by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were a handful of women in greater Los Angeles who were leaders in advancing the cause of their gender in education, economics and work, politics and other elements of regional society. Caroline Severance, Clara Shortridge Foltz, and Mary Julia Workman (whose great-uncle and aunt, William and Nicolasa were founders of the Homestead) are among the most prominent.
In their ranks was Mary Eliza Foy, whose life span of just several months shy of a century encompassed so many developments and whose contributions to the city were many and significant. Tonight’s post features a pair of press photographs of Foy from 1920 and 1921 and they serve as illustrations of an illustrious life and career.
Foy was born in July 1862 as the eldest of ten children of Samuel C. Foy and Lucinda Macy. Lucinda’s father, Obed, was one of the first physicians to practice in Los Angeles, bringing his family, including young Lucinda, to the City of Angels in early 1850. Macy Street was named in his honor, though much of that thoroughfare was later incorporated into Sunset Boulevard.
Samuel Foy, born in Washington, D.C. and reared in Kentucky, learned the saddle and harness trade in Cincinnati and then spent some years in Natchez, Mississippi. He came to Gold Rush California to join a brother and prospected for a couple of years before migrating south to Los Angeles, where he opened the town’s first saddle and harness shop. A few years later, he was joined by Elijah H. Workman, who, with his brother, William Henry, were friendly competitors of Foy for many years.
The Foys lived for many years in a comfortable hillside house constructed in 1872 on Pearl (known to us now as Figueroa) and Seventh streets, now a busy commercial area and the family made a small fortune when selling that property as commercial development reached the area in the early 1900s. The house was moved west of downtown, first on a lot on Wilshire Boulevard, then to a location where a parking lot for Good Samaritan Hospital is located. Finally, the residence was moved to Carroll Avenue, the Angelino Heights street with many other stunning Victorian-era houses.
When Mary’s mother arrived in Los Angeles there were no public schools, the first opening when her father came down from the gold fields. The couple, however, placed a priority on education, especially with their precocious and highly intelligent first child, who was a stellar student through her grammar and high school levels. Mary was a star scholar of the fifth graduating class of Los Angeles High School and, at the 1879 commencement, she was honored for having the best academic record of her class all three years she attended.
In fact, her abilities were so marked that, after a vacancy developed for the head librarian of the Los Angeles Library and, on the heels of public sentiment calling for a woman to be given the job, the trustees took applications. There were only two females who sought the position, but Foy was hired becoming the first woman librarian in an institution now approaching its 150th birthday in two years (when it was founded in 1872, after a brief predecessor was led by Jonathan Temple a dozen years before, one of the trustees was Thomas W. Temple, son of Antonia Margarita Workman and F.P.F. Temple).
Foy’s tenure lasted about three-and-a-half years and when her full term expired at the beginning of 1884, she was not retained. There wasn’t a public explanation for why, but her farewell remarks were published and they indicate that, while she was complimentary of the board of trustees for hiring her and letting her do her job, she was politely critical of the lack of meetings and general attention exhibited by the board toward the institution.
Shortly after leaving the librarian position, Foy, who attended the new State Normal School for teacher education located where the Central Library is now, secured a position as principal of the school in the recently established San Gabriel Valley town of Duarte, a job she held for a couple of years. Notably, though, while in that community and, as the Boom of the Eighties burst forth, bringing dramatic change to the region, she began to dabble in real estate, a sideline of her father’s, as well.
In fact, Foy became secretary of a remarkable and short-lived firm, the Woman’s Investment Company of Southern California, which was launched during the full ferment of the boom in 1887. A newspaper article discussed the work of the principals, the aim of encouraging women to take their part in real estate development, and observed that Foy made some $30,000, a handsome sum, in her own speculations.
She did, however, make another career move and entered the teaching profession. By fall 1888, Foy was a teacher at the Seventh Street School, in the southeastern part of town in those days before it became an industrial area. She rose to be a principal at the school after several years and also began to speak at educational conferences and gatherings.
In fall 1894, she was transferred to Los Angeles High to teach English. Long active as an officer in the school’s alumni association, she remained with the institution for about a decade, but took two length leaves of absence during her tenure. In fall 1897, she took a year sabbatical to take a pedagogy course at the University of California at Berkeley. After completing that course, she traveled in summer 1898 to Washington, D.C. to be a delegate to the National Education Association conference.
Rather than return home, she followed her sister, Edna, who’d gone to the nation’s capital with Foy, to England, where Edna went to study violin at the London Conservatory of Music. Foy remained in England until 1900 before finally coming back home to Los Angeles and returning to her teaching job at the high school.
Her years at Berkeley and London, however, were a period of transformation for Foy. She became a very popular speaker, initially about experiences abroad, but increasingly about the development of educational methods of young children. Through the first decade or so of the 20th century, Foy worked tirelessly for educational reform and development and spoke frequently. She never married or had children, but much of her life was dedicated to the many causes she espoused. One was a founding member of the Southwest Society and its projects, including preservation of native Indian and Spanish and Mexican era songs and the development of the Southwest Museum.
Then came another major period of growth and development for Foy as the long-incubating ferment of woman’s suffrage gained undeniable momentum during the so-called Progressive era. Attorney Clara Shortridge Foltz, the pioneering female lawyer in Los Angeles, headed the Votes for Women organization and Foy was secretary. The two and others in the group lobbied aggressively in the region to secure voting rights for women in California, with the campaign culminating successfully in 1911. Foy was also very active in the growing club movement, generally controlled by upper class white women in Los Angeles.
With a presidential election on the horizon, Foy joined a host of compatriots to form the California Woman’s Democratic League, of which she its founding president. In 1912, she and the organization promoted the candidacy of Woodrow Wilson, who was elected to the presidency that fall and she traveled throughout the state to promote him. Though she did not secure election as a Democratic Party elector that fall, she did travel to Washington as a proxy delegate and was favorably described by the New York Sun as “an ideal type of woman politician.”
Continuing her political activism for the Democratic Party, Foy remained a very popular lecturer in the region and added to her credentials as a local leader by being selected as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, held in St. Louis in June 1916. Wilson, who won reelection that fall and who had promised American neutrality in the war raging in Europe, changed his position not long after he assumed his second term after German attacks on American ships led to a declaration of war. Foy, always ardent in her patriotism, turned her attention to encouraging women to do all they could to assist in the war effort and was a key member of a Woman’s Liberty Bond Committee.
After the war ended and Wilson personally represented America at the Paris peace conference and pushed for a League of Nations to mediate international disputes, Foy, who’d risen to be assistant chairperson of the state Democratic Party committee, spoke frequently in favor of the concept, even though it was doomed to failure because of Republican displeasure at being left out by Wilson of the negotiating process.
In 1920, the Democratic National Convention was held in San Francisco and Foy, again a delegate and a significant organizer of the event, spoke publicly about her view that the role of women at the gathering would be significant given the recent passage of the 19th Amendment, which the Homestead is commemorating this year with exhibits and other program elements, giving them the right to vote in national elections. She went so far as to say that “women will be the controlling factor in the 1920 campaign.” Unfortunately for Democrats, they were overwhelmed by a wave of conservatism that swept national electoral politics for the entire decade of the Roaring Twenties. In the 1920 presidential race, Republican Warren Harding swamped fellow Ohioan, James Cox.
Foy did remain active in local Democratic Party politics during the decade, but her influence lessened as the party’s fortunes plummeted locally and nationally. In 1928, she worked with Mary Julia Workman, who also was an educator before moving into settlement work for immigrants and ethnic minorities in her own career of social and political work and activism, for the unsuccessful presidential candidacy of Al Smith.
She was a supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who won the 1932 presidential campaign and, with Democrats back in power, she sought the Democratic nomination for a House of Representatives seat but lost. Still, she maintained her involvement in politics, club work, education and other issues important to her for the remainder of her long life. In 1939, she was a key founder, with Charlotte Workman Masson, sister of Mary Julia, and others of First Century Families, an organization of descendants of families who arrived in Los Angeles prior to 1881.
Towards the end of her long life, Foy was something of a grande dame of Los Angeles history, honored as an early and oldest living graduate of Los Angeles High School, as the first woman city librarian, as an educator, as a suffragette and much else. She died in early 1962 several months before she would have been 100.
In her honor, the Central Library dedicated the Mary E. Foy California Room, now the Children’s Reading Room (which she would have found more than appropriate) and she is a member of the California Library Association’s California Library Hall of Fame. Her childhood home, one of the first City of Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monuments, is often identified as important because of her association with so many important movements in city history.