Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Martha Pearce
By Erica Bade, Political Science and History Major, University of California, Santa Barbara and Thomas Dublin, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Binghamton University
Lawyer; Corresponding Secretary of the Equity Club; State Officer for the Women's Christian Temperance Union.
Martha Pearce is known to us today entirely through the two dozen San Francisco newspaper accounts that tracked her intense contributions to the California woman suffrage movement between March 1909 and January 1912. Her name is common enough that one cannot identify her uniquely among the Martha Pierces (or Pearces) recorded in the 1910 federal manuscript census for northern California.
Pearce's first suffrage contributions that survive today are two OpEd pieces that appeared in the San Francisco Examiner in March-April 1909: "Woman's Gain by Suffrage" and "Intellectual Recognition Is Wanted." She makes varied arguments for the benefits to come with the women's vote, including the benefits that will come to the working woman. She notes, in particular, "She will gradually become able to demand an equal wage with the man who works beside her, and will in time cease to be, as she is now to a certain extent, 'scab labor.'" She anticipates as well that with women voting, California would "do away with those laws that discriminate against us purely because we are women."
Martha Pearce built on her intellectual support for woman suffrage through the activities of the Equal Suffrage League. In September 1910 she spoke at a League meeting, calling for legislation to assure honest weights and measures in the sale of milk and butter in a presentation titled "Legislation of Special interest to Women." She attended additional meetings described in accounts on December 11 and Feb. 19. At the latter meeting Mary Gamage, president of the San Francisco Equal Suffrage League, outlined the upcoming campaign to amend the constitution recently approved by the state legislature. The State League resolved to open up a campaign headquarters and placed Martha Pearce in charge.
In August Martha Pearce joined Ida Finney Mackrille of the College Equal Suffrage League on an organizing campaign in the Sacramento Valley. "Two Women Who Are Organizing Suffrage Clubs" was the headline above photos of the two women in the San Francisco Call for August 13. In September Pearce began a second trip, this time with state Equal Suffrage League president, Elizabeth Lowe Watson. An account in the Marysville Evening Democrat described Mrs. Pearce as "a refined, gentle little woman--a type of the new suffragist; quiet, but determined." The story notes that she was accompanied by her husband on the speaking tour. The Oakland Tribune noted that Pearce and Watson planned to speak "in a score of cities" on their September tour. The Oroville Daily Register gave extensive coverage to the meeting in that town, noting that several hundred people attended and that Mrs. Watson was "forceful and eloquent."
The California Equal Suffrage Association set up a Publicity Committee and submitted accounts to San Francisco newspapers that would otherwise be unlikely to cover the campaign. Mary Fairbrother prepared a press release, "Feminists Touring Valley," ending with an upbeat prognosis of the success of the effort: "It is no longer a question as to whether we shall win, but the ideal, is now to roll up such a majority for our amendment on October 10th that no other State cam possibly lose next year." The majority in the end was slim—less than 4,000 votes out of almost 250,000 cast--but a majority it was and California women had won the vote, making California the sixth state in the nation at this point to do so.
The State Equal Suffrage Association met in January 1912 to celebrate their success and formulate plans for the future. Martha Pearce reported back to the body as chair of the speakers' committee: "The State Association provided speakers for every town and city in every county north of Tehachapi, where the Club Women's Franchise League and the College Equal Suffrage League had not provided speakers. No salaries were paid to speakers, and the committee conducted its entire campaign work at an expense of only $390."
The meeting voted that the association would stay in existence with a two-part agenda moving forward. They would aid suffrage efforts in other states and would work to achieve concrete legislative gains for women in California now that women were armed with voting rights. The meeting elected officers for the coming year, including Mrs. Martha Pearce as corresponding secretary.
Martha Pearce remains something of a cipher to us today but her work is not a mystery. She was one of hundreds of grassroots suffragists who remain unknown today but whose quiet determination changed American history.
Martha Pearce, "Woman's Gain by Suffrage," San Francisco Examiner, 27 March 1909, p.22.
Martha Pearce, "Intellectual Recognition Is Wanted," San Francisco Examiner, 22 April 1909, p. 20.
"Women Will Create Honest Man's Job," San Francisco Examiner, 15 Sept. 1910, p. 6.
"Suffrage Leaders Attend Luncheon," San Francisco Examiner, 11 Dec. 1910, p. 4.
"Suffragists Meet to Extend Thanks," San Francisco Chronicle, 19 Feb. 1911, p. 36.
"Suffrage Leaders Plan Busy Trips of Organization," San Francisco Call, 13 Aug. 1911, p. 31.
"Noted Suffragist Is Here on Important Business," Marysville Evening Democrat, 15 August 1911, p. 1.
"Women to Speak in a Score of Cities," Oakland Tribune, 4 Sept. 1911, p. 5.
"Suffrage Meeting Drew Enthusiastic Gathering," Oroville Daily Register, 12 Sept. 1911, p. 1.
Mary Fairbrother, "Feminists Touring Valley," San Francisco Examiner, 14 Sept. 1911, p. 8.
"California Equal Suffrage Association Holds Its Annual Convention With State Wide Representation." San Francisco Call, Volume 111, Number 37, 6 Jan. 1912.
"Suffragists of State Discuss National Politics," San Francisco Examiner, 6 Jan. 1912, p. 3.
"Will Aid Other States in Their Struggle for Enfranchisement of Women," San Francisco Chronicle, 7 Jan. 1912, p. 45.
National American Women Suffrage Association. The History of Woman Suffrage, edited by Ida Husted Harper, et al.. Vol. VI. (New York: J.J. Little and Ives Company, 1992). [LINK]
Gayle Gullett, Becoming Citizens: The Emergence and Development of the California Women's Movement, 1880-1911 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000).