Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Carrie Whelan, 1862-1937
By Jillian Wertzberger, History Major, University of California, Santa Barbara
California Equal Suffrage Association, Corresponding Secretary
Oakland Woman Suffrage Association, President, Recording Secretary
Seventh Ward Political Equality Club of Oakland, President
Carrie Adelaide Whelan was born on May 22, 1862 in Sacramento Canyon, California, to Alanson Whelan and Antoinette Hunter. Her parents were both from New York and her father made a living as a carpenter. She never married, but lived with her widowed sister, Ella, for much of her adult life. She did not attend university, but instead started working in her late teens as a cashier in the insurance industry, a position which she occupied until the 1920s.
In 1896, at the age of 34, she became the recording secretary of the California Equal Suffrage Association. That same year, the Association pushed to have an amendment passed in the California State Constitution giving women the right to vote. The amendment nearly passed, but it was defeated by San Francisco county and Alameda county, where Whelan lived. The defeat was due to pressure from alcohol manufacturers who feared voting women would support temperance and prohibition. However, the near win sparked a spree of local community organizing in order to sway as many Alameda representatives as possible. Whelan became president of the Seventh Ward Political Equality Club in Oakland in 1899. The club met regularly at Whelan's Oakland residence and focused on educating community members and activists alike on the issue of women's suffrage. Members discussed and debated articles and news concerning suffrage in order to make the strongest possible argument to naysayers in their community.
In 1900, she became the Corresponding Secretary of the Equal Suffrage Association where she communicated with the likes of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who asked for her help in establishing a press bureau for the National American Woman Suffrage Association. It was in this position that she traveled to Washington, D.C., to give a speech at the NAWSA national conference in 1902. She recounted the local organizing of the Oakland Suffrage Club. The Oakland Club, of which she later became president, made progress in all realms of women's rights. It secured a salary for "police matrons," women who aided women and children in police custody. The Suffrage Association also capitalized on the Progressive idea of women as moral leaders in the public sphere as an advocate for child labor laws, the raising of the age of consent, and consumer rights. In 1906, she helped organize a strategy convention in San Francisco that aimed to win support in small towns and Southern California. As a volunteer, she used her expertise as a cashier and recording secretary as a bookkeeper and stenographer of the operation. The strategy of winning over small towns and expanding activism into Southern California worked: in 1911, just five years later, California passed Proposition 4, which amended the state constitution and granted women the right to vote.
After her sister died in 1921, Whelan moved out of downtown Oakland and began working in a beauty parlor as a cosmetician. She befriended Australian writer and feminist Stella Miles Franklin who described meeting Whelan as an introduction to the national "can do" attitude of America. The two exchanged letters from 1929 until Whelan died on November 9, 1937, in Alameda, California at the age of 75.
San Francisco Call, 16 Dec. 1899, p. 11
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