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Petaluma’s Haskell a leader for women’s voting rights

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On March 18, 1870, Abigail Goodwin Haskell arrived in Sacramento from Petaluma to address the California State Assembly. Having recently been elected president of the newly formed California Woman Suffrage Association, she carried with her a petition signed by 3,000 Californians, 400 of them from Petaluma, calling for an amendment granting women the right to vote.

As the first woman to address a select committee of the state assembly, she got straight to the point: “We claim to be recognized as citizens of this free Republic!”

It was not a request but a demand, one that continues to resonate today, 150 years later, with the persistent campaign to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

The 12 months leading up to Haskell’s historic Sacramento appearance was something of a watershed moment for the women’s rights movement. It began with news that Wyoming and Utah had become the first U.S. territories to award women the vote, followed a few months later by the formation of the National Woman Suffrage Association by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

In December of 1869, Haskell, Petaluma’s first female public school principal, called a meeting of activists at her “Rose Cottage” home on the southeast corner of 6th and B streets to form the Sonoma County Woman Suffrage Association. Many who responded were involved with Haskell in local temperance fraternities, but a handful also shared her belief in Spiritualism.

Inspired in part by the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish philosopher whose revelatory claims into Christian theology were buttressed with visions, trances, and dreams, Spiritualism asserted that all of life was spiritual and an expression of the divine. Its main attraction was a belief in the immortality of the soul, which, at a time when early death was commonplace, offered solace to many, including Abigail Haskell and her husband Barnabus, who had lost their young daughter.

Spiritualism’s other attraction was its rebellion against authority. Direction didn’t come from ministers but from mediums or trance speakers — the most prominent of whom were female — called to their positions by spirits of the dead. Freed from the yoke of traditional values and institutions, Spiritualists endorsed some of the more radical reforms of the 19th century, including temperance, marriage reform, labor reform, children’s rights, pacifism, and socialism.

Spiritualism helped many women find their voice, producing not only the first large group of female religious leaders, but also the first sizable number of women to address large public gatherings, away from the hierarchical environment of churches and the patriarchal environment of the home. The early California suffrage movement relied almost exclusively on trance speakers to recruit followers.

Haskell and her husband Barnabus, who owned a dry goods store in town, were longtime members of the Swedenborg Church which, with its ministers and doctrines, placed them on the conservative end of the Spiritualist spectrum. But Haskell believed with Spiritualists that obtaining the vote was merely the first step in securing equal rights for women.

Having devoted her life to teaching — one of the few professions open to women in the mid-19th century — she championed women’s access to higher education.

Speaking before the state assembly committee, she cited her experience of having attended high school in Connecticut with boys preparing to enter nearby Harvard or Yale. Although equally qualified, she said she was prevented from joining them “on the basis of my sex alone, in accordance with the absurd customs and time-honored usages of the past.”

She equated such practices with those of a Muslim harem.

Haskell’s efforts in Sacramento failed, as did other California suffrage efforts throughout the 1870s, blocked by the then Southern-affiliated, conservative Democratic Party, which functioned much like today’s Republican Party, which has blocked passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.

In 1879, Frances Willard assumed the helm of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Declaring a motto of “do everything,” she expanded the Union’s mission to include suffrage and other social reforms. Inspired by her vision, Abigail Haskell, along with Mary E. Cogdon and other Petaluma women, formed California’s first chapter of the WCTU. With Haskell serving as chapter president, they hosted the inaugural convention of the California WCTU in Petaluma.

In 1883, her health failing, Abigail Haskell welcomed Willard to town, where she lectured to a packed house. A year later Haskell died at age 64. Befitting a fallen crusader, she was conveyed to her gravesite at Cypress Hill Cemetery in a white coffin atop a white hearse of white plumes and drapes, drawn by six white horses.

(Petaluma historian John Sheehy is author of On a River Winding Home: Stories and Visions of the Petaluma River Watershed.)

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