Thursday, September 24, 2015

Reno Welcomes Suffrage Envoys (and Me!) with Open Arms

Yesterday we left California behind us, heading east out of Auburn on I-80 and up over the Sierras. The dry oak forests of the Sierra foothills gave way to pine and fir as we climbed, the darker green of the pine needles providing some welcome color after the sere landscape of the San Joaquin valley.

Sara and the Swedes, Maria and Ingeborg, did the drive at night, hiring a man in Colfax to drive them over the steeper parts of the Sierras (the first of two times they hired a driver.)[1] Sara loved the trip. “The moonlight drive through the wooded mountain roads was indescribably beautiful,” she wrote her lover, Erskine. “Now and then we dropped on a bit of crystal wonder- a clear, mountain lake lying face to face with the moon.” The only negative was that Ingeborg wouldn’t shut up. “She talked all the time from Auburn to Reno- about ten hours,” Sara complained. They reached Reno by midnight, staying at the Riverside Hotel and having an event at the 20th Century Club, as well as at least one street meeting.

Even for a desert,this land is dry. We dropped down out of Donner Pass toward Reno on old Route 40 (which is what they would have traveled) and wound through Truckee past Donner Lake. Donner Lake is many feet below its normal levels, as this photo shows. The docks all have these little signs on them warning against diving…Yikes. 
Sign at the end of the docks on Donner Lake
Water levels are low at Donner Lake

We couldn't linger by the lake because waiting for me in Reno, at the lovely home of Lynn Bremer, was an amazing group of women who have taken it upon themselves to document and record Nevada women’s history. Nevada women got the vote in 1914 through a statewide referendum, and the website these women put together for the Nevada Suffrage Centennial is a terrific model for other states as we enter the five-year countdown to the centenary of  national suffrage getting approved. Another great idea they had was to write a play highlighting different aspects of their suffrage history, which they performed all over the state. Finally, through the Nevada Women’s History Project they’re continuing to document women’s experience and contributions through oral histories. What a tremendous gift they have given us.

I told them some about the envoys' trip and what I've learned about them so far. I also listened to them talk about changes that have happened for women since 1915. There was a palpable frustration as they described the obstacles they had faced and overcome in their lifetimes that were solely related to their sex. I have to say I found their stories disturbing because they didn't happen that long ago. It was an important reminder for me that even as we enjoy the benefits that activists have won for us in the past, we have to remain vigilant against slippage and continue to press for protection of women’s rights, both in law and policy. I actually remember the business about pregnant teachers having to leave from when I was in grade school. 

Here are some of the stories they told:
  • In 1970, a woman who was a teacher wanted to buy a house with her husband. She earned more money than he did, but when they went to the bank to get a mortgage, they wouldn’t count her income, saying that there was a risk that if she got pregnant and stopped working they wouldn’t be able to repay the mortgage (this was standard practice in the mortgage industry.)
  • A woman couldn’t take out a loan without her husband’s signature, and couldn’t make changes on her insurance policy without his permission, even after a divorce.
  • Another woman said that in 1966 she had gotten a credit card and had established credit in her own name. When she married, the company automatically extended credit to her husband (he had not previously had a card of his own.) Twenty years later they divorced, and the credit card company attributed all of the credit history to her husband; hers had been wiped clean although she was the one who had opened the account in the first place.
  • As late as 1970 school districts were still requiring women who became pregnant to either quit or take an unpaid leave of absence after the first trimester (once their pregnancy started showing.)
  • In the 1960s, women couldn’t get hired in the History Department at the University of Nevada. The Department simply wouldn’t hire women even if they were equally qualified.
Crazy stuff. Let’s always remember that the rights we take for granted today once had to be fought for.

As we continued to connect the dots between the suffrage road trip of 100 years ago and women's experience today, the group decided that they wanted to send a message along with me to DC. So Lynn whipped out a yellow legal pad, and they wrote a petition that said “We support passage of the Equal Rights Amendment,” and all ten of them signed it. They asked me to carry it along with me and have other people sign it along the way as I drive to DC.

Another great suggestion they had for me was to track a few indicators, such as community property for married couples, treatment of pregnancy and family leave, and equal pay for equal work, and see whether there was a pattern for how soon more progressive laws were enacted. Did the western states where women already had the vote adopt more progressive, pro-woman legislation earlier than the eastern states where women only got the vote through the federal amendment?  It would be interesting to know. So I'll try to see if I can get hold of that information in every state (and in DC.)

It was a great discussion and hours later I was still fizzing with excitement over it. I look forward to more of these types of meetings in the days and weeks ahead.

Some of Reno's Women's history buffs.
Thanks for a great discussion and exchange of women's history! 

Feel free to enter your personal stories in the comment section of the blog about barriers or opportunities you’ve encountered in your life that are directly related to being a woman. It would be great to have more examples, especially if there are issues that are still unresolved and need addressing.

Before leaving Reno earlier today I spent a couple of hours at the Nevada Historical Society looking at old photos and newspaper articles. It was great fun and I’m deeply indebted to the staff of the Research Library for letting me in before it was officially open! Later in the day we stopped in at the Churchill County Museum in Fallon, NV, and got a chance to look at some old suffrage papers as well as their wonderful exhibits. Even when their material doesn’t directly reference the suffrage envoys it can help provide background to, for example, what traveling across country was like 100 years ago. All food for thought.

[1] Sara Bard Field to C.E.S. Wood, September 27, 1915, WD Box 276, C.E.S. Wood Papers, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California

1 comment:

  1. Great post. Unbelievable stories about the women you met in Reno and such recent disregard for women. What an excellent idea to use set questions as a measure of change. Such a sweet touch to sign the note about supporting the ERA. Gawd, wouldn't that be nice if it passed--FINALLY.