Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Louise Larue, 1881-1958

By Susan Englander, Instructor, Department of History, San Francisco State University

Labor leader and suffragist Louise A. Downing Larue was born on September 20,1881 in St. Louis, Missouri to Jeffson Downing and Louise Spinaugen. By the early 20th century, she had married Burton Larue but had been widowed at age 21. Her early life remains hidden from history; however her documented life continued in 1906 San Francisco shortly before the city's major earthquake. There, Louise Larue was a union leader in the culinary industry. A member of Waiters' Local 30 of the Cooks and Waiters Alliance, Larue and her fellow waitresses were unhappy about the local's neglect of their unique work issues. As a caucus of the Waiters' Union, the waitresses demanded and won contract provisions that they would not be forced to" shell peas, peel apples, . . . clean coffee urns, windows or ice boxes or scrub chairs." Union waitresses, exhibiting a firm craft identity, refused to perform work unconnected with customer service.

In February, 1906, Larue and the other waitresses moved to separate from Local 30 to start their own union, Local #48. They submitted this proposal to a vote and the membership approved of the waitresses' request. In splitting off from the Waiters Union, Local 48 followed suit with other waitresses' unions throughout across the United States in forming gender-segregated culinary locals. Seventeen of these locals existed nationally by World War I. ". . . the girls thought it would be better to have a local of their own," wrote union official William Jefferson of the Local 48 waitresses in Mixer and Server, a national culinary workers' journal. Local 48 began with 250 members and survived the earthquake and fire several months later. Louise was a leader of the local from the start who ascended from the rank and file. Dorothy Sue Cobble has written in Dishing It Out that food service unions promoted a high level of activity and leadership among women. Louise Larue certainly proved that point.

Anti-Asian sentiment was also a hallmark of unionism in San Francisco. Organized labor either founded or participated in a chain of organizations that stoked the flames of this type of bigotry. The Anti-Jap Laundry League and the Asiatic Exclusion League emerged in the early 1900s to campaign against the employment of Chinese and Japanese in the city. Racism was a significant factor in the strength of the labor movement in San Francisco and in all of California. Larue did not depart from this philosophy. In 1909, as Local 48's secretary, a paid position, Larue traveled to the National Women's Trade Union League (NWTUL) convention in Chicago. During the general plenary session, she offered a resolution calling for the NWTUL's endorsement of federal laws excluding all Asians from entering the United States. Larue alleged that Japanese men molested white children, willingly lived in filthy and crowded hovels, and provided cheap labor that underbid that of white women and men. The resolution, she stated, was sponsored by the San Francisco Labor Council. The convention defeated the measure, much to Larue's dismay. Furthermore, Local 48 barred women of color from its membership. According to a contract from the period, "white women only" were allowed to work in union.

At that same NWTUL convention, Larue boasted, "Now, when we want anything, we go right to a politician and get it. We have everything we need. Yes, we are politicians. We go into politics." The Local 48 waitresses had campaigned for the San Francisco Union Labor Party's (ULP) 1907 candidate for mayor, P.H. McCarthy but he failed to win. That year, they also joined forces with suffragists in the struggle for the women's vote.

In the early 20th century, the vast majority of women active in the California suffrage movement and its leadership were middle-class members of the state's women's club movement. By 1907, reportedly over 5,000 clubwomen endorsed and worked for woman suffrage. Union women joined with these reformers in the San Francisco Equal Suffrage League (SFESL), which sought to revive the flagging movement for women's right to vote, which had suffered a stinging defeat in 1896. Its founder, Lillian Harris Coffin also headed the state-level organization, the California Equal Suffrage League (CESL). Larue claimed that suffragists from unions joined with the SFESL, "and got along fine with them; we endorsed everything they did." The alliance, however, did not last long.

Later in 1907, San Francisco transit workers went on strike. The club women in the SFESL refused to honor the Carmen's Union picket lines. They rode the Municipal Railroad trains driven by strike breakers and enraged Larue and her union sisters. "So, you can imagine how we felt," she fumed. "We had to pull out." In September 1908, Larue and female unionists from several other women's locals formed the Wage Earners Suffrage League (WESL), devoted to winning "better working conditions for working women and . . . .to promote the suffrage idea." Minna O'Donnell of the International Typographical Union Local 21 became its president.

Despite their differences, in 1908 WESL activists Larue and Maud Younger, a wealthy union ally, joined in solidarity with the SFESL in Sacramento, the state capital, to advocate for a woman suffrage bill. Larue reported pointedly, "We went to the legislature and backed their bill." Despite their support and that of the California Labor Federation, the legislature narrowly defeated the bill. For the rest of the California campaign for votes for women, Larue and Younger became an effective duo representing pro-suffrage labor activism.

Larue and Local 48 maintained a high profile in the local labor community in 1909 and 1910. They participated actively in the San Francisco Labor Council, marched in Labor Day parades, organized fund raisers for the union's Sick and Death Benefit (which of course featured a bar), and published articles such as "The Wage Earners' Need of the Ballot," authored by Younger. The local actively campaigned once more for mayoral candidate P.H. McCarthy. This time he won. As Larue had said, female unionists were politicians. To have labor in City Hall again offered Local 48 hope for political clout as unionists as well as women, should they win the ballot.

As in 1909, Larue and Younger journeyed to Sacramento in 1911 for the biennial effort to promote woman suffrage in California. This time, the measure passed and was then placed before the state's male voters on a special election ballot as Amendment 8 to the California Constitution, scheduled for October 1911. The WESL anticipated a frantic year of activity, and Larue was up to the task.

The duo soon returned to the state capital in February of that year to lobby for an eight-hour-day bill for women workers. The proposed law was inspired by the 1908 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Muller v. Oregon, pronouncing a shorter day on the job for female workers as constitutional. Larue testified that "the average waitress walks ten miles a day," the same amount that an Army mule was allowed by the government. The measure passed both houses of the legislature in March, 1911.

By 1911, the union coffers paid three full-time officials -- a secretary and two business agents. Local 48 averaged a membership of 536 waitresses that year, slightly more than half the number of documented women working in the trade. That year, Louise Larue's sister waitresses elected her as Local 48 president. The San Francisco Labor Council awarded the WESL "credentials to visit unions on the subject of suffrage" that summer and gave the WESL office space in the Labor Temple, a new building constructed in the city's Mission District to house labor organizations without their own halls. The Labor Clarion, San Francisco's union weekly, also listed the WESL in its roster of official labor unions and organizations. In August, Larue and Younger did a two-week tour of unions in the San Jose and Stockton Central Labor Councils. Larue spoke plainly to union men, saying, "We are your own women who are asking you to do this for us. Every member of our league is a union woman." She also remarked that women workers would be the big winners if suffrage passed, and that the ballot would not interfere with family relations and the home.

Larue and Younger spoke at Carpenters' Local 483 in mid-August; their visit was reported in the August 17 San Francisco Daily News. The reporter described Larue as "pretty," and quoted her as saying, "It is all we can do to get up the courage and talk after all we have heard through the closed doors. (However) , . . if they won't listen to us they won't have the amendment presented to them at all." After speaking to Carpenters Local 483, its president assured them while shaking their hands, "When the month rolls around, I can promise you that every man in Local 483 is going to go out and vote for the amendment for you girls"

By the end of August, the League had visited seventy-eight unions and gotten endorsements from "nearly all of them." Many voted unanimously to support Amendment Eight. Larue and Younger laid plans to visit forty more and to conduct meetings in the streets, in shops, and in factories. Women who worked during the day volunteered to leaflet and speak for the WESL at night to potential working-class voters.

Larue and Younger spoke before many public meetings in the next month that were reportedly "crowded to the doors." The campaign reached its zenith on September 4, 1911 when the WESL and Local 48 sponsored an impressive Labor Day Parade float, financed by the CESL, carrying working women in their uniforms and dress, and festooned with shields that proclaimed, 'These Women Need the Vote," "Votes for Mother, Too," and "Justice for Women." The float came to a halt after its trip down to the foot of Market St. at the waterfront and held a rally there. The CESL's account noted, "Our yellow challenge ran through the people's coolness like a hot iron through water and raised a passing mist of passion from the crowd."

Despite Larue's valiant leadership and efforts, San Francisco men voted down Amendment 8. It barely carried the state by a margin of 3,000 votes. Following the election, Larue continued her leadership role in Local 48, representing the waitresses' union on the San Francisco Labor Council, and becoming a member of the California Civic League's executive board. This organization would become the League of Women Voters in the 1920s.

Little is known of Larue after that except her appearance in census and death records. Her residence in 1920 was San Francisco but by 1930, she had relocated to Alameda, across the San Francisco Bay, and was a restaurant manager. She no longer rented; she owned her own home and shared it with Blanche La Rue, perhaps a relative of her departed husband. Larue died on November 30, 1958 in Alameda.

Some parts of this biography describe the common situations and conditions for waitresses and women workers in San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century. Larue was one of those waitresses. Their work conditions were her work conditions; their union victories were her union victories. While many details of her life may be missing, we can situate Larue in her general circumstances as worker, unionist, and suffrage leader. Let that be her legacy.

Sources: San Francisco newspapers provided many details on Larue including the San Francisco Call and San Francisco Daily News and the San Francisco weekly union publication, the Labor Clarion.


California. San Francisco Area Funeral Home Records, 1895-1985, 30 November 1958.

Cobble, Dorothy Sue. Dishing It Out. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

College Equal Suffrage League of Northern California. Winning Equal Suffrage in California. San Francisco: James H. Barry Co., 1913.

Englander, Susan. Class Conflict and Coalition in the California Woman Suffrage Movement, 1907-1912: The San Francisco Wage Earner's Suffrage League. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Publishing Co, 1992.

Matthews, Lillian Ruth. Women in the Trade Unions in San Francisco. Berkeley: University of California Publications in Economics, vol. 3, no. 1, 1913.

Mixer and Server. Cincinnati, OH: Hotel and Restaurant Employee's International Alliance and Bartender's League of America.

National Women's Trade Union League papers, Library of Congress. Washington, D.C.

San Francisco Bulletin

San Francisco Call

San Francisco Chronicle

San Francisco Daily News

San Francisco Examiner

San Francisco Labor Clarion

United States. Social Security Applications and Claims. Index, 1936-2007.

United States. Federal Census. San Francisco, California.1920.

United States. Federal Census. Oakland, California. 1930.

United States. Federal Census. Oakland, California. 1940.

United States. City Directory. Oakland, California. 1926.

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