Friday, June 4, 2021
On the eve of the Nineteenth Amendment’s ratification in 1920, Carrie Chapman Catt—the leader of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA)—envisioned the establishment of a nonpartisan body dedicated to female voters’ political education that would help newly enfranchised women develop a voice in public affairs. To this end, Catt guided the conversion of NAWSA into a post-suffrage association called the National League of Women Voters (LWV). While Catt’s goal of training women for full citizenship was abstract, many state and local Leagues took a more practical approach, learning from the experience of tackling specific social problems. This Article, written for a symposium commemorating the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment, assesses the role of LWV leaders in California in reforming three aspects of the criminal justice system that affected women: courts, police, and prisons. It draws from the archival papers of the San Francisco Center of the LWV, as well as other primary sources, to reveal the contradictions and shortcomings, as well as the achievements, of newly enfranchised California women who sought to carry on the suffragists’ legacy.
During the four decades between 1911 and the middle of the twentieth century, the San Francisco Center advocated gender-specific approaches to crime with varying degrees of success or failure. Initially prompted to investigate the ills of lower-level criminal courts (known as “police courts”) by a local judge’s mishandling of rape cases, San Francisco clubwomen launched a full-fledged effort to establish a Women’s Court. Part I of this Article discusses the origins, goals, and limitations of the Women’s Court and the San Francisco Center’s subsequent campaign for the appointment of a female prosecutor and municipal judge. Although influenced by Progressive ideas about the use of specialized courts and trained experts, League members mostly confined their efforts to morals offenses that recalled the Victorian social purity movement, rather than seeking remedies for domestic violence and other aspects of crime that affected women.
Part II explores another project supported by the San Francisco Center that exemplified how Progressive tools might perpetuate essentially Victorian values. During the first half of the twentieth century, San Francisco clubwomen urged the SFPD, with little success, to hire a substantial number of female police officers. The San Francisco Center emphasized prostitution and other vices of “fallen” women as areas of law enforcement for which female officers supposedly possessed special skills. Limited both by the SFPD’s reluctance to hire women and female reformers’ myopic interest in preventing prostitution, the San Francisco Center doggedly pursued an agenda that entrenched gender segregation on the police force without bringing real remedies to systemic sexism or the victimization of women.
Part III describes the most revolutionary criminal justice reform project that members of the California LWV spearheaded in the first half of the twentieth century: the creation of a “prison without walls” for female offenders. Based on the notion that women who committed crimes, even felonies, might be taught law-abiding ways through education, hard work, and humane treatment, the Tehachapi prison experiment demonstrated that newly enfranchised female voters had gained traction in public life. However, while the creation and operation of the women’s prison gave substance to a rehabilitative ideal more forward-looking than many LWV proposals for moral enforcement, the male-dominated legal system created substantial impediments to the success of the Tehachapi facility.
The Conclusion assesses the contributions of the LWV and its state and local branches in California. Like their sisters in the national organization, members of the San Francisco Center worked tirelessly on social welfare issues and civil service reform, opening unprecedented paths to jobs and community involvement for women. In contrast, their criminal justice reform efforts were hampered, not only by the differing interests and continued power of male jurists, police chiefs, and prison officials, but also by the clubwomen’s obsession with prostitution. The affluent white activists of the San Francisco Center and the state-level LWV failed to advocate structural changes that might have liberated women, especially poorer and racial-minority women, from gendered violence. Yet despite the San Francisco Center’s limited success in obtaining justice for victims of sexual exploitation, integrating the San Francisco Police Department, and rehabilitating female offenders, its activities helped put women into public office and provide concrete opportunities for political engagement in the first few decades after suffrage was achieved.