Excerpt From Under the Almond Trees

From Chapter 8, Ellen 1871final cover

Yellow has always been a color that is sunny, bright, and optimistic. No coincidence then that the suffrage movement has adopted it. This afternoon the hall we rent at the new Unity Church glows yellow. Early spring roses and daffodils, from the gardens of the ladies assembled here, fill tables covered in yellow cloth. The Women’s Suffrage Association gathers in style, as they have for the past year.

Issues raise their heads and roar, each one clouding the main cause of the vote. I support temperance and abolition, but I long to vote. In Santa Cruz, my Women’s Suffrage Association works with the churches and the other ladies’ clubs to bring progress to each of our causes. There is a lot of work to do, but at least suffrage now has a face in our fair town.

“Good evening, Mrs. VanValkenburgh.” The speaker is younger than I am, but a married woman. “So glad to be a part of this fine effort.”

“Yes, Mrs. Hihn, thank you again for coming,” I tell her with a polite smile.

“She says that every month,” L’Amie, standing beside me, whispers.

“Yes, dear sister, but her husband is a member of the County Assembly and has real power to help us.” For two years L’Amie has been back at my side where she belongs.

A few men, mostly husbands of the members, sit in a row of chairs along the back wall. I wish I could measure the depth of their devotion to the cause so as to determine if and when they are willing to act. I fear most are merely waiting for their wives.

Continuing to scan the room, I spot Marion pouring tea at the refreshment table. My oldest daughter has excellent posture, poise, and erudition, and her character is above reproach. Not bad for fifteen years old. When Mama passed three years ago, she left us money that keeps us housed and fed and pays for the simple but stylish dresses we wear. It is not enough, however, to fill the space she left in my heart or to attract a suitor for Marion. My political views are even more of a detriment, and now she has allied herself with the suffragists, possibly sealing her fate as a radical spinster. Her entire life has been molded by strong women with strong ideas, though, and I am proud of the young woman she is becoming.

The president’s gavel brings the meeting to order, and I see Mrs. Hihn hurry to sit with Mrs. Kirby and Mrs. Blackburn and Mrs. Manor. They are the elite of Santa Cruz society, leaders of every civic group that supports the arts and the downtrodden. Their presence is a benediction, but I need warriors. They’ve not yet proven themselves as such.

“Hundreds of those freed negroes have arrived in Santa Cruz County,” our president, Mrs. Howay, declares with just the right mix of pride and horror.

Having yielded my year-long presidency to the pretty woman with more vision than action, I stifle a groan. Abolition of slavery is a victory, even if it means former slaves will be our neighbors. The women here don’t all agree. Heads nod, but are accompanied by nervous titters. I am tired of nervous titters. I am tired of head nods, too. We must do something to make our struggle visible to the community.

“Actually, the group was not that large.” Marion’s interruption draws attention, and a roomful of skirts rustle as everyone turns toward her. “They joined a negro group already in Watsonville. That is not the issue.”

“She’s magnificent, Ellen,” L’Amie whispers.

I agree. Marion is afire with youthful passion, idealism at its best, clad in one of her first grown-up floor-length skirts.

“What, pray tell, is the issue?” Mrs. Howay’s tone is frostier than it should be. I frown in her direction. All other eyes are on my daughter, who reminds me of L’Amie at the same age.

“The Fifteenth Amendment has been ratified. Those negroes will be voting on our new trustee.” Silence follows her words, and I know Marion has captured them. Everyone’s face reflects outraged horror at the idea of negro men being able to vote but not fine upstanding female citizens. The trustee election will put a new member on the board that runs our county and our town.

“Whatever will we do?” A theatrical gasp punctuates Mrs. Howay’s words. It’s a blatant attempt to retake control of the meeting. It doesn’t work.

Marion is young. She has made her observation, but has no idea what to do now. She looks to me, panic starting to show on her face. Last year, when I started this organization, I was proud to serve as its first president. The ladies are eager to attend the meetings, but they dither about like a flock of chickens with a dog in the pen—lots of noise and motion, but no progress. They read the newspapers from New York and San Francisco. They held a grand party when Wyoming women won the vote in 1867, and they elected Mrs. Howay for our second president. Clearly they are lost. They need a leader. I step forward.

“The Fourteenth Amendment clearly states that all persons born in the United States are citizens. The Fifteenth Amendment prohibits the government from denying citizens the right to vote.” At my words Marion smiles with relief, and the others are listening. “I think we should take advantage of that and register to vote in the next election.”

A cacophony of clucking erupts.

“But those amendments were meant for the negroes!”

“Can we do that?”

“The Sentinel would support us.”

“The Surf would ridicule us!”

“My husband would not approve.”

That last comment deadens the room. More than one of the ladies present agrees, or suspects it’s true. I’m not sure how many will risk disapproval that will rock their homes, but I must continue. “We can sit here and sip tea, whining about what we want, or we can go get it. Some of our opponents say that women wouldn’t vote if they had the right. We can refute that. The election is in April. That gives us a month.”

Mrs. Howay proves she has worth. “An excellent idea, Mrs. VanValkenburgh. Shall we vote on the idea?”

A motion is quickly made and seconded. It passes. We’ll be showing up to vote at the trustee election. Somber faces look at me.

“All of us?” I ask.

“I don’t think that will happen,” a reluctant voice near Marion says.

“Maybe we can elect a representative,” suggests Mrs. Howay.

Everyone’s already looking at me. They continue to do so as my name is suggested, a motion made and seconded, and the vote taken. Not long ago, L’Amie would have been included, but she is to be married later this week. She will be on her wedding trip during my attempt to register for the vote.

“Mrs. Ellen VanValkenburgh will be our representative. She will present herself to the registrar’s office for the next election.” I can’t decide if Mrs. Howay is proud of me or relieved they didn’t ask this of her.

A wail from the back corner announces that my younger children are bored with the proceedings and beginning to bicker. At nine, Henry’s main source of amusement seems to be eliciting a shriek from his twelve-year-old sister, usually with a pinch. Ellie obliges, her blue eyes outraged. Marion hurries over to chastise her brother and soothe her sister, but the mood is broken and the meeting adjourns.

 

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