Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Charlotte Anita Whitney, 1867-1955
By Molly Silvestrini, Clinical Research Coordinator at UC San Francisco
Executive Secretary of the United Charities of Oakland; secretary of the Council of the Associated Charities of Alameda; California organizer of the National College Equal Suffrage League; Vice President of the National American Women Suffrage Association; Socialist Party of America; Communist Labor Party
Charlotte Anita Whitney was born July 7, 1867, in San Francisco, California to a wealthy and educated family. Her father was a prominent lawyer, and her uncle was the Supreme court justice Stephen J. Field. Whitney graduated from Wellesley College in 1889 and began working part-time as a teacher in Massachusetts. In 1893, she visited the College Settlement House in New York City, which sparked her interest in activism and social reform. Whitney returned to California to pursue social work, serving as the Executive Secretary of the United Charities of Oakland from 1901 to 1908, and the secretary of the Council of the Associated Charities of Alameda from 1901 to 1906.
Whitney's passion for social work catalyzed her involvement in women's suffrage campaigns. She led early voting rights campaigns for a women's suffrage amendment to the California constitution and contributed to similar campaigns in Oregon, Nevada, and Connecticut. In 1911, Whitney became the California organizer of the National College Equal Suffrage League and the Vice President of the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Her engagement in social work and suffrage politics allowed her to connect with radicals in other movements, such as socialists and communists. When World War I began, she became a member of the anti-war Socialist Party of America and attended party meetings in Oakland.
By 1919, the post-World War I “Red Scare” was in full effect, caused by fears of communism and labor unions. During this time, Whitney was involved in the most radical wing of the Socialist Party and began rallying support for the Communist Labor Party throughout California, which would later become the American Communist Party. On November 28, 1919, Whitney gave a speech at the Hotel Oakland to the Oakland City Civic Club on behalf of the Communist Labor Party, and was arrested for “criminal syndicalism” in violation of the California Criminal Syndicalism Act, which made illegal any doctrine advocating or aiding sabotage or violent acts aimed at effecting political change, and made criminally liable anyone who joined any group that advocated or aided criminal syndicalism. Whitney did not deny that she was a member of the Communist Labor Party and was convicted on one count of criminal syndicalism. She was sentenced to one to fourteen years in jail for her involvement; however, she served only 11 days of the sentence due to her ill health. Whitney was finally pardoned by the California state governor in June of 1927, and her case led to the Supreme Court establishing the concept of free and protected speech in the United States.
Whitney's arrest did not dissuade her from political activity. After her trial, Whitney ran for California State Controller in 1924 on the Communist ticket and helped establish the San Francisco Workers' School in 1934. She was arrested for lecturing without a permit and distributing radical literature in 1935 and was named the national chairwoman of the Communist Party in 1936. Her political activity and arrests made her incredibly popular with leftists, and she was nominated for the U.S. Senate twice by California's communists. In 1950, she ran for U.S. Senate and won close to 99,000 votes.
Whitney died on February 4, 1955 at age 87 in San Francisco, California. She is buried in Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, California.
1. “Charlotte Anita Whitney: American Activist.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed May 5, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Charlotte-Anita-Whitney
2. DeLeon, Solon, Irma C. Hayssen and Grace Poole (eds.), American Labor Who's Who. New York: Hanford Press, 1925.
3. Charities: A Weekly Review of Local and General Philanthropy, 7(1) July–December 1901, pg. 348.
4. McHenry, Robert. Famous American Women: A Biographical Dictionary from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Courier Dover Publications, 1983.
5. Epstein, Lee, and Thomas G. Walker. Constitutional Law for a Changing America: Rights, Liberties, and Justice. Second edition. CQ Press, 1995.
6. “Whitney, Charlotte Anita (1867-1955).” Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Gale Research Inc., 2002. Accessed May 5, 2019. https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/whitney-charlotte-anita-1867-1955
7. Whitten, Woodrow C. Criminal Syndicalism and the Law in California: 1919–1927. Philadelphia: Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 59 (2) March 1969, p. 43.
8. McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. New York: Dover, 1980.