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Women in Sacramento

Q. When was the first woman graduate of Boalt Hall elected to the California Legislature? --AL, Oakland

Esto Broughton
Esto Broughton

A. For over half a century the California Legislature was an all-male club, but on January 6, 1919 the first four women took their seats in the Assembly – three Republicans and one Democrat. The lone Democrat was Esto Broughton, Class of 1916. And she didn’t take long to shake things up.

On March 23, 1919 the San Francisco Chronicle alerted its readers:

“The lawyers in the Legislature are between the devil and the deep blue sea over the community property bills (A.B. 696, 697 and 698) by Assemblywoman Esto Broughton of Modesto. These bills are demanded by 90,000 organized women and [the lawyers] are frightened half to death over the effect of the legislation on business.”

The issue was hard-earned money, and whether or not a businessman would be allowed to control where half of his went.

“If a husband builds up a business worth a million dollars, in which his wife has a community interest of one-half, he does not want her to dispose of her half upon death to strangers, or her relatives, or her mother-in-law, none of whom knows anything about the business, but who, under the law, will have an equal voice with him in the conduct of it.”

Sacramento’s Good Ol’ Boys, the Chronicle warned, had no choice but to listen to the women who now joined them on the floor of the Assembly, and to address their concerns about a wife’s share in community property. The women were determined and unstoppable, and could well cause even greater mischief if they were ignored.

“They want to make the whole thing equal, and it is up to the Legislature to do it. Just how the brains of the Senate and Assembly are going to work it out is a matter that will require some study. They have the feeling that unless something is done at this session with the three bills, the women will go out to the people at the next general election with an initiative measure and may make it a lot more drastic.”

Broughton did not limit herself to traditional women’s issues, becoming the Assembly’s point person on the subject of agricultural irrigation (not surprising for a representative from the Central Valley). She advocated special jobs programs for veterans returning from World War I, and in 1921 spearheaded a consumer protection effort to make it illegal to sell cheap artificially-favored drinks as though they were real orange juice or lemonade. In this she continued to ruffle the feathers of some of her male colleagues in Sacramento. “Miss Broughton’s plan will doubtless appeal to the Legislature as being too drastic,” the LA Times warned, “and is probably in conflict with existing Federal pure food regulations, but her action in bringing it to the front focuses attention upon a situation that is a challenge to citrus growers and public alike.”

California’s election laws allowed candidates to register as a member of multiple parties, and while Broughton ran as a Democrat in 1918, she listed herself in 1921 as a Prohibitionist and a Socialist, and in 1923 as a Democrat, Republican and Prohibitionist. In the latter two campaigns she ran unopposed. In her final campaign in 1925, she declared herself a Democrat, Republican, Prohibitionist and Socialist, and having covered all the bases, she beat an Independent candidate by a handy margin.

When Esto Broughton died in 1956 her obituary in the Los Angeles Times was surprisingly brief. With a dateline of Modesto it read in its entirety: “Miss Esto Broughton, 66, one of the first women elected to the State Assembly, died here today. From 1928 to 1931, she was publicity director of the Pasadena Playhouse. She served four Assembly terms beginning in 1918.”

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12/16/2013