How Have Women Shaped L.A.’s History?

How Have Women Shaped L.A.’s History?

During Women’s History Month, Los Angeles City Planning celebrates the contribution of women Angelenos to the women’s rights movements in California and across the country. Women in City Planning have taken great strides to push for greater opportunities in a historically male-dominated field. City Planning has changed in the last twenty years to have more women planners in leadership and management roles. We have our first female mayor, more women on the City Council. There are incredible milestones being reached by the women in our city every day. As we applaud the successes of women in our community today, it is also important to reflect on the women in the past that have allowed these successes to happen. 

As Los Angeles transformed from a dusty pueblo town to a bustling metropolis, it has become known as a place primarily free from the established societal norms and institutions - a place where people could come to reinvent themselves, setting forth change that transformed America as a whole. It should not be surprising, therefore, that the history of women’s rights in Los Angeles is a rich one as captured in the Los Angeles Citywide Historic Context Statement Context: Women’s Rights In Los Angeles, which was released by City Planning in 2018. Angeleno women played an important role in the evolving multi-cultural identity of the city and the state. Here are ten women Angelenos who are an important part of the early women’s rights movement.

Clara Shortridge Foltz (1849-1934) was the first woman to practice law on the West coast. A predominant suffragist, Foltz started making speeches on women’s voting rights during the late 1870s, filed a landmark lawsuit to gain admission to university, and authored state legislation to ensure that no person could be disqualified from pursuing a business based on their sex.

Caroline Seymore Severance (1820-1914) organized the Los Angeles Women’s Club in 1897 - the first local organization that brought women together to discuss current topics and promote social reform. The genesis of the Los Angeles Women’s Club was an April 1878 gathering at Severance’s home – known as “Red Roof” and “El Nido.” In March 1884, Caroline Severance co-founded the Woman’s (a.k.a. Woman) Suffrage Association of Los Angeles as well as the Friday Morning Club.

Katherine Philips Edson (1870-1933), an organizer and suffrage activist through the Friday Morning Club, was a catalyst for creating a legislative agenda for the California Federation of Women’s Clubs. At the Friday Morning Club, Edson had chaired the important Public Health and Industrial and Social Conditions committees. One of her most famous proposed reforms was a citywide clean milk initiative to combat infant mortality. Governor Hiram Johnson appointed her to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and she immediately began an investigation into working conditions and wages for women and children in industry. She also served on the Industrial Welfare Commission from 1914-1931. 

In 1885, Mary K. Simons Gibson (1855-1930) gave a report on the wages and conditions of working women in Los Angeles. Her presentation was the catalyst for the development of a home for working women and girls. The interest of club women in women’s waged work reflected both a national interest in women’s employment and the growth of women’s jobs in Los Angeles.

Elizabeth A. Follansbee (1839-1917), was the first female physician in Los Angeles. Born in Maine, she earned her medical degree at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1877. After a brief stay in northern California, she moved to Los Angeles in 1882 where she opened a practice specializing in women’s and children’s diseases. In 1885, when the University of Southern California established its medical school, Follansbee was asked to join the faculty.

Charlotta A. Spears Bass (1874-1969) became the first woman in the U.S. to run an African American newspaper, The Eagle, where she started working in 1912. Bass supported the cause of suffrage as a means of social change for communities. She aided the suffrage movement by publishing pro-suffrage editorials and encouraging Black men to vote. Bass became the first woman nominated to run for Vice President of the US, on the Progressive Party ticket in 1952.

Maria G.E. (Guadalupe Evangelina) Lopez (1881-1997) served as a Spanish-language translator for the suffrage movement during the 1911 statewide campaign and worked to get more Latinos involved in the movement. Serving as President of the College Equal Suffrage League, on October 3, 1911, Lopez became the first woman to make a Spanish-language speech on suffrage in California at the Votes for Women Club rally at the Plaza de Los Angeles. Lopez also instituted a campaign among the Spaniards and the Mexicans and toured the state giving suffrage lectures in Spanish.

Tsuneko Okazaki (1879-1954) became the first Japanese state-licensed midwife in 1903. Because Japanese people were generally denied access to health services by area hospitals and doctors, the Japanese community had to rely on its own for care, especially in childbirth. A number of women who immigrated were sanba, or midwives who attended women in childbirth, were involved in prenatal and postnatal care, and provided infant care for newborns. Within ten years of Tsuneko’s licensing, at least 18 Japanese midwives opened significant practices in Los Angeles. 

Dr. Ruth Janetta Temple (Mrs. Otis Banks, 1892-1984), the first Black woman physician in Los Angeles, formed, along with her husband, the Temple Health Institute, a clinic by and for African Americans. Temple was working for the City of Los Angeles Maternity Service and asked the City for funds to start a clinic in Southeast Los Angeles. After being told there were no funds available, Dr. Temple and her husband borrowed money and started the clinic themselves. The clinic offered birth control as well as pre-and postnatal care. Dr. Temple went on to become the founder of the Community Health Association and Community Health Week.

Miriam Van Waters (1877-1974), a writer,teacher, and social worker, became a leading local and national figure in juvenile justice in Los Angeles. In 1919, Van Waters founded the San Fernando Valley’s El Retiro School for Girls, one of the most progressive reformatories in the country. Van Waters administered a program of academic training, cultural development, and recreation rather than moral condemnation.

Women in Los Angeles have created landmark achievements that progressed women's rights everywhere. While the contributions of women of color are often erased in historical narratives, advancement in Los Angeles was created by a diverse coalition of women. From law and political advocacy to healthcare, women played crucial roles in the development of Los Angeles.