Ellen Scripps’ and La Jolla’s role in women’s right to vote

Philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps was a key player in the fight to give California women the right to vote.

It’s no secret that greatly admired La Jolla philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps greatly admired Abraham Lincoln. In 1858, while attending Knox College in Illinois, Scripps watched her political hero debate Democratic presidential candidate Stephen Douglas. Seven years later, she and her family were devastated by Lincoln’s assassination. And every Feb. 12, Scripps hung an American flag outside her La Jolla home on his birthday.

Yet Scripps didn’t vote for Lincoln in either of the presidential elections in which he ran, although she was old enough to vote. Because women weren’t allowed to participate in the political process, she had to sit out 13 presidential elections — until California gave women the right to vote in 1911.

Scripps’ important role in the passage of that referendum, which was called Proposition 4, is not widely known, since it is overshadowed by her many other significant achievements.

“Women’s rights were central to Ellen Scripps’s mission — from education to social and political empowerment,” said Molly McClain, historian at the University of San Diego. “She was modest about her role in the suffrage movement, but she was a real force.”

Scripps fought for suffrage since 1873, when she joined the National Woman Suffrage Association and advocated for its principles through editorials in the Detroit Evening News, the newspaper she and her brothers, James and E.W., grew into America’s largest newspaper chain.

In her diary — quoted in McClain’s 2017 book, “Ellen Browning Scripps: New Money and American Philanthropy” — Scripps stated her belief that, with the vote, women could “regenerate society” and bring an end to child labor, urban poverty, lynching, prison and hospital overcrowding and prostitution. She wrote: “And the point and pith and weight of this power lies in the franchise. Women’s moral influence, her sympathy with the oppressed, her protestations against injustice and iniquity” had done little in the past to remedy such evils. The vote, however, offered an instrument “by which she can do effective work.”

Tona Macken, president of the La Jolla Woman’s Club, poses beneath a painting of club founder, Ellen Browning Scripps, in its lobby.

In La Jolla, to which Scripps moved in 1897, she founded the La Jolla Woman’s Club (LJWC), which still stands in its original 1914 Irving Gill building at 7791 Draper Ave. The club actively supported the suffrage movement by inviting leaders such as Equal Suffrage Association president Charlotte Baker and California Federation of Women’s Clubs president Lillian Pray Palmer to speak about the issue.

“A lot of the women who join the club today still do so because of all the things Ellen did for women,” said currrent LJWC president Tona Macken. “They want to honor her legacy. She’s still very much here, in this building and all around La Jolla.”

But it was once suffrage appeared on the ballot in California’s special election of Oct. 10, 1911 that Scripps really proved key. She directed the editorials of E.W. Scripps newspapers in San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Fresno and Berkeley to support Prop 4. She staged a model election at LJWC to teach members how to fill out a ballot beforehand. And LJWC helped drive voters to the polls.

The referendum passed by only 3,587 votes.

Later, E.W. Scripps wrote of his sister: “In an indirect way perhaps, I believe she is responsible for the success of the movement in this state.”

On Nov. 14, 1911, for the first time in the history of California, women went to the polls in San Diego. Nine years later, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted all female citizens that right.

“It is easy to underestimate the importance of the suffrage movement,” McClain said. “From our perspective, it looks almost quaint. But the passage of California’s Prop 4, not to mention the 19th Amendment, was no easy matter. It took organization, tenacity, and fight. One hundred years later, we’ve made great progress towards equal rights, particularly here in California. I think Ellen Scripps would be very proud of how far women have come.”

IF YOU GO: The La Jolla Woman’s Club Foundation will throw a gala celebrating the centennial of the 19th Amendment’s ratification, 5:30-9:30 p.m. Saturday, March 21 at the La Jolla Woman’s Club, 7791 Draper Ave. Tickets are $120.