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A Month in the Life of a Women's Historian; or, On the Road with the Suffragists

Another Women’s History Month has come and gone. Of course, I think about and do women’s history all year long!

So what does it look like to DO women's history?



Each year in March I appreciate the opportunity to participate in extra opportunities and events to talk about women's history. Last year, just days before the pandemic led us into school closures and lockdown, I gave an International Women’s Day address at a local YWCA Youth Committee event. Here’s the video if you want to listen to my March 2020 address on IWD and the women’s suffrage movement:

Fast forward to this year and I was invited to give a Women’s History Month 2021 presentation at the small, all-boys private school where my brother teaches middle school science in Massachusetts. Their school theme for the month was “Visionary Women” and the students had already been learning about different women in history every day at their virtual morning assembly: Good job, teachers & principal! I focused my presentation on women in STEM and the students were engaged and asked great questions!



At the end of March I participated in a Wikipedia "edit-a-thon.” Anyone can create an account & submit edits to Wikipedia pages (that's the whole idea of crowd-sourced knowledge), so about 20 scholars gathered together via zoom one morning to live-edit Wikipedia pages related to women's history. We each focused on subjects specific to our areas of interest or expertise and made minor changes such as updating or expanding details about a person's background or publications, and adding sources and links for further reading and research. It was a lot of fun, and an important project as many students & other researchers go to Wikipedia first for their info, but I have to be careful not to let Wikipedia editing become a full-time job!


Researching & Writing

For most of March, however, I celebrated Women’s History Month by delving into research and writing a proposal and first chapter for a new planned book on a 1915 road trip of three suffragists who drove across the country from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. to deliver a signed suffrage petition directly into the hands of President Woodrow Wilson.

By 1915, women in several western states already had the right to vote (California women gained the vote in 1911, nine years before the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution), but the story of the 1915 road trip from San Francisco expanded my interest in California suffrage history with a very specific local connection...

Sara Bard Field (far left), Maria Kindberg, and Ingeborg Kindstedt in front of the car they drove from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. in the fall of 1915.

The banner on their car reads:

"We Demand an Amendment to the United States Constitution Enfranchising Women"

I first learned about the 1915 road trip while researching my most recent book, Women’s Suffrage: The Complete Guide to the 19th Amendment. In that book, I wrote a brief entry on suffragist Sara Bard Field (a western woman who already had the right to vote) who was tapped by suffrage leader Alice Paul to carry the petition across the country, but I still did not have a lot of information about Field or her larger role in the suffrage movement. I knew that she had been prominent in the Nevada and Oregon state suffrage campaigns, and I was intrigued to learn that Sara Bard Field later lived in Los Gatos, California (in a very famous house known as “The Cats”), right here in the Santa Cruz Mountains very near to where I live now! I made a note to myself to do some local research on Field at a later date…

Suffragist Sara Bard Field, circa 1915.

(photo via Library of Congress)

Now that I have the time, I have been slowly uncovering Sara Bard Field’s contribution to suffrage history (and I made some updates to her Wikipedia page while I was at it!). I learned more about her unusual-for-the-times personal life: a divorced mother of two, she chose to live as a partner for many years with poet Charles Erskine Scott Wood, and was an advocate of both birth control and free love. And I learned that she had a large role in both the national suffrage and the peace movements. Throughout the 1910s, in the intense years that included World War I and events leading up to the national suffrage victory, Field gave speeches, organized events, wrote numerous articles and reports, and debated prominent figures on the women’s rights and peace causes. After completing the road trip in late 1915, she personally met with President Wilson and testified before Congress on the suffrage issue.

A sign welcoming the suffrage envoys to Washington, D.C. in December 1915, and announcing their meeting with President Wilson.

My proposed book project will take a broad look at the road trip as a new strategy for the suffrage movement by 1915, in which suffragists utilized the new automobile technology and the press to create a highly publicized spectacle, and emphasized the new role and voices of enfranchised women from the West who already had the power of the vote. I am particularly interested in the suffrage booth at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Expo (or “World’s Fair”) in San Francisco as the starting point of the road trip.

Two of the many beautiful posters advertising the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915. Images of women were often used in such stylistic art pieces to symbolize nationalism and progress.

In my preliminary research I have already learned that the Panama-Pacific Expo itself was a site of important suffrage organizing, where suffragists took advantage of visitors from all over the world to recruit members into the national organization, gather signatures for the petition, and generate excitement for the road trip.

Letter from Alice Paul, head of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (later the National Woman's Party), to Lucy Burns, September 7, 1915, announcing Sara Bard Field as one of the delegates to take the petition across the country from San Francisco to Washington, D.C.

Note that the letterhead used here is for a "Woman Voters' Convention" to be held at the "Organizing Headquarters, Palace of Education, P.P.I.E" (Panama-Pacific International Exposition). Also note that "Mrs. Sara Bard Field" is listed on the left side of the letterhead as a member of the "Local Committee on Arrangements."

(Letter located in National Woman's Party Papers, Part II: The Suffrage Years, 1913-1920, Series I: Correspondence. Microfilm.)

Three suffragists - Sara Bard Field, along with drivers and owners of the car, Maria Kindberg and Ingeborg Kindstedt - ultimately set out from the Expo and traveled by car for three months (between September and December 1915) to deliver the suffrage petition, stopping along the way in numerous major cities where they planned suffrage parades, met with local dignitaries, and sent out newspaper reports on their trip for the suffrage cause!



I'm not the only one who has been intrigued by Sara Bard Field's role in the U.S. suffrage movement! These past few months I connected with new friends, including Anne Gass, who recreated (& blogged here about!) the entire road trip in 2015! Anne set out to retrace the suffragists' route and document what has changed (or not) in American women's status in the 100 years since the original road trip. I wish I had known Anne in 2015 and could have met her on the road!

(Fun Fact: Anne also has a new novel out about the road trip, from the perspectives of Maria and Ingeborg, "the Swedes" who owned the car. Check it out!)

I also reached out to professor Sherry Smith and have greatly enjoyed chatting with her about Sara Bard Field and reading her new incredibly researched book on the long and unusual partnership between Sara and C.E.S. Wood, Bohemians West: Free Love, Family, and Radicals in Twentieth-Century America. Her book really helped me understand the timeline of Sara's life and why and when she was living Oregon, Nevada, and then California, and how her suffrage activism was intertwined with her personal life.


Taking a Digital Road Trip

As I started tracing the suffragists from city-to-city, thinking about how long it took them to drive across the country and how hard they had to work to get their message out to the press, I wondered what they would think about about the vast communication and information networks at our disposal now. They probably could not have imagined a future researcher digging through those same newspapers on the internet to uncover their story!

A newspaper report with photograph of Sara arriving in Detroit, Michigan as part of her cross-country journey.

Detroit Free Press (November 12, 1915).

(Note that both this newspaper article and the banner pictured earlier in this blog post name "Frances Joliffe" as another envoy traveling with Sara. In fact, even though Joliffe, a prominent actress and journalist, was scheduled to take the journey, she was ultimately unable to accompany Sara in the car. The suffrage leadership, however, disingenuously continued to use her name in the press (while also downplaying the role of the older Swedish immigrant women), hoping the association with Joliffe would garner more prestige for their cause. Joliffe did, in fact, join the celebration in Washington, D.C. to help present the petition to President Wilson at the conclusion of the road trip.)

Letter from "Chairman" Alice Paul to Sara Bard Field, October 8, 1915, requesting that Field send any photographs from the road trip to be used as publicity in the Congressional Union/National Woman's Party paper, The Suffragist.

(Letter located in National Woman's Party Papers, Part II: The Suffrage Years, 1913-1920, Series I: Correspondence. Microfilm.)

Sara Bard Field on the cover of The Suffragist magazine, October 16, 1915 (Vol III: Issue 42).

Sara is shown here with a "photoshopped" (ha) image of the petition she was supposed to be carrying to Washington, D.C.

Thanks to the internet, I've been able to use my pandemic lockdown time to dig into so many digitized archival and library resources about the Panama-Pacific Expo, women and automobiles in the early 20th century, and the women who participated in the road trip. For example, I discovered that Sara was one of a handful of elderly former suffrage leaders interviewed for a Suffragists Oral History Project in the 1960s and 1970s (Sara died in 1974) and that I can read the complete interview online. What foresight to capture these stories from women's history!

I'm enjoying gathering as many online sources as I can right now, but I am anxious to visit some libraries and archives in person once COVID restrictions are eased, including the beautiful Huntington Library in Pasadena, where many of Sara's letters and records are held.

So, you see, Women's History Month lives on all year long! I will keep you posted about our journeys - both mine and that of the suffragists!


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