Eight months. That's how much time activists had ahead of the state's 1911 election to get enough men to believe women should have the right to vote.
Liquor distillers and related business interests were scared of the idea, because women-led prohibition efforts at the time were a big deal in major cities. So women headed to rural communities across the Golden State to appeal to husbands, sons, uncles, nephews and friends.
Early returns signaled defeat – the suffragettes lost San Francisco and Los Angeles. But the canvassing efforts paid off in less populated areas, where voters helped carry the cause to a narrow victory, 125,037-121,450, just a 3,587-vote margin.
That’s one vote per precinct, which is a good reminder that every vote counts.
The narrow victory made California the sixth state to allow women to vote. And the hard-charging grassroots organizing effort served as a model for many future campaigns as the women's suffrage movement gained steam nationwide.
You might expect, then, that California would have been among the first states to ratify the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution after it was approved by Congress on June 4, 1919, guaranteeing all American women the right to vote. But it wasn’t – California was only the 18th state out of 48 to do so.
But that’s not because support had fallen off. Instead, it was a question of timing: California's Legislature was a part-time operation back then, and it had wrapped up the year’s business before the amendment was sent to the states for ratification.
On Nov. 1, 1919, Gov. William Stephens called an “extraordinary session” of the Legislature for the sole purpose of voting on the matter. Only two members voted no; one explained that he objected not to women voting, but to spending money on the special session.
America is marking the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. To commemorate the groundbreaking event, the USA TODAY Network is shining a spotlight on 10 women from each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia who have made significant contributions to their respective states and country. We call them the Women of the Century.
The selected women have a track record of outstanding achievement in areas such as arts and literature, business, civil rights, education, entertainment, law, media, nonprofits and philanthropy, politics, science and medicine or sports. The women also must have been alive between 1920 and 2020.
In California in particular – the most populous state – picking just 10 women from a pool so vast was difficult. The panel, all accomplished women themselves, had hundreds of trailblazing women on the nominee list.
Panelists considered a wide range of nominees. Some, like Toypurina – part of a Native American uprising in 1700s against Spanish settlers who seized land from her and her people and forced slavery – were noted with admiration but ultimately ruled out because they lived before the past century.
Other accomplished women such as Oprah Winfrey, who many people may think of as a Californian, were also considered but were ultimately included on the lists of other states to which they can also claim affiliation.
Others who narrowly missed making the list of 10 included “I Love Lucy”’s Lucille Ball, folk singer Joan Baez, actor turned diplomat Shirley Temple Black, early African American newspaper columnist Delilah Leontium Beasley, and activist/author/academic Angela Davis.
Who is your Woman of the Century? Did we miss a woman you think should be on our list? We’d like to hear from you.
Labor leader and civil rights activist
Dolores Huerta is a longtime labor leader and civil rights activist who co-founded what eventually became the United Farm Workers of America. She worked with Cesar Chavez fighting for farmworkers' rights, and won, ensuring workers received safety protections, health care and the right to unionize.
Her work took a turn toward gender equality when she realized as a woman, she faced even more obstacles. In 2012, President Barack Obama awarded her the highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Huerta continues her work, traveling the country to advocate for legislation that promotes equality and civil rights, and speaking to students and other about social justice and public policy.
Corrections and Clarifications: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the line of succession to the presidency.
Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives
Despite not running for office for the first time until she was 47, Nancy Pelosi became in 2007 the first (and so far only) woman to be speaker of the U.S. House, a position that puts her second in line to the presidency. She had five children when she and her husband moved to San Francisco in 1969 and quickly got involved in the state's Democratic Party. In Congress, she has long championed LGBTQ rights, pushed for stricter gun regulations and supported Obamacare.
Founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving
After one of her daughters was killed by a drunken driver in Fair Oaks, California, Candace Lightner stepped up and helped save countless lives by starting Mothers Against Drunk Driving in 1980. Her work with MADD led to many laws aimed at reducing drunken driving being passed at the state and national level. She later left MADD, broadening her work to advocate for highway safety as well as victim and survivor rights. In 2017, she started We Save Lives, which focuses on drunken, drugged and distracted driving.
Civil rights activist
Born in San Pedro, California, Yuri Kochiyama and her Japanese American family were sent to an internment camp in Arkansas in 1943 following Executive Order 9066. After being released, she became involved in civil rights activism, allying with African Americans and becoming friends with Malcolm X. Her advocacy on behalf of Japanese Americans led to a formal apology and reparations payments of $20,000 to each surviving internee under the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.
First American woman in space
Sally Ride, a Stanford University-trained physicist, became the first American woman in space in 1983 and the youngest U.S. astronaut as a crew member of the space shuttle Challenger. Later, she served on the committee that investigated the 1986 Challenger disaster. Ride went on to become the director of the California Space Institute at the University of California-San Diego and worked there as a professor of physics. In 2001, she started her own company, which aimed to inspire girls and women to pursue careers in STEM professions. It has since transformed into the nonprofit Sally Ride Science at UC San Diego.
Billie Jean King
Women’s rights advocate, female sports icon
She won 39 Grand Slam tennis titles, but Billie Jean King's reputation for greatness is as much about her work off the court as on. A strong advocate of gender equality, the former World No. 1 player founded the Women's Tennis Association and the Women's Sports Foundation and push for equal pay for female athletes. In 1973, she threatened to boycott the U.S. Open over pay issues and persuaded the tournament to become the first to offer equal prize money to men and women. That same year, 90 million people worldwide watched King defeat Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes,” a key moment in sports history generating respect and recognition for female athletes.
Venus Williams and Serena Williams
Tennis icons, Olympic gold medalists
Venus (1980- ), Serena (1981- )
Taught by their father on the dilapidated public courts of Compton, Venus and Serena Williams became world champions and Olympic gold medalists. While breaking barriers for female athletes of color, the dynamic partners and rivals ushered a new era of power and athleticism in women's professional tennis.
Despite experiencing significant racism in a sport not known for diversity, elder sister Venus gained attention for her powerful serves and groundstrokes, becoming the first African American woman to be ranked No. 1 in the modern tournament era. She pushed for equal prize money from both the French Open and Wimbledon. Serena – who has said that Venus is "the only reason the Williams sisters exist" – has since surpassed her sister and now owns 23 Grand Slam singles titles, the most by any man or woman in the modern tournament era. She is widely considered the greatest women's tennis player of all time.
Comedian, talk show host
Ellen DeGeneres made TV history in 1997 as the first character to come out as gay, while starring in her sitcom, “Ellen.” The moment came at a pivotal moment in the LGBT community's battle for equal rights. A year later, the show was canceled, but in 2003, she debuted her daytime talk show, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” She also was the voice of Dorie in “Finding Nemo” and "Finding Dorie."
DeGeneres, a native of Metairie, Louisiana, began her career at small clubs and coffee shops in New Orleans before heading to Los Angeles in the early 1980s to try out Hollywood.
President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016, and she received the Golden Globes’ Carol Burnett Award in January.
The real power of TV, DeGeneres said in receiving the Burnett award, is “that people watch my show and then they’re inspired to go out and do the same thing in their own lives: They make people laugh or be kind or help someone that’s less fortunate than themselves.” DeGeneres is currently dealing with allegations that the environment at her daytime talk show is toxic. She apologized to her staff in a letter, and Warner Bros. told USA TODAY in a statement that it is implementing changes to address "deficiencies related to the show’s day-to-day management."
A founder of modern neuroscience who studied Einstein's brain, Marian Diamond demonstrated that our gray matter can change with experience and improve with enrichment. A professor of integrative biology at the University of California-Berkeley, she was known for her research on rat brains. Her study revealed that the brains of animals and humans benefit from things like toys and companions and that impoverished environments can lower the capacity to learn. Diamond, a renowned teacher and mentor, persevered with her research despite an initially cool reception from some of her male colleagues.
Writer Amy Tan's stories and best-selling novels including "The Joy Luck Club" and "The Kitchen God's Wife" introduced the struggles of Chinese Americans to the mainstream. Born in Oakland, she began her career as a language development specialist, then turned to fiction writing in her 30s, opening a window into the Chinese American experience, particularly the dynamics between mothers and daughters. Over the past four decades, she has seen her writings translated into 35 languages and adapted for the stage and screen.
Women of the Century: They didn’t succeed despite adversity, but often because of it
50 states: Learn about notable women from every state
Who is your Woman of the Century?: Let us know
Recognizing women past and present: See all of our coverage
Special thanks to Tina Perry of the Oprah Winfrey Network; Deb Whitman of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at Stanford; journalist and author Frances Dinkelspiel; Megan Garvey of Southern California Public Radio; Arlene Martínez of USA TODAY; and Halima Kazem of San Jose State University.
Sources used in the Women of the Century list project include newspaper articles, state archives, historical websites, encyclopedias and other resources.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: California Women of the Century: Sally Ride, Amy Tan make list