COLUMN: Women received right to vote less than a century ago

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By JIM ADKINS, Guest Columnist

The presidential election year of 2008 was an important juncture in this nation’s history; for the first time it was actually possible that a woman could be elected president. Women have come a long way in the past 91 years. Before that time they weren’t even permitted to vote.

The battle for women’s suffrage in America can be traced back to 1820. Fanny Wright in her book, Course of Popular Lectures, advocated women being given the right to vote, the abolition of slavery, birth control and liberal divorce laws. As fiery as her plea was, it fell largely upon deaf ears.

It wasn’t until January 1918, when President Wilson stated that women’s suffrage was needed as a war measure, that the idea took hold in Washington. In 1919 the United States House of Representatives and the Senate passed the 19th Amendment and it became law when it was ratified by 36 states Aug. 18, 1920, finally giving women the right to vote in the United States.

Women’s rights proponents were enthused as American females turned out at the polls and finally had a say in how the nation was led. Many, however, would be surprised to learn that the first woman to vote in an election in the U.S. had actually done so more than half a century earlier, in 1868.

Charlotte Parkhurst was born in Lebanon, N.H. in 1812. Abandoned by her parents shortly thereafter, the girl was raised in an orphanage. It was a difficult and cruel place for a young girl to grow up and as soon as Charlotte felt that she could make it on her own, she escaped.

The authorities searched for her for a time, but to no avail. The sly teen disguised herself as a boy and before long the fruitless search was ended.

While taking the guise of a male, Charlotte realized that, as unfair as it seemed, employment opportunities were much more plentiful for men than for women.

Determined to work and make her own way, she decided to continue living as a male for as long as she could get away with it. She changed her name to Charley and to her delight and surprise, the charade worked for the rest of her life.

Charley adopted masculine mannerisms and took up smoking cigars and drinking and even playing cards and throwing dice occasionally.

After finding that she had a special talent with horses, she became a team driver and moved west after gold was discovered, settling in California as a coachman. She wore loose-fitting trousers and shirts, and was of medium stature (5 feet 7 inches) with a high-pitched voice and the weathered skin of someone who works outdoors, although beardless. An accident with a horse left a scar on her face and blinded one eye. She wore a black patch over the damaged eye and became known as “one-eyed Charley.”

She always found work, and for a time drove from Santa Cruz to San Jose for the Pioneer Line, which was taken over by Wells Fargo and Co. in 1866. She handled the reins as well as anyone and better than most and passengers were happy to pay the $4.00 fare with Charley driving.

She was considered a very kind and likeable person who always preferred to sleep in the stable with the horses rather than with the other drivers. She handled horses as well as any man, and a gun, too, when necessary.

On at least one occasion she thwarted a stagecoach robbery and killed the masked thief in the process. The appreciative stage company awarded her a gold watch, which she wore with pride.

In 1868, Ulysses S. Grant was running for president and Charley registered to vote and in the November elections became the first woman to do so, 52 years before the 19th amendment gave women that right.

Bothered by rheumatism, she retired and lived in a cabin during her final years. Raising cattle and a few chickens, she grew old alone. It was not until she died of cancer Dec. 29,1879, that her secret was revealed.

A doctor who was preparing the corpse for burial discovered Charley Parkhurst’s true gender, which he revealed to a startled world. Friends and associates alike were dumbstruck.

Charlotte Parkhurst is buried in Pioneer Cemetery, in Watsonville, Calif.

The Pajaro Valley Historical Association discovered Charlotte’s gravesite in 1954 and reburied her remains under a historical marker the next year.