Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Ethel Whitehead (later Coombes), 1870-1935
By Sherry J. Katz, Department of History, San Francisco State University
President, Woman's Socialist Union of California, 1908-1910 (an important socialist-feminist organization that supported suffrage)
Founder, Citizens Suffrage League of Pasadena, 1910
Founder and Leader, Socialist Suffrage Club, Los Angeles, 1911
Founder and Leader, Wage Earners' Suffrage League, Los Angeles, 1911
Ethel Whitehead was born in Chatham, England in April 1870 to L.W. Whitehead and Sarah Whitehead. Whitehead immigrated with her parents and 5 siblings to the United States in 1895, settling in Pasadena, California. It appears that she was raised in a working-class family, and although she had little formal schooling, she developed passions for writing, drama, and music. Whitehead supported herself throughout her life as a writer, speaker, organizer, and private teacher. In 1919, at age 49, Whitehead married George F. Coombes, a retired stage manager and opera singer. Whitehead traveled extensively for work as a Socialist Party organizer from 1912 on, with substantial stints in Kansas and Arizona. She died in San Diego, California on December 14, 1935.
Whitehead embraced socialism in 1898 after hearing a speech by J. Stitt Wilson, a well-known California socialist. In the early 20th century, she became quite active in the Socialist Party in greater Los Angeles. She was visible as a local leader of socialist educational and cultural activities, spearheading the Children's Socialist Lyceum from 1908-1912 and writing and producing socialist-feminist plays (some of which were published in the national socialist press). In 1908, she became an ardent suffragist and a key member of an influential network of left-feminists in California that sought to bring activist women together across lines of difference and facilitate feminist coalition building. Whitehead, and her socialist-feminist colleagues, formulated a multilateral program for women's emancipation that included women's suffrage, female unionization, protective labor legislation, mothers' pensions, legal contraception, and the gender integration of political parties and the state. They also championed women's economic independence as central to the feminist project.
From 1908-1910, Whitehead campaigned for woman suffrage as president of the Woman's Socialist Union of California. She believed that this network of socialist-feminists across the state could contribute to advancing the suffrage cause in two ways -- by working within the Socialist Party to expand its commitment to suffrage and by developing an influential socialist-feminist presence within diverse suffrage coalitions. A leading voice for suffrage in the left press, Whitehead sought to persuade socialist men that women's enfranchisement was not a "side issue," but vital to both women's emancipation and the realization of socialism through electoral politics. She also promoted socialist-feminists' collective presence in the state's suffrage movement, where they broadened the movement's base to include working-class women and brought their commitments to women's economic independence, women's labor issues, and democratic socialism to the attention of more mainstream suffragists. In 1911, Whitehead helped to found and lead two socialist-feminist suffrage organizations that were part of the broad coalition in Southern California that helped win suffrage for women in the state. On behalf of the Socialist Suffrage Club, Whitehead organized an extensive house-to-house canvass for the vote in working-class precincts of greater Los Angeles, in coordination with the county coalition. At the same time, she worked with the Wage Earners' Suffrage League in pioneering open-air meetings and street speaking in working class and union neighborhoods. Whitehead reveled in these modern and militant methods of agitation, new in women's activism, as she advertised the excitement of "talking to a big crowd" and of "assailing the enemy on its own doorstep." Whitehead also wrote and produced a play, "The Arrest of Suffrage," which highlighted many features of the 1911 suffrage campaign: the fears of anti-suffragists, the potential of cross-class collaboration, working women's need of the vote, and the defiance of lady-like norms (and local statute) embodied in outdoor agitation.
California Department of Health and Welfare. California Death Index, 1905-1939. Ancestry.com. Accessed June 28, 2019.
California Department of Public Heath. California, County Birth, Marriage, and Death Records, 1849-1980. Ancestry.com. Accessed June 28, 2019.
Downing, A[gnes] H[alpen]. "Ethel Whitehead." Socialist Woman 2, no. 15 (August 1908), 2.
"Ethel Whitehead: Organizer." California Social-Democrat, June 15, 1912.
Katz, Sherry J. "A Politics of Coalition: Socialist Women and the California Suffrage Movement, 1900-1911." In One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement, edited by Marjorie Spruill Wheeler, 245-262. Troutdale, OR: NewSage Press, 1995.
Katz, Sherry Jeanne. "Dual Commitments: Feminism, Socialism, and Women's Political Activism in California, 1890-1920." PhD diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1991.
Katz, Sherry J. "Excavating Radical Women in Progressive Era California." In Contesting Archives: Finding Women in the Sources, edited by Nupur Chaudhuri, Sherry J. Katz, and Mary Elizabeth Perry, 89-106. Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2010.
United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1930. Prescott, Yavapai, Arizona, p. 48, enumeration district 0022, FHL microfilm: 2339798. Ancestry.com. Accessed June 28, 2019.
United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Twelfth Census of the United States, 1900. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1900. Pasadena Precinct 1, Los Angeles, California, p. 15, enumeration district 0113, FHL microfilm: 1230091. Ancestry.com. Accessed June 28, 2019.
Whitehead, Ethel. Letter to [Mabel] Barnes, June 1929. Socialist Party of America Papers, 1897-1964. Edited by Elizabeth H. Murphey. Glen Rock, N.J.: Microfilming Corporation of America, 1975. Microfilm, reel 12.
Whitehead, Ethel. "The Arrest of Suffrage." In Treacherous Texts: An Anthology of U.S. Suffrage Literature, 1846-1946, edited by Mary Chapman and Angela Mills, 200-205. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2011. Originally published as Ethel Whitehead. "The Arrest of Suffrage." Progressive Woman 6, no. 64 (October 1912): 14-15.
Whitehead, Ethel. "The Socialists' Fight." California Social-Democrat, September 9, 1911.
Whitehead, Ethel. The Way of Happiness: A Drama in Two Acts (And Other Plays). Girard, Kansas, The Progressive Woman Publishing Company, 1911.
Whitehead, Ethel. "The Woman's Movement in California." Progressive Woman 2, no. 24 (May 1909): 7.
Whitehead, Ethel. "What About Woman's Suffrage." Progressive Woman, 3, no. 35 (April 1910): 4.
Whitehead, Ethel. When the Cry Was Stilled: A Fairy Story Play for Young Children. Chicago, Illinois: Socialist Party, Young People's Department, [1900-1915].
For more information and primary sources on/by Whitehead consult my dissertation and articles.