Herstory

Hardly Helpless

You know that old western stereotype of the hapless barmaid waiting around a dusty saloon for a brave cowboy or lawman to rescue her. Take care of her. Make her an honest woman. Not so in California. In reality, California women weren't waiting around for men, but working to build the fast-growing society of the West. They were fiercely independent. Powerful. Far from hapless. ​And h​ardly helpless.​ 


As a free state in 1850, without the slave labor of the South or the rigid class structure of the East, the California economy gave women enormous opportunity to work. Freed from expectations and traditions, many women redefined their roles, grabbing independence and power. They helped build California by opening businesses, running ranches and farms, practicing law and medicine, designing buildings, operating printing presses, managing restaurants, owning hotels, and painting and writing about the new burgeoning society out West. They were civic leaders, wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends.

The Great Gender Imbalance

The roots of California women go deep, growing out of the social, economic, and political climate.​ The gold rush brought 300,000 people to California between 1849 and 1855. Only 1 woman for every 20 men. This lopsided gender ratio did more than make women a scarce commodity—it made them powerful. Gave them choices, in both work and relationships. 

California women Suffragette Meeting. Courtesy of the California Historical Society.

Liberal Laws in Favor of Women

When nearly every other state in America (and the world) had laws restricting women's rights, the California Constitution of 1850 and local county laws freed women from constraint. Influenced by Spanish law instead of American or British law, California women were granted property, custody, and divorce rights. In 1911, California women fought for and won the vote nine years before the 19th Amendment enfranchised women nationally.