Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Minnie Sharkey Abrams, 1863-1914
By Leslie Larson, independent historian
Minnie Sharkey Abrams (April 14, 1863 - December 27, 1914) was the first woman superintendent of schools for Butte county, California, and a suffragist who fought to give California women the right to vote in municipal, county and state elections nine years before the passage of the 19th amendment of the U.S. constitution which gave women the right to vote at the national level.
Early life and background
Minnie Sharkey was born the first daughter and third of eight children of William and Amanda Texanna Gray Sharkey on April 14, 1863. Her mother, who came to California by ox wagon in 1856, was the daughter of the founders of Huntsville, Texas. Her father, William Sharkey, was a gold rush argonaut who was on one of the first ships to leave New York after President Polk announced that gold had been found in California on December 5, 1848.
Minnie's life was shaped by her parents' focus on education and politics. Her mother's parents had donated the land for the first brick schoolhouse in Huntsville, Texas. Her father, William Sharkey, jumped into local politics and civic affairs almost immediately upon arrival in California, becoming a stalwart of the pro-Union wing of the Democratic party and later the Republican party. Evidence indicates that while a youth in New York he was a printer's apprentice, not unlike Benjamin Franklin. By 1877, when Minnie was 14, he founded the Butte County Register, the first countywide newspaper. His editorials demonstrate that he was an ardent proponent of schools and school libraries.
Minnie started her professional career at age 19, moving away from home to the small farming community of Central House to teach school. There she learned — or asserted — her independence, and dealt with the particular challenges facing teachers, students and parents in rural communities far from the sources of funding and decision making.
Minnie also had enterprise. In 1885, at age 22, she won the contract to sell President Ulysses S. Grant's memoirs. And, she had the savvy to get free newspaper publicity for the sale of many copies throughout Butte county. Knocking on doors, she introduced herself to a wide array of the citizenry and took her first steps in the art of canvassing.
First campaign, Butte county superintendent of schools, 1886
1886 marked Minnie's first foray into county politics. At the time she was 23 years old and women did not have the right to vote. Nor was it known at the time if women could hold elected office, even if voted in by enfranchised male voters.
Because of her work and her father's long involvement in Butte county politics, Minnie was well known in Republican circles. Her nomination is described in several newspaper accounts:
“....Miss Minnie Sharkey, at present teacher of the primary department at Gridley, was nominated by acclamation, amid a great deal of merriment.”
There was some political calculation in the nomination as well:
“ We understand that the Oroville delegation is solid for Miss Minnie Sharkey...Bad fellows; they are just doing it to tease Braddock [the Democratic incumbent]. Mr. Braddock would hate awfully to run against a lady, but if she gets in his way he'll have to do it.”
In fact, Minnie did throw her hat in the ring. The following notice appears on the same page as the announcement of her mother's funeral.
“For the first time in our newspaper career, we publish the card of a lady announcing herself a candidate for office....She is a young lady of brains, natural ability, pluck and energy. If the people of Butte feel disposed to place our public schools under her charge, it is their business.”
Minnie Sharkey campaigned hard. She lost the race, by only 210 votes, less than 10% of the total count. The local newspaper described her loss in this fashion:
“If we felt disposed, we could now say to the Republicans in reference to Miss Minnie Sharkey's candidacy: ‘we told you so.' Before she was nominated we denounced that kind of “gallantry” that would lead a party to nominate a young lady for an office that no male would dare accept against Mr. Braddock, and leave her to be slaughtered at the ballot box. Miss Sharkey was nominated without her knowledge. It was done on the spur of the moment, under a breeze of excitement created at the closing hours of the [Republican] convention, exhilarated by too frequent indulgence in the fascinating cup. The consequence is, many Republicans...deserted the young lady in the darkest hour of her need. We must say, however, that her vote is a splendid tribute to her character and capacity as a teacher and to her pluck and energy as a lady. All of which we endorse.”
Two years after the campaign, at age 24, Minnie Sharkey married Charles Abrams, a local contractor and businessman. Over the next 20 years, she bore and raised four children while she continued to teach in rural schools throughout Butte county. She pursued advanced teaching degrees and participated in organizations that focused on the professional development of educators, eventually becoming the president of the northern California chapter of California Teachers' Association.
1906 & 1910 campaigns and her career as Butte county superintendent of schools
Over her many years as a teacher, Minnie developed a deep knowledge of the county school system. She also demonstrated drive, an aptitude for process organization, public speaking skills and the desire to make the Butte county school system a statewide model. She was ready to launch her next campaign for Butte county superintendent of schools.
In 1906 candidates for local offices were still selected by the political parties. Potential candidates had to be nominated during a party convention. In Minnie's case, delegates from three different parts of the county put forth her nomination. According to the September 17, 1906 Oroville Daily Register, Mrs. Abrams made one of the best, if not the best, speech at the Republican convention. She said in part,
“My life's work has always been and always will be with and for the children. Upon the county superintendent rests the mental and moral training of your children. I know that a woman superintendent will be an innovation in this county, but there are now already in California twenty-four women superintendents, and after November 6th there will be many more. I will take my nomination not only as a compliment to myself, but as a tribute to women's work and women's influence in the educational world.”
Apparently her campaign struck the right chord with the male voters of the county because Minnie was elected with a plurality of 1,500 votes, the highest in the county to that point. Campaign expenditure reports indicate that she spent $188.25 on her campaign. The bulk of expenses were for advertisements in local newspapers. Also reported were ball tickets, hotel bills, livery bills and traveling expenses, none of which individually exceeded $4.
Once elected Mrs. Abrams was a whirlwind of activity. She traveled extensively throughout the county, making school visits while reviewing and encouraging teachers, administrators and students. On September 25, 1907 she announced strict enforcement of the Compulsory Education Act during her four-year term. The act came with a heavy $10-50 fine or jail time for parents who did not comply. While unafraid to enforce the act, Minnie worked with families to find solutions. On occasion, she took rural pupils into her own home and used the newspapers to appeal for long-term hosts to ensure their regular attendance in school.
Changes in primary election law before 1910 almost derailed Minnie's re-election campaign of the same year (it affected the campaigns of other women running for office at the time too). The new law required persons seeking nomination to be eligible voters themselves. Minnie hoped to convince Republican delegates to write in her name on the ticket. However, opinions issued by the county and state district attorneys confirmed that women had a right to have their names placed on the ballot, resolving the problem. Minnie Abrams won re-election by a 400-vote margin.
During the next four years, Minnie involved herself in streamlining school district payroll systems so that employees received their checks on time, promoting school gardens, requiring teaching contracts in all schools so that expectations were clear, and making significant efforts to improve rural schools and boost teacher pay.
Minnie Abrams's 1914 official report to the State Superintendent of Public Instruction itemizes more accomplishments: the growing cooperation between the superintendent and the trustees of the individual school districts; the construction of new schoolhouses and the remodeling of others; the increase in average yearly elementary teachers' salaries from $630 in 1906-7 to $841 in 1913-14; the fostering of domestic science; and 144 hands-on visits to schools.
In addition to her efforts to improve the county schools, Minnie Abrams lent her political skills and local connections to the campaign to establish a county library system. In the summer of 1913 she took Harriet Eddy, an emissary from the State Library tasked with the expansion of library systems throughout the state, to visit local newspaper editors, businesspeople and members of the board of supervisors. On August 4th, the board passed a resolution to establish a county library. Many of the library's branches were located in schools, thus benefiting school children as well as the general public.
Minnie Sharkey Abrams's civic-mindedness did not end there. She was a member of many local progressive organizations. She was also a founding board member and vice president of the county Humane Society established in 1911.
Involvement in the campaign to achieve women's suffrage in California, 1911
In mid-October 1911, newspapers throughout the state of California blared the reversal of their previous day's headlines — women's suffrage had passed. It was a squeaker made possible by votes from Southern California and small towns and rural communities scattered up and down the state. There had been a previous attempt to enfranchise California women in 1896. It was defeated by large majorities in San Francisco and Alameda counties, due to the influence and money of the Liquor Dealers League which feared that women would vote to restrict access to alcohol.
In 1911, suffragists calculated a different strategy. Instead of going toe-to-toe with the entrenched liquor interests in the large urban areas, they focused on the rest of the state's population. In this effort, counties such as Butte played an important role. There was but a short window of opportunity between when California legislature approved bringing Amendment 4 to a popular vote and the actual election — just eight months. The suffragists were galvanized into action.
Minnie Sharkey Abrams played a prominent and very active part in this effort. She was a member of the Butte County Equal Suffrage Association (BCESA) and supported a variety of efforts to heighten awareness and change minds. The association hosted suffrage debates at churches, schools and social clubs and got the endorsements of influential civic leaders such as Butte county superior court judge John Gray published on the front page of the local newspapers. The BCESA also orchestrated a “double punch” campaign in the county featuring speeches by nationally prominent suffragists in rallies presided over by Minnie Sharkey Abrams. The first rally, held on the county courthouse steps on September 11, 1911 featured speeches by Elizabeth Lowe Watson, president of the California Equal Suffrage Association and Mrs. Martha Pearce of the Alameda Equal Suffrage Association. Two weeks later on September 26, the BCESA hosted a talk by Jeanette Rankin, who had just run the successful campaign to get women's right to vote in the state of Washington in 1910. Rankin went on to help orchestrate the successful suffrage campaign in Montana in 1914 and, in 1916, she became the first woman elected as Montana's representative in Congress.
Minnie Sharkey Abrams understood how to use her prominence as the Butte county superintendent of schools to keep up the drumbeat for equal suffrage through the local press. After a tour of the rural schools in the county foothill areas, she reported “I found the men in particular favored equal suffrage...I feel confident that Butte County will show on election day that it is overwhelmingly in favor of woman's suffrage.” And, less than a month before the election that would determine women's right to vote in California, Minnie Abrams made sure that her arguments and responses to anti-suffrage positions were published in area newspapers.
When the vote was officially recorded on October 17, 1911, Butte county cast a large majority of 753 votes for women's suffrage. Statewide, women's suffrage passed by a mere 3,587 votes of the 246,487 cast.
Even before the official count was published, Minnie Sharkey Abrams presented herself to the county clerk to register to vote. In so doing, she became the first woman to do so in Butte county and among the first to register in the state. She registered as a Republican. She made sure that her registration was well publicized.
Personal life and death
In 1914 Minnie undertook a hard-fought election campaign for a third term as superintendent of schools for Butte county. Her opponent was a well regarded school principal who garnered a large majority of votes from the burgeoning town of Chico. Minnie won by dint of majorities in the competing town of Oroville and the rural districts. However, the strain of the campaign caused her to collapse shortly after the election. She died at home in Oroville on December 28th at the age of fifty. The Women's Relief Corps, the women's auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic, of which she was a member, organized her funeral. The Congregational Church was considered too small to accommodate the anticipated crowd, so her service was moved to the courthouse porch and steps where she had spoken out for women's suffrage. In fact over 300 people attended her funeral. The court house flag flew at half mast for the day and superior court was adjourned for the hour services were held.
Minnie Sharkey Abrams celebrating the vote for women's suffrage in 1911.
From the private photo collection of Leslie F. Larson
Brower, Nancy. “The Leaders of the Pack: Minnie Abrams, Mattie Lund and Florence Danforth.” Butte County Historical Society Diggin's [forthcoming issue, October 2019, vol. 63, no. 3]
Cooney, Jr. Robert P. J. in collaboration with the National Woman's History Project. Winning the Vote: The Triumph of the American Woman Suffrage Movement. Santa Cruz, California: American Graphic Press, 2005
Cooney, Jr. Robert P. J. “California Women Suffrage Centennial: A Brief Summary of the 1911 Campaign. California Secretary of State website, https://www.sos.ca.gov/elections/celebrating-womens-suffrage/california-women-suffrage-centennial/
“Jeanette Rankin.” History, Art & Archives, United States House of Representatives website. https://history.house.gov/People/Listing/R/RANKIN,-Jeannette-(R000055)/
Larson, Frances Fisk Barker. Family Pride. Mountain View, California: F. Larson, 1996, p. 47 and p. 95-97. https://www.worldcat.org/title/family-pride/oclc/39931071
Tucker, Joseph Clarence. To the Golden Goal: and Other Sketches. San Francisco, California: W. Doxey, 1895, p. 76. https://archive.org/details/togoldengoalothe00tuck
Butte County Register:
Masthead, November 23, 1877, p. 1, col. 1
School Buildings,” November 23, 1877, p. 3, col. 5
Letters, November 30, 1877, p. 5, col. 3
“Utility of School Libraries,” December 7, 1877, p. 1, col. 3
“Suffragists' Campaign Rally in Oroville,” September 12, 1911, p. 1.
“Suffrage Theme of Literary Club,” September 30, 1911, p. 8.
“State Indications Point to Defeat of Suffrage. Butte Votes Strong for Woman Suffrage,” Chico Record, October 11, 1911, p. 1.
“Late Returns Favorable to Suffrage Amendment. If Present Ratio Continues Amendment Will Carry Beyond Doubt,” October 12, 1911, p. 1.
“Mrs. M.S. Abrams First Woman in County to Register,” October 14, 1911, p. 1.
“Mrs. Minnie S. Abrams, County School Head, Dies,” December 29, 1914, p. 5.
The Daily Mercury:
August 12, 1885, p. 3
October 1, 1886, p. 3, col. 1
October 4, 1886, p. 2, col. 1; p. 3, col. 2; p.3, col. 1
November 4, 1886, p. 2, col 1
December 18, 1885, p. 3
April 3, 1903, p. 4, col. 3
June 5, 1903, p. 4, col. 3
September 5, 1902, p. 1, col. 1
Feather River Bulletin:
“School Superintendent of Butte County Is Dead,” December 31, 1914, p. 3.
January 5, 1888, p. 3, col. 3
“County Superintendent of Schools Succumbs After Lingering Illness,” December 30, 1914, p. 3.
“Funeral of the Late Mrs. Minnie Abrams,” December 30, 1914, p. 4.
Oroville Daily Register:
“Superintendent of Schools,” September 17, 1906, p. 4.
“Must Obey the Compulsory Law for Schools,” September 25, 1907, p. 1.
“Women Eligible for Nomination for Superintendent of Schools,” March 9, 1910, p. 2.
“Oroville Humane Society Will Be Organized on March 25th,” March 16, 1911, p, 1.
“Poor Mountain Boy Deserves Medal for Determination,” September 20, 1911, p. 1.
“Men Favor Woman's Suffrage—Mrs. Abrams: Visit to Mountain Section Reveals Support for Amendment,” September 20, 1911, p. 8.
“Women Make Strong Plea: Meeting of the Direct Legislation League Was Held Last Night,” October 4, 1911, p. 1.
“Impromptu Debate at Current Topics Section Meeting,” October 5, 1911, p. 4.
“Mrs. Abrams Riddles Anti-Suffrage Argument: Replies to Campaign Document Circulated by Alleged Organization,” October 9, 1911, p. 5.
“County Supt. Is the First Woman to Register,” October 14, 1911, p. 1.
“Mrs. Abrams to Get on Ticket,” March 10, 1910, p. 5.
“Judge Gray Favors Woman Suffrage,” September 18, 1911, p. 1.
“Suffrage Meeting at Gem Theater Tonight,” September 26, 1911, p. 7.
“Funeral of Mrs. Abrams Very Largely Attended,” December 29, 1914, p. 1.
“Reminiscences of Florence Danforth Doyle,” January 12, 1942
“School Superintendent First Woman to Register in Butte,” October 15, 1911, p. 5.
San Francisco Call:
“Women Travel the State to Gain Right to Vote,” September 15, 1911, p. 7.
“Speakers for Equal Rights Make Friends: Three Weeks' Tour in North Proves Popularity of Amendment,” September 22, 1911, p. 7.
Sunshine Valley News:
August 7, 1914, p. 6, col. 2-3
November 6, 1914, p. 1, col. 1
Weekly Butte Record:
"The Union County Convention." August, 27, 1964, p. 2, col. 1-2