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L. A.'s Unheralded Pioneer Women : Historians Document Their Contributions, Influences

September 20, 1987|DIANE AINSWORTH

\o7 In 1911, California women won the right to vote, and 91-year-old Caroline Severance was escorted "in a queenly procession" to the Los Angeles office of the Registrar of Voters, where she became the city's first registered woman voter.

Harriet Russell Strong, the first woman admitted to the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, came up with a proposal to use Colorado River water to irrigate part of the desert land in the southeastern part of California in 1917. The concept was pursued and incorporated in the 1928 Swing-Johnson bill, which provided for the Colorado River development.

Carlotta Bass, editor of the California Eagle and president of the local United Negro Improvement Assn., formed the Pacific Coast Negro Improvement Assn. and joined middle-class blacks and whites in the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.

Aviation's formative years in Southern California had turned into a golden age. Radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson is reported to have "donned a leather cap with goggles" and scattered leaflets from high above the city of San Diego. And young Amelia Earhart practiced her "touch and go's" in a field of wild mustard flowers where the May Co. Wilshire stands today.

Information reported in

"California Women: A History" In lavish, luminous Los Angeles, self-made city, land of unfettered beauty, women were soaring into a new age.

Many of the significant contributions and influences of women in the development of the West have been documented by Joan Jensen, a professor of history at New Mexico University, and Gloria R. Lothrop, a history professor at Cal State Polytechnic University Pomona. Their research has yielded "California Women: A History" (Boyd & Fraser Publishing, San Francisco).

Jensen remembers well the days she spent growing up in the San Gabriel Valley. She lived near the old San Gabriel Mission, and for years, toured the grounds, learning about the ancient Gabrielino Indians, their acorn harvests, spirit worlds and violent clashes with the Spanish missionaries.

The more she delved into California's past, the more she became convinced that women had been underplayed in the birth of Los Angeles, and particularly the San Gabriel Valley.

In the late 1970s, she came across the words to back up her position: one of the earliest firsthand accounts of the life of Eulalia Arrila de Perez, who was llavera, keeper of the keys, at the San Gabriel Mission from 1821 to 1835.

De Perez' proud words, taken down longhand by an oral historian in 1877, echoed through a century of forgotten history.

"She told her story (at age 97) to Thomas Savage, saying, 'It was I, with my daughters, who made the chocolate, the oil, the candy, the lemonade,' " Jensen said. " 'I made so much lemonade that some of it was even bottled and sent to Spain.' There's a strong sense of pride and recognition in those words about her own abilities."

The San Gabriel Valley was the cradle of Los Angeles' birth and home to a great many prominent Hispanic and Native American women centuries before the city's founding 206 years ago.

Women's contributions to the growth and development of the West have long been ignored or simply lost in the annals of time, according to the Jensen-Lothrop book.

"We're creating a new kind of written history but the documents we're finding have been there all along," said Jensen, who has studied and taught 20th-Century U. S. history and women's history for nearly 25 years. "When other historians reworked that material, they tended to take gender out of it . . . so that women's accounts became homogenized and deconstructed."

"Many of the early Western historians were male writers," Lothrop said. "They wrote about what they knew and what they considered important from their frame of reference. They also went to the most accessible records, using treaties of war, business records, court proceedings and legislative proceedings . . . according to early accounts, women seemed to be invisible."

For instance, by 1890 more than 900,000 women lived west of the Mississippi River, she said, yet no more than a dozen have ever been catalogued. In other instances, women's letters and diaries were buried in collections indexed under a man's name.

"The shady ladies of the West," Lothrop said, "the outlaws and quick shooters were the only women who gained enough notoriety to be indexed.

"Those were the women given individuality in the traditional treatment of the American West," she said. "If you examine them in more depth, you'll see that they're all women who on the one hand were unique but who also excelled within male parameters."

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