol. Both women were suffragists who spoke for women’s voting rights in 1896 at Janssen’s Hall in Sebastopol.

Yates came to Janssen’s Hall in May 1896, and her speech was well-attended and well-received “among the fair sex,” according to an 1896 report in the Sonoma West Times and News.

“Whenever the speaker made a point the glove-covered hands of the ladies were brought together with astonishing rapidity. Miss Yates argued that women should not be placed on a level with lunatics, criminals, etc., in the matter of political privileges and stated numerous reasons why she thought a woman should enjoy the same freedom in politics as a man,” the report said.

Helen Hurlbut, a doctor’s wife in Sebastopol, spoke at the same location just a couple months later in July 1896 during the Sonoma County Republican Convention. At the podium, Hurlbut asked delegates to put suffrage on the ballot, Dodgion said.

“A large group of women showed up at the convention and (Hurlbut) was one of them,” Dodgion said.

California women were finally granted the right to vote in 1911, nine years before the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920. Voting rights for women of color, however, came decades later.

The marker is located behind Odd Fellows Hall and Silk Moon Gallery at 195 N. Main St., near the Sebastopol town square. It’s part of the National Votes For Women Trail, a project of the The National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites in partnership with The William G. Pomeroy Foundation.

“I’m very happy with where the marker was placed,” said Dodgion, who gathered historical evidence to apply for the marker.

About 30 people attended a dedication ceremony at the Sebastopol site on Aug. 19, including representatives from the League of Women Voters, Sonoma County Commission on the Status of Women, National Organization for Women (NOW), Soroptimist International, Sebastopol Downtown Association and Odd Fellows Hall.

Dodgion said there is a QR code at the marker which, by next month, should lead visitors to the Western Sonoma County Historical Society website for more information.

See the gallery above for photos of the Votes For Women Trail marker and portraits of Sonoma County women before and after suffrage was granted.

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