“Women Are Conservative in Action, But I Know Them to be Fundamentally Progressive in Thought”: Mary E. Foy and the 1920 Presidential Election

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

A prior post on this blog provided an overview of the remarkable life of Mary Eliza Foy (1862-1962,) whose father was the first saddler in the town of Los Angeles, who became, at eighteen, the first woman to run the Los Angeles Public Library and who went on to be a prominent figure in many other areas of Angel City public life.

This included Democratic Party politics, including her being a delegate to the 1916 national convention at St. Louis, and this post looks at her role in the 1920 Presidential election, the first in which women could vote after passage of the 19th Amendment by Congress in June 1919, though ratification by the states was not completed until mid-August 1920, about two-and-a-half months before the election.

Los Angeles Times, 14 January 1920.

Foy had the distinction of being one of the first two women, the other being Mrs. George Bass of Chicago, to serve on planning committees for the Democratic National Convention, which took place in San Francisco in late June and early July. She was appointed to the Hall and Seating Committee, while the only other Californian to serve on a committee was the prominent Los Angeles lawyer, Isidore B. Dockweiler, who was on the Hotels and Entertainment committee with Bass as well as that for Transportation.

The Pasadena Post of 24 January featured a portrait of her that is from the same session but slightly different from the press photo in the Museum’s holdings that is highlighted here and it quoted her, after he return to Los Angeles from a national committee meeting, as discussing the possibility of a competition for the party’s nomination between incumbent President Woodrow Wilson, who would have been seeking an unprecedented third term, and William Jennings Bryan, who’d been the Democratic standard-bearer in 1896, 1900 and 1908 and briefly served as Secretary of State under Wilson.

Los Angeles Record, 28 January 1920.

Foy, who resided on the west bank of the Arroyo Seco in the upscale San Rafael area of Pasadena with her mother, uncle and sister, told the paper “there is no actual split between Mr. Bryan and President Wilson,” referring to the pair as “the great men of the party.” She downplayed the reports of friction and claimed that “the Democratic party represents the ideals of America” and that this would mitigate any significant differences among contenders for the nomination.

Foy demurred on whether she would be a delegate to the national confab, though acknowledged she was approached about it by friends. Returning to the speculation of likely front-runners to represent the part, she commented, “no one in the world can tell what will happen between now and spring” and added “not even President Wilson’s closest friends know what he will do and that must be determined before any other candidate can be seriously considered.”

Times, 22 February 1920. Note the reference to the African-American Republican women’s club. Blacks largely remained loyal to the G.O.P. until the Depression years when there were significant defections to the Democrats.

What was not mentioned was that Wilson, who had a history of experiencing strokes dating back to 1896, suffered a debilitating one in October 1919 that was carefully concealed from the public. Additionally, there was a decided turn against the president following the Versailles peace conference following the end of World War One and, especially, his vigorous campaign for the League of Nations, which Congress soon declined to have the United States join.

There was another possible candidate mentioned, Herbert Hoover, who’d emerged as a prominent figure for his leading of the federal food administration during the war and then the American Relief Administration to assist European nations in the postwar period. While he was a close advisor to Wilson at the Versailles conference, Hoover was careful in not declaring himself as a partisan of either party in 1920. He did come to see that the Republicans were likely to win and became associated with the G.O.P. and was rewarded by being named Secretary of Commerce, which, after eight years under president Harding and Coolidge, led to his nomination and victory in the 1928 campaign.

Record, 11 March 1920.

Four days later, Foy was prominently featured in an article by Gertrude M. Price in the Los Angeles Record in which she was quoted as saying,

Women will be the controlling factor in the 1920 election!

Men of the democratic party, and I think of all parties, are recognizing the woman citizen as a progressive thinker, modern-minded, not bound by precedent, willing to experiment in governmental matters for the public good, conservative in action, studious in attitude.

The national democratic convention . . . will be a woman’s convention . . .

California women have caught the nation’s attention. Their sex, in all parts, is looking to them for direction in using their own new citizenship.

Having visited half the states while she was away, Foy, it was reported by Price, “comes back to Los Angeles with a better sensing of the power, position and possibilities of the woman citizen, regardless of party, than any other woman in the west, probably.” Foy observed that “psychologically, this is the time when women shall play a big part in elections,” and were the Democrats to take on more of a modern and progressive cast, she concluded, this would be because “woman is the inspiration for this progressive mind more than any other element.”

Long Beach Press, 17 May 1920.

In its 11 March edition, the Record featured more commentary from Foy, who also was the state director of the national committee’s woman’s bureau. Because California’s women were given the vote in state and local elections nearly a decade before, which made them “apprentices in citizenry,” she avowed that “now is the logical time for them to claim their rightful places.” She called for equal representation of women in county central committees and, with the 1920 census to determine House of Representatives seats and new districts for the midterms in 1922, she advised that “a woman can go from these new districts without encroaching on any other aspirant.”

For the state Assembly, however, she indicated women should run in 1920 and added that “if a strong man does not come forward in any district give a woman the chance,” though she warned that any female candidate should be absolutely sure of her conviction in seeking office because, while she encouraged them “if you believe you [can] do it come out and try for it,” the potential pitfall was that “every woman who fails in public life holds all women back.”

Times, 24 May 1920.

By April, there rumors that Foy was actually going to buck her own advice about Congress and run against incumbent Charles H. Randall and she was quoted in the Post as saying “I have no interest in the coming political campaign unless Mr. Wilson becomes a candidate for a third term. That fact would be the only thing which would cause me to go into the fight.” She added, however, that the very recent death of her sister Cora was a factor in her feelings about running for office.

In the face of some of the quotes attributed to her above, it is interesting to see what she was said to have told the Record in its 25 June edition just prior to the start of the national convention. Affirming that “women are being treated, at this convention, on absolutely equal terms,” Foy added, “anything that might be construed as a women’s movement, a woman party or a sex drive, is not to be considered or entertained for a moment, so far as I am concerned.”

Los Angeles Express, 29 June 1920.

On the 29th, as the San Francisco confab was underway, Estelle Lawton Lindsey of the Los Angeles Express talked to Foy about the difference between the women at the gathering and those who attended the Republican National Convention, held earlier in June in Chicago. Foy replied that “many of the women who are active around the [Demcratic] women’s headquarters are women who have heretofore been identified with the republican or the progressive parties.” In her column of 3 July, Lindsey briefly observed that Foy “seems likely to pass out if [President] Wilson does not receive the nomination.

In fact, her support for the incumbent, who decided may well have led to Foy being gently, or otherwise, pushed to the margins at San Francisco. The same day’s Record, which was a more liberal paper than its Angel City contemporaries, reported that an Oakland woman was elected to the national committee when it was thought that Foy was initially a shoo-in for the position. The article noted,

It is rumored that a lack of support of the women from her own section, has resulted in her loss of the committee office and Southern California’s loss of a woman representative on the committee. Miss Foy’s services to the party are so well-known and well-appreciated, she has been made a member of the national campaign committee.

Accounting for the usual behind-the-scenes machinations that usually went on at these conventions, it is interesting to note that Wilson, who could not be seen publicly, still hoped to be nominated, but his son-in-law and former Secretary of the Treasury William Gibbs McAdoo emerged as a front-runner, along with New York Governor Al Smith (who was nominated in 1928 and lost to Hoover), Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and Ohio Governor James M. Cox.

Express, 3 July 1920.

After forty-three ballots, however, and with Wilson refusing to endorse anyone, Cox surprised most observers by securing the nomination—the Republican nominee was Senator Warren G. Harding, whose running mate was Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge. In an attempt to invoke a “magic name,” Cox convinced Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, a distant cousin of former President Theodore Roosevelt, to run with him.

Perhaps stung by not being elected as a national party committee member, Foy does not appear to have campaigned with any exceptional enthusiasm for the Democratic ticket, though she occasionally was reported as having urged the election of the Cox/Roosevelt team. For the election, she was the 9th Congressional District delegate, but the Democrats were shellacked when the votes were counted.

Times, 30 June 1920.

Harding and Coolidge captured more than 60% of the vote and took 404 of the 531 electoral votes with the Democrats only winning Deep South states, where Jim Crow was in strict control of Black residents. In California, the victory was even more convincing with the Republicans winning two-thirds of the votes and Cox and Roosevelt only garnering just under a quarter, while Socialist Eugene Debs took almost 7% of the tally.

Los Angeles County voted almost 70% for the G.O.P. and just 22% for the Democrats and it seems hard to believe that Foy could not see that Wilson’s unpopularity, the poor state of the national economy, the distrust of the League of Nations, and a rapidly growing conservatism made the outcome all but predetermined from the outset. Still, in a review of the election by Price in the Record‘s edition of 8 November, Foy made some notable assertions.

Price prefaced these remarks by asking what the election, naturally the first involving women, meant for the female voter, including whether they are not as progressive as many (Foy included, at least publicly) seemed to think. The journalist continued that “be it remembered that Miss Foy is a student of the times” and “has a perspective of national and international issues, wrought out of careful study” as well as being “a traveled and a cultured woman” who was “a democrat of national as well as state repute.” Foy’s assessment was that:

Women, in the recent election, . . . proved themselves easily frightened.

They proved themselves terribly cautious.

They evidently didn’t grasp the complexities of the situation.

The recent election was a combat between the progressive mind and the reactionary mind.

I thought the rank and file had learned the definition of progressivism . . .

The cream of ultra-conservatism will go into power when Harding assumes the presidential chair.

Women of the nation are still students of its great problems.

I have faith in their final understanding.

Women are conservative in action but I know them to be fundamentally progressive in thought.

Matters did not improve for the Democrats through the remainder of the Roaring Twenties, with Coolidge, who ascended to the the presidency after the August 1923 death of Harding, and Hoover cruising easily to victory in the presidential campaigns of 1924 and 1928, while local politics was also dominated by the Republicans.

Record, 8 November 1920.

Foy, however, lived more than four decades after the 1920 elections, dying in 1962 at the age of 99. Generally, information available about her focuses on her being the first woman librarian in Los Angeles, but her importance was actually far more significant in local, state and national politics, including the 1920 presidential campaign.

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