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"Soup, salad, suffrage: How women won their right to vote in California"

The shop girls who gathered for lunch at the Votes for Women Club on Sutter Street probably never imagined that a century later their state would be represented by two women senators, and that the third-highest elective office in the land would be held by a woman from San Francisco.

These possibilities, however, may not have been far from the dream of the club's founder, Selina Solomons, a visionary suffragist who devoted her life to winning the vote for women.

In 1911, California passed Amendment 8, granting women the right to vote in state elections almost a decade before the 19th Amendment provided women's suffrage throughout the United States.

But the road to the vote was not an easy one. The daunting task of trying to convince a majority of male voters that they should share that right with women required activists with a lot of heart and chutzpah.

A first attempt to win the vote in 1896 suffered a crushing defeat, especially in San Francisco, then the most populous city in the state. That setback sapped the energy of the suffrage organizations, and the groups did not meet again for another five years. The 1906 earthquake and fire severely disrupted organizing efforts. Moreover, class divisions within the women's movement--between the trade union women and the middle class reformers--often seemed irreconcilable. An intense lobbying drive in the state Legislature failed by 15 votes, with the legislators offering only municipal suffrage. The women didn't buy it, and called for "the whole loaf of political equality or no suffrage bread at all."

Selina Solomons' organizing manual, "How We Won the Vote in California: The True Story of the Campaign of 1911," is the only firsthand account that describes the lobbying, fundraising, precinct walking and arm-twisting efforts of the campaign.

Solomons, a Jew from a middle-class family that had fallen on hard times, stood in contrast to the wealthy white Protestant women reformers who characterized both the national and the California suffrage leadership. Solomons was critical of their elitist, clubby nature. In describing the founding of the Century Club, the first all-women's club in the state, she writes, "In the effort to attain social success, this club admitted to membership too large a number of merely fashionable women, and so swamped itself at the outset, and failed forever in the cherished purpose and aim of its founders."

As an antidote, Solomons opened the Votes for Women Club in a loft near Union Square. The club, festooned with suffrage-yellow paper flowers and banners, was aimed at shop girls and clerks. Equipped with a kitchenette, it provided nutritious dishes for a nickel each. Solomons hoped that the "girl who comes to eat, stays to read and talk."

The Votes for Women Club became popular with women workers, as well as downtown shoppers, and a look at its menu shows why: on a typical day, it offered four kinds of soup--oxtail, tomato bisque, chicken and clam chowder--five kinds of salads, all served with "mayonnaise and pure olive oil," fried sand dabs, creamed codfish, "home-made cakes" and "rich milk." At the bottom of the menu was another offering: "All Women Welcome to Our Rest and Reading Rooms--Afternoon Tea Served from 4 to 5 o'clock."

Solomons stocked the reading room with suffrage movement literature. She hosted lectures, forums and cultural performances advocating votes for women. In an unusual twist, she started a dues-paying Men's Auxiliary to raise money for club maintenance.

One newspaper reported, "What Working Girls do with Their 60 Minutes at Noon: Imbibe Votes for Women Arguments as Side-Dish to 'Just Home Cooking.' " A society woman was quoted as saying, "The other day I dropped in for luncheon and a pretty young girl who only an hour before had sold me a pair of gloves sat next to me." She was also surprised that "Miss Selina Solomons, the president of the Club, worked harder than any paid waitress would even think of doing."

Solomons enlisted the young women to join her in canvassing neighborhoods, especially South of Market, the home of "poor, working people," mostly of German and Irish descent. There they found the same response as in the more familiar middle-class enclaves: The men opposed suffrage, and the women supported it.

On election day, the Votes for Women Club went on the lookout for fraudulent ballots and helped mobilize more than 1,000 poll watchers. Phoebe Apperson Hearst donated the use of the Dreamland skating rink as a resting place for suffrage volunteers. The Chronicle provided the Scottish Rite Hall to the anti-suffragists.

The vote was so close that early editions of both The Chronicle and Examiner declared suffrage had lost. Male voters in San Francisco voted against the measure, and the papers assumed the same would prove true elsewhere.

In the final statewide tally, however, suffrage won by 2 percent, enough to change history. For the first time, 4 million women in California had the right to vote. Selina Solomons described the wake the women held for the Votes for Women Club, "We had kept back our womanish tears (when the newspapers predicted they had lost). Now we gave free rein to our emotions in both manly and womanly fashion, with handshaking and back slapping as well as hugging and kissing one another. October 10, 1911 proved to be the greatest day in my life."

Elaine Elinson is co-author of a history of civil liberties in California that is scheduled to be published by Heyday Books. International Women's Day is Thursday. Contact us at insight@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page E - 2 of the San Francisco Chronicle