First Ballot Cast: Grace G. Madden Votes

While we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, it is worth noting that many women had won the right to vote in their states prior to national suffrage. As Robyn Fishman notes in Preserving the Protest: The Scrapbook of Mary A. Holmes, “California women began to agitate for their own suffrage rights in 1896. The first pass at obtaining the franchise failed in California....In 1911, the legislators of California did something unexpected. Despite the previous failure in 1896, the suffrage issue was put on the ballot for the male voters of California to decide.” However, unlike in 1896, the proposition passed on October 10, 1911, granting California women voting rights.

Women in Los Angeles did not have to wait long to cast their first ballot. A municipal election was held in Los Angeles on December 5, 1911. In addition to deciding a runoff election for mayor, voters would also be electing city council members and other city officials.

The Los Angeles Herald took note of the first woman to cast her vote in this election in an article that was titled, “Receives First Ballot and Places It in Box Minute After Polls Open.”

Grace Madden votes photograph (Scrapbook 112)
This photograph was published in the Los Angeles Herald on December 5, 1911 along with a story of Grace Madden voting at 6:01 am. (Scrapbook 112, p 60)

The article reads as follows:

“To Miss Grace G. Madden of 1403 ½ Wright street belongs the honor of probably being the first woman to cast a vote in an election in the city of Los Angeles. Miss Madden cast ballot No. 1 in precinct No. 144 in the polling place at Georgia and Seventeenth streets at exactly 6:01 o’clock.

Miss Madden arrived at the polling booth shortly after 5:30 this morning and was the second in line waiting to cast their ballots. When on the stroke of 6 the election officials took their places and announced that the polls were open the gentleman at the head of the line gallantly stepped aside and offered Miss Madden the opportunity of casting the first vote.

With a proud and grateful acknowledgement, Miss Madden stepped up to the long table, answered the officials’ questions and received her ballot at three-quarters of a minute past 6 o’clock. She stepped into the nearest voting booth, marked her ballot, popped out again and deposited the symbol of her new right of suffrage in the ballot box at exactly one minute past 6, laughingly protesting as a newspaper photographer snapped her.”

It is possible that the timing was exaggerated by the newspaper for dramatic effect, but it is likely - and not surprising - that Grace Madden voted quickly. Women across Los Angeles had been preparing for this moment. When California women won the right to vote in October, the suffragist groups that had fought so hard did not celebrate and then disband. They got right back to work. Except this time, their efforts were put toward getting women registered and educating other women on not just why they should vote, but also how and where to vote. 

Grace Madden registering voters (Scrapbook 112, p 50)
This newspaper photograph of Grace Madden registering women to vote can be found ten pages before the article on her voting in the scrapbook (Scrapbook 112, p 50)

Grace Madden herself is pictured in another article in the suffrage scrapbook registering voters. Women’s clubs and organizations also spent time and energy educating themselves and others on the issues. Women were determined to not just vote, but to be informed voters. In the article, the Los Angeles Herald is not portraying Grace Madden as flippant, but rather as a woman who confidently knows what people and issues she supports.

While Grace Madden was possibly the first woman to cast her ballot that day, she was not the last. When the register had closed on November 9, 82,000 women had registered in Los Angeles and were able to vote in their first municipal election. In December, it was reported that in some precincts nearly all the newly registered women had voted.

- Michelle L. Turner