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Petaluma’s first woman voter

One unexpected victim of the current pandemic may be voting rights. Given the opposition in some quarters to voting by mail, potential budget cuts to the U.S. Post Office, and a likely shortage of poll workers, especially those over the age of 60 at heightened risk from the virus, many Americans are wondering if they will be able to exercise their vote this fall, including those who have never had to face systemic voter suppression.

It’s an ironic twist to a year commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment which extended nationally to women the right to vote, a right that until this year many may have come to take for granted.

In California, woman suffrage occurred nine years before ratification of the 19th Amendment. On Oct. 13, 1911, three days after passage of the state proposition granting women the vote, the first woman to register in Sonoma County was 24-year-old Agatha Starke of Petaluma. An ardent suffrage enthusiast, she represented a new, upcoming generation of working women.

A third-generation Petaluman — her grandfather Augustus Starke was of one of the town’s earliest settlers in 1850 after finding success in the gold fields — Agatha attended Santa Rosa Business College, graduating in 1910. Her first job out of college was as a cub reporter for the Petaluma Argus, where one of her older sisters, Isabel, ran the business office.

At the turn of the century, journalism increasingly offered career paths to women, as publishers learned that news or features written from a feminine perspective — not merely mimicking male journalists — sold newspapers. After a year as a reporter, Agatha took over her sister’s position as office accountant when Isabel left for another job, finding office work preferable to covering the town news beat.

After California’s Proposition 4 narrowly passed with 50.7% of the vote on Oct. 10, women across the state scrambled to become the first in their city or county to register to vote. On Oct. 12, the Argus staff learned that a lawyer named Estelle Kirk had been the first woman to register in San Diego County and perhaps the state.

The next day, the staff, led by editor James Olmsted, persuaded Agatha, whom the Argus described as “plucky,” to take up the challenge. Across the street from the newspaper’s Main Street office, Spotswood & Lovejoy, a cigar store (site of Della Fattoria today), served as an agent for voter registration. Escorted into the establishment by a reporter — cigar stores at the time were male lairs — Agatha walked up to proprietor Robert Spotswood and “meekly” said, “I would like to register.”

Spotswood pulled out a blank registration form and began asking Agatha for her pertinent details. Unmarried, she lived with her widowed mother and eight of her nine siblings at 610 E Street, which her father purchased shortly before his death in 1902. When the question of age came up, Agatha answered promptly, although the reporter noted, “the popular accountant at the Argus is not very aged.”

Returning to the Argus office, Agatha reported there had been nothing horrible about the experience, and she was pleased with having been persuaded to make history. The Argus staff then went about documenting the event, asking the linotype operator to work late to get the item into the next day’s edition.

However, it turned out that Agatha jumped the gun on her registration. Although passed on Oct. 10, Proposition 4 did not go into effect until Jan. 1, 1912. That meant her initial registration was invalid, and she would have to re-register once the cigar store opened after New Year’s Day. Unfortunately, she took an extended leave from her job at that time, possibly due to illness, leaving Jennie Colvin, a woman from Santa Rosa who operated the Alpha Rooming House with her husband, Reverend Peter Colvin, to officially lay claim to being Sonoma County’s first registered woman voter.

Four months later, in April, 1912, California women went to the polls for the first time.

In 1916, Agatha Starke left her job at the Argus to marry William Kaiser of San Francisco. She moved back to Petaluma to be with her extended family in 1964. She died at the age of 84 on Oct. 21, 1971, almost 60 years to the day that she first registered to vote, and just a week after the U.S. House of Representatives approved the Equal Rights Amendment for ratification by the states, an initiative originally launched by suffragists in 1923 — and one that remains ongoing.

(Consulting historian Katherine J. Rinehart is co-curator of the suffrage exhibit opening virtually at the Petaluma History Museum & Library on Aug. 26; John Sheehy is a local historian.)

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