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Our History
By Steve Cottrell
A champion of women’s suffrage
Ellen Sargent of Nevada City was a pioneer for equal rights

Earlier this year, a national news story with local historical roots grabbed headlines when it was announced that women will soon be featured on paper currency.

Former slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill. And while Alexander Hamilton remains on the front of the $10 bill, five prominent American suffragists will be recognized on the back.

The new bills could be in circulation by 2020 –– centennial of the 19th Amendment’s ratification.

But how about a sixth woman on the new $10 bill?

Ellen Clark –– who married Aaron Sargent in 1852 and was a Nevada City resident for over 20 years –– certainly shouldered her share of the national battle for women’s rights.

In addition to founding the Women’s Suffrage Association of Nevada County in 1869, Ellen served as president of the California Equal Suffrage Association, the San Francisco Susan B. Anthony Club, the National Association for the Advancement of Women, California Woman Suffrage Association, Equal Suffrage League of San Francisco, and –– from 1873-79, during her husband’s term as a U. S. senator –– treasurer of the National Woman (sic) Suffrage Association.

When the NWSA held its national convention in Washington, D.C., in 1877, Elizabeth Cady Stanton presided, Lucretia Mott was first vice president, Susan B. Anthony was secretary, Ellen Clark Sargent was treasurer, and Sojourner Truth was a delegate from Michigan.

Four of those five women will be recognized on the new $10 bill. (The fifth woman on the new currency, Alice Paul, was not born until 1885).

On July 4, 1876, Ellen Sargent and other defiant suffragists pushed their way through a startled crowd outside Independence Hall and delivered the Women’s Declaration of Rights during the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Ellen was an original signatory to that historic document.

And in 1901, a widow arguing that taxation without representation was unconstitutional and that she should have the right to vote, Ellen paid her San Francisco property taxes under protest then sued for the return of her money.

Her attorney was Nevada City native George Sargent –– her son. And although the judge was sympathetic, he ruled against her.
It was in 1878, however, that Nevada City’s link with women’s rights and the cause of suffrage earned a proud, lasting place in American history.

On January 10, 1878, U. S. Senator Aaron Sargent –– who vigorously supported his wife’s fight for equal rights –– introduced a resolution aimed at a constitutional amendment supporting women’s suffrage, but it was quickly rejected by his Senate colleagues.

Over the next several years, resolutions using Sargent’s words were periodically offered for consideration, but never gained sufficient support. Success did appear possible in 1918, but that effort fell one vote short in the Senate.

June 4, 1919, however –– on a Senate vote of 56-25, which followed a May 21 House vote of 304-89 –– the future 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was finally adopted by Congress and sent to the states for ratification.

California voted for ratification November 19, 1919, and by the following summer it had become the law of the land.

Unfortunately, Ellen Clark Sargent did not live to see her dream of voting rights realized. She died in San Francisco on July 13, 1911 –– twenty-four years after her husband’s death and thirty-three years after he had introduced what eventually became the 19th Amendment.

Befitting decades of selfless commitment to women’s suffrage in California and the nation, Ellen’s memorial services were held at Union Square, where more than a thousand people gathered to pay their respects while flags throughout San Francisco flew at half-staff in her honor.

Steve Cottrell is a historian, a former city councilman and mayor, and a longtime Nevada City resident. He now lives in St. Augustine, Fla. He can be reached by emailing exnevadacitymayor@gmail.com.