Immigrant, suffragist, reproductive rights pioneer never gave up

KNOW OUR HISTORY

Hillary Clinton’s historic run for U.S. President and popular vote victory didn’t just come out of nowhere. She and all the other women who are so much a part of our politics stand on the shoulders of the bold, creative organizers who came before them — women who never let a few losses stop them. Women with names we should know but probably don’t. One of these is Frances Nacke Noel.

Born in Germany, Frances Noel came to the United States in 1893. While working in a factory in Colorado, where it was already legal for women to vote, she was handed a pre-marked ballot by her female boss and told to sign it. When she asked why, she was told that young women were not capable of intelligent voting on their own. She soon became a Socialist, inspired by the work of Eugene Debs.

Noel eventually settled in Los Angeles, where, in 1896, the all-male voters of California had defeated a women’s suffrage initiative. There were sharp divisions and suspicion between working class women and middle class, educated “club” women that kept them from working together. Noel aimed to change that.

She went to work organizing around several issues: working conditions and pay, access to childcare, reproductive rights, child labor, as well as the vote, thus uniting a wide range of men and women. In 1911, women’s suffrage was again on the ballot.

Noel and her allies in the Wage Earners Suffrage League had organized throughout California, but on election night, major newspapers reported they had lost. However, when the final tally came in from small rural communities and working class neighborhoods, the measure won by more than 3,500 votes. Women’s suffrage became the law in California.

Now that women could vote, Noel went to work registering working class women in San Francisco. She stressed the importance of cross-gender solidarity and argued with men on the street about the importance of the vote for women. 

Two years later, Noel and her allies in the labor movement were able to pass a minimum wage law in Los Angeles, benefiting both men and women. That same year she narrowly missed being elected to the city council on the Socialist ticket.

One of Noel’s most creative contributions to the Los Angeles labor movement, however, was establishing Camp Aliso, a working woman’s respite offering “wholesome recreation.” It sought to bring together club women and wage-earning women, promising a cheap vacation and an escape from the demands of the household and the workplace.

Noel’s later work focused mainly on reproductive rights. In 1928, she helped set up one of the first birth control clinics in the nation. Noel died in 1963, at age 90, after a life filled with stirring victories and crushing defeats. But she never quit, and she inspires us to do the same.

— By Bill Morgan, a member of the CFT Labor in the Schools Committee who taught elementary students in San Francisco for 34 years.

» Read more about the fight for women’s suffrage in the new labor history of California, From Mission to Microchip, by Fred Glass, CFT Communications Director. Buy the book at UC Press ($35 paperback, $70 cloth). Use source code 16M4197 at checkout for a 30 percent discount.