Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Mariana Bertola, 1868-1955

By Emily Shishima, B.A., in Global Studies and History, University of California, Santa Barbara

Grand President of the Native Daughters of the Golden West; President and Vice President California State Federation of Women's Clubs; State Chairman of Public Welfare; Principal of Martinez Schools; Director of the Woman's Board of the Panama-Pacific Exposition; Founder of the the Vittoria Colonna Club; Member and officer in many women's and civic associations, especially associated with child welfare.

Mariana Bertola was born in Pacheco, in Contra Costa county, California in May of 1868 to Antonio Bertola and Catarina de Voto Bertola. Her father was a pioneer in California who moved from Genoa, Italy to Martinez, California in 1857. Mariana came from a family of Italians who had a courageous spirit in the wars for Italian liberty, and Mariana did not fall short. An ambitious and passionate individual, Mariana became both a physician and philanthropist, helping to improve the lives of immigrants and women in her community.

Mariana began her education in Martinez Grammar School, graduating from San Jose Normal School in 1880. She attended Cooper Medical College at Stanford University and was a member of Alpha Epsilon Iota, a women's medical fraternity. Upon graduating, Mariana began her career in education, first teaching at Martinez Public Schools until becoming the Vice Principal from 1889 to 1891 and acting as the Principal in 1896.

After spending time teaching and in administration, Mariana began her career in medicine. She was a member of the San Francisco County Medical Society, the California Medical Society, the American Medical Association, and was the Director of the Society of Prevention and Cure of Tuberculosis. Mariana became an intern at the Children's Hospital from 1899 to 1900. She was an Assistant Resident Physician at the hospital from 1900 to 1901. She then began work at Cooper Medical College as an associate in the college's medical clinic, eventually becoming an Assistant Physician in 1901 until 1903 when she became an Examining Physician. In 1903, Mariana finished her internship as an obstetrician and established her own obstetrician office in North Beach, San Francisco. At her practice, over the span of 33 years, Mariana delivered around 3,000 babies. Her practice of medicine and surgery was well known and led her to become a leading medical practitioner in San Francisco.

In addition to her astonishing accomplishments in the medical field, Mariana was also involved in humanitarian efforts. She became the Grand President of the Native Daughters of the Golden West from 1895 to 1896 and was one of the organizers of the Native Daughters Home and Native Daughters Children's Agency. The Native Daughters of the Golden West (NDGW) is an organization comprised of California-born women making strides to preserve California's history and maintain the state's social and cultural development. A few projects that the NDGW organization sponsored were the restoration of the California Missions, providing educational scholarships and children's welfare, identifying and creating California historic monuments, as well as combating environmental issues. Marianna became the Chairman of the Home Committee in 1906 and held the post for 47 years. The first NDGW home was destroyed by an earthquake in 1906 and Mariana helped to put together resources for the construction of a new NDGW retirement home. The new home was a place of companionship and also contained offices and meeting rooms for the statewide organization. Mariana purchased half of the lot in 1913 and the other half a decade after. The Grand Parlor Home was formally established in 1929 at 555 Baker Street. The total cost was about $91,000. A campaign, the Loyalty Pledge, was launched to liquidate the mortgage and in 1932, the Grand Parlor Home was free of debt. The residence programme was discontinued in October 1986 and the Home is currently a museum with a public reference library, with the building still maintained for the aid of NDGW members. Mariana's involvement with the NDGW represents her firm belief in the achievements women's solidarity could accomplish. She was actively contributing to the organization and bettering the facilities for future members.

Bertola was also involved in a variety of other roles revolving around women. She was a member of the Women's Auxiliary of the Juvenile Court and the Director of the Woman's Board of the Panama-Pacific Exposition. The Women's Auxiliary, along with several other women's clubs, was instrumental in helping to establish juvenile courts. The Panama-Pacific Exposition was a world's fair held in San Francisco in 1915 to celebrate American achievements. The Woman's Board that Mariana was the Director of highlighted American women's achievements in particular. The exposition raised awareness of the female contribution to American society and culture.

Bertola was an advocate of women's rights as well as a proponent of Italian-American assimilation. In 1909 Mariana founded the Vittoria Colonna Club (VCC) which was a pioneering social welfare organization, which actively supported women's suffrage. The name of the club was inspired by Vittoria Colonna, a sixteenth-century Roman poet who wrote about the type of social work Marianna hoped the club would carry out in her community. The membership of the club started small and eventually grew to over 300 members just before World War II. The first VCC meeting was comprised of a dentist, two public school teachers, a music teacher, and one without an occupation, each being single women born in the United States of Italian-immigrant parents. The women decided that English rather than Italian would be the official language of the club. While being immigrant-oriented, the VCC was rooted in an American women's organization tradition due to Mariana's previous involvement in American clubs such as the Native Daughters of the Golden West. Thus, the VCC reflected American aspects in its bylaws, governing structure, and educational activities. The organization also joined the California Federation of Women's Clubs (CFWC) in order to gain political leverage. This relationship allowed the club to cooperate with the city government. The VCC was effective in the way in which it addressed the needs of Italian immigrants by linking these needs with those of the rest of the city's marginalized population. The club's efforts attempted to help assimilate immigrants into the city and its pluralist politics. The VCC was also involved in efforts to gain women's suffrage. In 1911, when women in California won the right to vote, no fewer than three of the VCC's programmes were devoted to women's suffrage. Mariana was influential in bringing forth the question of suffrage before several clubs.

The VCC reflected Marianna's feminist motives as well as her medical background as the club provided many healthcare services to its community. VCC members made translators available to hospital patients without strong English skills, investigated Italian individuals' complaints about city medical treatment, funded and supplied patients with wheelchairs and bandages, helped tuberculosis patients without homes find housing, heavily staffed free local clinics in the community, funded funerals for poverty stricken families with deceased children, and held health clinics to help examine Italian children (sometimes numbering seven hundred in a week). Marianna herself frequently provided free medical care to patients in need. She also was a prominent speaker at lectures to women's clubs, speaking on topics such as tuberculosis, rabies, prenatal care for mothers in poverty, health care for infants, and problems of hygiene in public schools.

Mariana Bertola passed away in 1955 in San Francisco. Throughout her life she made significant contributions to the education and medical fields, advanced the suffrage question, improved the lives of immigrants in California, bettered the health and wellbeing of poor children and communities, and dedicated her life's efforts to humanitarian causes and women's advancement and recognition in America.


[Dr. Mariana Bertola, 1915; California History Section Picture Catalog
Owning Institution: California State Library; Calisphere; Permalink:]


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