By the time Washington legislators ratified the 19th Amendment on March 22, 1920, women had already proven it wouldn’t be the end of the world to have their voice counted. They had already been voting and held elected positions for 10 years.
“In honesty, these rights were only granted to white women, excluding women of color and Native Americans,” Barbara Sharp, president of the San Juan Island League of Women Voters told attendees of the League’s 100th birthday in February. Gerrymandering, lack of polling stations and other methods of voter suppression still work to quiet minorities’ voices to this day.
According to the National Parks Archives, women on the West Coast gained the right to vote before those on the East Coast. Washington, for example, was the fifth state to grant women full suffrage, or voting rights, in 1910 after Article VI amending the state’s constitution was passed. The fight had not been an easy one. According to Washington state archives, legislation passed in 1883, only to be overturned by the state courts in 1888 and then failed twice more before 1910.
After the election in November 1910, the Friday Harbor Journal published the election results that 278 had voted for the amendment and 140 against. Out of twelve county voting districts, only three voted against women’s right to vote — one on Orcas, San Juan and Waldron.
A local perspective
In San Juan County, the debate about a woman’s rights and natural place waged not only at the dinner table but in public town hall forums and letters published in both island newspapers.
The subject became heated as the election grew closer. G.K., a resident of Richardson, Washington, fired off their thoughts to the Friday Harbor Journal in October 1910:
“Nature, not legislatures, has assigned to the two sexes their respective spheres, as has been proven. It has been shown that the very evils we deplore and which it is sought to reform has arisen from lazilty and negligence of home duties… Undoubtedly the special destiny of women is to be wife and mother. If from mysterious causes she fail[s] of this destiny there are the poor and motherless and forsaken and downtrodden, the sinful and sorrowful and the suffering… But it is [a] woman, as wife and mother, that she must do the work. As women to soften asperities and to refine what else were coarse and brutal, as wife to render home bright and cheerful, the sweetest place on earth, as [a] mother to direct and inspire the noble and righteous aspirations of her sons, to train and mold to acquire great beauty and loveliness the character of her daughters, to implant all her children that piety as filial love, and obedience, which are the surest guarantees of respect for civil law and authority. Then let us have our daughters educated as women and not men, trained for the duties of the household and nursery and sweet enchantments of the domestic hearth. Be that you are — that is a woman; if you are more you are none.”
The following week, J. Carrothers wrote an editorial in response.
“The well-known resident of Richardson whose initials are affixed to it can hardly be accused of being the author. The real author was afraid to attach his name. He prudently hid his identity behind the letters G.K. As to the article itself, on its face, it is so one-sided and unfair that its publication in San Juan County will make votes for equal suffrage instead of against it. … All over our nation, there is a general demand by the people for real representation in public affairs. … It is a most fitting time to give suffrage to our wives, mothers and sisters who are duly interested in the welfare of our homes, state and nation.”
The Guard family — a family who has resided on San Juan Island since the late 1800s — matriarch Gladys Guard had formed a study club with her sister Florence Guard which was located where the San Juan Island Grange is today. The club held a debate on the matter with Gladys Guard and islander Andrew Hansen arguing for women voting, and islanders Josephine Tucker and Edward King arguing against.
The San Juan Islander later pronounced Gladys Guard and Hansen the debate winners.
Both her grandson Geoffrey Prentiss and niece Jackie Hubbard noted that while she was very active in the community, she did not talk about her part in the fight for women’s suffrage.
Gladys Guard was busy moving forward with other community projects. Prentiss explained that Guard not only started the woman’s study club on San Juan but she also instigated the formation of Memorial Park at the base of Spring Street.
“I believe it was in memory of her cousin Fred Hackett who died during the war,” Prentiss told the Journal.
According to Hubbard, Guard was a teacher, at one point at the Lopez school. She married Raymond Madden, and the couple had three daughters and a son. The family lived in what was known as the Duffy House on Pear Point.
While the house was being built, Madden was stricken with cancer. According to Prentiss, the couple moved to San Fransisco for two years for special treatment. He passed away in 1931, and Gladys Guard never remarried. Instead, she returned to the Duffy House and raised her four children.
“She went from a woman with wealth and stature to a woman without much. Yet, people respected her in an unusually strong way,” Prentiss said.
Fishermen passing the Pear Point house always waved or honked, he continued, “It was standard.”
Two years after Washington amended its constitution, islander Ethel Perry became the first woman elected as San Juan County Clerk. During that same year, according to Washington state archives, Republican Frances C. Axtell, of Whatcom County, and Nena Jolidon Croake, a Pierce County progressive, became the first two women elected to the state House of Representatives.
Perry was the daughter of Park and Laura Perry, who ran a birthing and recuperating house where the Spring Street International School is currently located. According to her grandson Robert Guard, Ethel Perry was one of three students that made up the first Friday Harbor High Schools graduating class in 1912 and ran as clerk shortly after. She campaigned against three men, J.P. Paine, C.L. Carter and R.B. Douglass. Robert Moran, who originally owned what is now Moran State Park and the mansion at Rosario Resort, was highly supportive of women’s rights and offered to take Ethel Perry around Orcas and introduce her to voters across the island, according to Robert Guard.
“I really believe he was a key to her campaign and perhaps the reason why she won,” Robert Guard said.
Looking at the results, Robert Guard does seem to be correct, Perry received receive more votes from Orcas residents than her opponents.
Ethel Perry married local veterinarian Colin Sandwith in 1915 and stepped down from her elected post. Robert Guard noted that Moran gave the newlyweds a glass candy dish as a wedding gift. Robert Guard inherited the dish, he said, and recently passed it along to his granddaughter, Ethel Perry Sandwith’s great-great-granddaughter, an electrical engineer, who now keeps the family heirloom on her desk, filled with candy.
August 18 marks the 100 anniversary of the 19th Amendment, giving ladies, or at least white ladies, across the United States a voice in politics. When asked if the 19th Amendment had made an impact, Hubbard replied, “Yes! It made women equal with men.”