Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Katherine Philips Edson, 1870-1933

By Charlie Huang, undergraduate, University of California, Berkeley

Katherine Philips Edson, nee Katherine Philips, was born to Dr. William H Philips and Harriet Philips on January 12, 1870 in Kenton, Ohio. She died on November 5, 1933 in Pasadena, California. In 1890, she married Charles Farwell Edson, whom she met studying music in a Chicago conservatory. They were divorced in 1925. The couple had three children, Katharine, Philip Josiah, and Charles Farwell Jr. In 1900, the Edson family moved to Los Angeles, California, after the birth of their second child, Philip. According to "Katherine Philips Edson and the California Suffragette Movement, 1919-1920," Katherine Philips soon became involved with the Friday Morning Club, a women's reform club in the city.

As a member of the club, Edson began a campaign for pure milk and quality control in California, according to Loewy's account of Edson's public career. As well, as Loewy and Braitman note, Edson's campaigns and work led to a rise in status and recognition; she served as the vice president of the Friday Morning Club between 1908 and 1911 and was appointed the executive officer of the California Industrial Welfare Commission between 1913 and 1931. As executive commissioner of the Industrial Welfare Commission, Edson worked to investigate and improve the living conditions and wages of poor laborers and farm workers in the State, producing reports such as A Study of the Cost of Living and Report on Wage Board in the Fruit and Vegetable Conning industry. As well, as noted by Report, Edson helped arbitrate disputes between laborers and employers as Chair of the Wage Board, resolving not only matters of wages, but setting standards for work safety and conditions. In the March 4, 1914 edition of the Chicago newspaper, The Day Book, Edson said her work was founded upon "the realization that private business is no longer private business, but public business" because "anything that affects the industrial life of the nation is the business of the whole people."

As a woman of the Progressive Era, Edson also championed women's suffrage. In 1911 when Edson was serving as co-chair of the Los Angeles Political Equality League. California granted state suffrage to women. During a session of the Convention of the National Municipal League in 1912, Edson gave a speech in this capacity; she argued for the merit and benefits that local and state suffrage brought. As representative of Edson's investigative background and style, the speech delves into objective measures of women voting in California, including women's registration, their subsequent participation, and even their decisions regarding the Prohibition in Pasadena. Edson continued to champion suffrage even as she served her other duties as Chair of the Wage Board and commissioner of the Industrial Welfare Comission; according to Loewy's article, Katherine Philips Edson was a delegate to the Fiftieth Anniversary Jubilee Convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in March 1919. The convention's central focus was on ensuring the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which was being voted upon in both houses of the U.S. Congress, and subsequentlywas ratified by the states. As such, Mrs. Edson, due to her experience and connections as a major figure in women's suffrage in California in years past, was charged with recruiting and organizing a new suffrage coalition in California, as many previous groups had slowly died out after state suffrage had been achieved. According to Loewy, Edson almost certainly recruited women from former members of the suffrage groups she had worked with, such as the Political Equality League and the California Federation of Women's Clubs, to help advocate and pressure politicians to ratify the amendment. With pressure from the new alliance of women's suffrage groups that Mrs. Edson helped organize, the nineteenth amendment was ratified in California in November 1919; suffice it to say that Mrs. Edson deserves a considerable amount of credit in achieving this goal.

As Edson's responsibilities grew, so did the number and duration of her absences from her home in Los Angeles. As the California Industrial Welfare Commission was based in San Francisco, Edson spent a considerable amount of time in San Francisco. In fact, according to the 1920 census, Katherine Philips and her son Philip J. are recorded living in San Francisco, rather than Los Angeles, indicating an extended absence from the rest of her family. The distance strained the relationship with her once-supportive husband, and in 1925 Charles and Katherine Edson divorced. According to both Braitman's short biography and a 1928 list of passenger arrivals in Honolulu, Edson nonetheless continued her efforts at progressive reform, including trips to Hawaii to speak at the Pan Pacific Women's Conference in 1928. According to Braitman, near the very end of her life, Edson canceled various engagements as her health drastically deteriorated, and she died in ill health in August 1933 in Pasadena. She is buried in Foulke Cemetery in Siskiyou Country, California; her ex-husband is buried nearby. The remarks and comments left on her grave's entry in the U.S., Find A Grave Index database suggest a number of her descendants still reside in Southern California.

The UCLA libraries maintain 14 archival boxes of various pieces of writing - speeches, papers, and correspondence - produced by Edson while she was active in state and national politics, from about 1909-1934. Given her importance to local affairs in Los Angeles, an archive of photos of Edson and her papers is also kept in the Edson Collection at UCLA.

Source Description

Three of my sources are primary sources written by Katherine Philips Edson herself, of which two are reports for Industrial Welfare Commission, and the other is a speech about women's suffrage. The articles by Braitman and Loewy are short biographies of Edson's public career and life, written for and published by the California Historical Society. The remaining sources are records of governmental or administrative nature; these I consulted to corroborate other pieces of information or to determine basic biographical information.

Process Description

Since the note mentioned her as having written a considerable number of works held at the UCLA library, the first step I took was to search her name as an author using the UC Berkeley library catalog and the WorldCat database. These immediately brought to me several pieces of information: her position as a member of IWC, her relatively famous reputation as a suffragist and progressive, as well as primary sources by her. Taking these into account, I either read online or requested access to these primary sources. As well, the background information provided by the catalog entries provided me the initial biographical facts and events in her life; this would greatly help while searching for her in other sources or databases by filtering out numerous false leads.

Now knowing who she was and what she did, I reasoned that she would merit the attention of various historical societies, local or state, and checked JSTOR if there was any material about her. This gave me the two biographies of Edson's public career, which themselves were written with access to her personal papers, photos, correspondence, and other material only available at UCLA, which was incredibly helpful due to the lack of my own ability to access the archives.

Finally, I checked Chronicling America, thinking that her relative fame would bring in many sources. While it certainly did, across the many permutations of her married name, maiden name, and her husband's name, very little of it provided new information, especially with the short biographies of her.

Source List

Braitman, Jacqueline R. "A California Stateswoman: The Public Career of Katherine Philips Edson." California History 65, no. 2 (1986): 82-95. Accessed April 10, 2017.

California Industrial Welfare Commission and Katherine Philips Edson. A Study of the Cost of Living. Sacramento, California, 1919. Accessed April 10, 2017.

California Industrial Welfare Commission and Katherine Philips Edson. Report on Wage Board in the Fruit and Vegetable Conning Industry. Sacramento, California, 1919.

Editorial Board. "Woman gives common people a look-in on 'private' business." The Day Book. (Chicago, Ill.), March 4 1914. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. Accessed April 10th, 2017.

Edson, Katherine Philips. 1909. "Papers 1909-1934." Archival Material. Edson Collection, Special Collections, UCLA Libraries, Los Angeles, California.

Edson, Katherine Philips. "The Actual Operation of Woman's Suffrage in California." Presentation at the Convention of the National Municipal League, Los Angeles, California, July, 1912.

Find A Grave. "Katherine Philips Edson." Accessed April 10, 2017.

Hayes Presidential Center Obituary Indexers and Volunteers. "Katherine Philips Edson." Ohio, Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center Obituary Index. Accessed April 10, 2017.

Loewy, Jean. "Katherine Philips Edson and the California Suffragette Movement, 1919-1920." California Historical Society Quarterly 47, no. 4 (1968): 343-50.

Los Angeles Assembly District 71, Los Angeles, California. 1910 Census. Digital image. Accessed April 10, 2017.

National Archives and Records Administration, Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at Honolulu, Hawaii, National Archives Microfilm Publication: A4156; Roll: 164; Record Group Title: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1787-2004; Record Group Number: RG 85. Accessed April 10, 2017.

San Francisco Assembly District 33, San Francisco, California. 1920 Census. Digital image. Accessed April 10, 2017.

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