Working-class women's activism after the 1906 earthquake

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Working-class women's activism after the 1906 earthquake

by Brenda D. Frink on Monday, October 31, 2011 - 11:54am

This month marks the anniversary of a little-known event. In October 1906, Mary Kelly, a working-class refugee of San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake and fire, unlawfully occupied a one-room earthquake cottage. Her application for a similar cottage had been rejected, and she used her new home as the launch-point for a month-long protest of the city’s earthquake relief policy. The episode finally ended when the city tore the cottage down, board by board, with Kelly still inside of it.

Saving San Francisco by Andrea Rees DaviesIn her new book, Saving San Francisco: Relief and Recovery after the 1906 Disaster, Stanford historian Andrea Rees Davies uses Kelly’s story to illuminate the paradox of working-class women’s activism in 1906 San Francisco. Left homeless, Kelly sought a cottage in order to return to her traditional female role as her family’s homemaker. But her effort to obtain the cottage led Kelly to boisterous public activity that was anything but traditionally feminine. Thus, Kelly’s effort to recreate her traditional gender role led to a surprising result—she behaved in ways that were far outside that role. And Kelly was not alone. As Davies explains in Saving San Francisco, Kelly was one of many working-class women who became politicized over the necessities of domestic life—shelter, food, and clothing.

The story of San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake and fire is well-known. The violent quake struck America’s ninth-largest city on April 18. It lasted a terrifying sixty-five seconds, and it pulled apart buildings and gas lines. Firefighters and residents struggled in vain to stop the raging fires that consumed the city over the next three days. Despite their efforts, the disaster killed thousands and destroyed over five hundred blocks of businesses and homes, leaving hundreds of thousands of San Franciscans homeless—including working-class families like Mary Kelly’s. 

Flour, shoes, and an earthquake cottage

To help those left homeless by the disaster, the City of San Francisco and the American National Red Cross jointly formed a relief committee. The powerful committee administered 9.5 million dollars in relief donations, and it operated refugee camps in the city’s parks and squares. Mary Kelly spent nearly two years after the disaster living in one such camp with her invalid husband and her adult daughters. Like many of her peers, she came to resent the relief committee’s slow bureaucracy and the squalid conditions of camp life. Before the earthquake, the middle-aged Kelly thought herself “a very quiet woman, thinking I had about all I could do to keep my home and family.” Soon, however, Kelly would become a public figure, accusing the relief committee of crimes ranging from incompetence to graft. The San Francisco Chronicle would dub her “the arch agitator of the refugees.”

Mary KellyKelly’s entry into public activism began in July 1906, over a necessity of domestic life—food. Fed up with long lines and inadequate food supplies, she led about one hundred disgruntled refugee women to relief headquarters to demand flour for their hungry families. In a decisive victory over red tape, the women left with fifty bags. Within days, their success inspired an event known as the “Flour Riot”—angry women stormed the main relief warehouse and made off with two thousand pounds of flour. Rather than seeing themselves as thieves, the rioting women accused the relief committee of hoarding donated supplies that were intended for disaster victims. They argued that the flour was rightfully theirs as earthquake refugees and as American citizens.

Kelly may have become emboldened by her success in obtaining flour. In September, she again made the San Francisco papers for unladylike behavior in pursuit of domestic supplies. She arrived at relief headquarters, brushed past the clerks in the outer office, and loudly demanded to see the relief chairman. A secretary tried to quiet her, but Kelly demanded—and ultimately received—shoes and clothing. Again, Kelly obtained the materials that she needed to fulfill her female responsibilities toward her family, but she obtained them by means that did not correspond to expectations of feminine behavior.

Row of shacksThe climax to these events came when Kelly laid claim to several earthquake cottages— and “gave” them to needy refugees, including herself. These tiny cottages built by the relief committee were nothing but one-room shacks, but they were an upgrade from the canvas tents in which most refugees lived. Kelly objected to committee policies that reserved cottages for so-called deserving refugees, while relegating other refugees to tents or even horse stalls. She also objected to the practice of charging rent on the cottages. After all, she argued, the donations used to build them had been intended to help destitute refugees, not to set up the relief committee as a for-profit landlord.

Leaving the tent to which they had been assigned, Kelly and her husband moved into a cottage, installed a lock on the door, and refused to pay rent. Kelly placed protest banners in the window and she resisted the relief committee’s efforts to evict her, staying inside when they carted her cottage across the city and even when they demolished it around her. Ultimately, Kelly won a partial victory when Mayor Eugene Schmitz ended the policy of charging rent on cottages. Kelly, however, had already returned to her family’s leaky canvas tent, carrying with her a board from the dismantled cottage.     

Working-class women’s political activity

For working-class women such as Mary Kelly, the imperative to supply homes, meals, and clothing to their families led them to act in decidedly unladylike ways. “In 1906 San Francisco,” writes Davies, “post-disaster material conditions forced many women to exceed their prescribed gender roles in order to obtain the materials necessary to resume these very roles.”

For many women, this change in gender roles was temporary, and it ended as they and their families gradually rebuilt their lives in San Francisco or started new lives outside the city. But for some women, the earthquake marked a radical change in their political consciousness and in their beliefs about the proper role for women. As Davies explains, “Mary Kelly’s post-disaster story, particularly the account of her cottage theft and eviction, reveals the politicizing potential of disasters…. Although [working-class women’s] ultimate goal was to protect their role as wives and mothers within the private household, the disaster had a ripple effect on San Francisco’s political landscape.” When California women gained the vote in 1911, Kelly registered promptly, identifying herself as a “labor unionist in politics.”

Andrea Rees DaviesAndrea Rees Davies, Ph.D. Stanford, is Director of Programs and Research at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research.  Her new book, Saving San Francisco, released in November 2011 is published by Temple University Press.  Davies, a former firefighter, will speak about Saving San Francisco: Relief and Recovery after the 1906 Disaster at Book Passage in Corte Madera on Thursday, January 5, 2012 at 7pm, and again at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on Monday, April 9, 2012 at 6pm.




Brenda D. Frink, a former postdoctoral fellow at the Clayman Institute, is currently a postdoctoral scholar at the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University. She received a Ph.D. in history from Stanford University in 2010. 

Responses to Working-class women's activism after the 1906 earthquake

Denise Hale's picture
06 January, 2012 Denise Hale (not verified)

Enlightening article. Mary Kelly's story is inspiring. Fortunately, gender roles have evolved since her time; however, challenges still remain in balancing work, family, and finding time to be an active member in our community to create a better world for all.
I relate to the line 'the middle-aged Kelly thought herself “a very quiet woman, thinking I had about all I could do to keep my home and family.” I once felt that way too. It is amazing the strength and energy we can find when we find our families and communities threatened by economic conditions, and we must face the consequences of our collective apathy squarely in its face.
Thank you for sharing her story.