Unlocking History

Women’s correctional roles expanded during suffrage movement

Woman carrying torch walks over U.S.A. map from west to east.
Before the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, individual states were left to decide the issue of Women's Suffrage. By 1911, most of the western states recognized a woman's right to vote. The rest of the country had yet to pass such measures. Library of Congress.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications

In 1885, the state created the prison matron position, allowing women to work in prisons overseeing female inmates. The first statewide push for Women’s Suffrage was in 1896, but it effort failed. In 1911, after more than a decade of campaigning and marches, women won the right to vote.

Eventually, the first female warden was put in charge of the California Institution for Women. By the early 1970s, women were hired as correctional officers in men’s prisons. That same decade saw women entering into other prison jobs typically held by men.

Women fought long and hard to earn the right to work alongside men in the state prison system. Inside CDCR looks at part of their struggle.

Suffrage movement turns to prisons

Woman wearing graduation cap and ornate dress, posing in a library.
Clara Shortridge Foltz, undated.

Clara Shortridge Foltz, the first woman to be admitted to the California bar, was appointed by Governor Gillette to the State Board of Charities and Corrections, an oversight board tasked with keeping an eye on hospitals, jails, asylums and prisons.

“It was very good of the governor,” Foltz told the newspaper, “and I feel highly honored, not because it is myself alone, but because the appointment has been given to a woman. Governor Gillett recently has been the subject of criticism throughout the state because of an alleged statement to the effect that he did not believe in women holding public office. I believe that I can accomplish much good on this board.”

The more specific Board of Prison Directors did not have a woman appointed for many years. They acted as direct oversight of the warden and as a sort of early Board of Parole Hearings.

Woman named secretary of board

Beginning in 1907, a woman made headlines when she was hired to be the secretary of the board.

“Woman for Secretary,” reads the headline, Sacramento Union, Sept. 21, 1907. “Word has been received at the capitol of the selection of Miss E. Herriott of Alameda as secretary of the state board of prison directors, to succeed P.H. McGrath of this city, who resigned. This is the first time that a woman has ever been elected to a position of this kind, and Miss Herriott’s appointment comes as a surprise, as there were others more prominently spoke of for the place.”

She retired three years later.

“Miss Elizabeth Herriott, for the last three years secretary of the state board of prison directors, has tendered her resignation to take effect Feb. 1. Miss Herriott will leave San Francisco Feb. 5 on the steamship Cleveland, when that vessel sails for a trip around the world,” reported the San Francisco Call, Jan. 22, 1910. “It is the intention of Miss Herriott to leave the (steamship) in Europe, where she will spend several years studying history and language.”

Pressure to appoint woman to board

In 1914, women attorneys rallied to pressure the governor to appoint a woman to serve on the Board of Prison Directors.

“Los Angeles women attorneys, who requested Governor Johnson to appoint a women on the state board of prison directors, today received the endorsement and backing of several superior judges of this city,” reported the Los Angeles Herald, Jan. 23, 1914.

“Various women’s clubs throughout the state are busy circulating petitions and otherwise preparing to bring pressure to bear on Governor Hiram Johnson in the hope that he will appoint a woman on the state board of prison directors,” reported the Sacramento Union six months later, June 15, 1914. Their attempts were unsuccessful.

In 1922, the fight for a woman on the prison board was still underway.

“Governor-elect Friend W. Richardson will be asked to appoint a woman as a member of the state board of prison directors – a board that is and always has been composed exclusively of men and which has supervision over the cases of 4,000 male convicts as compared to between 50 and 60 women,” reported the Chico Record, Nov. 23, 1922.

Women’s correctional roles expand

In 1933, California Institution for Women’s (CIW) opening sparked the notion of women taking on more correctional duties statewide.

“Mention was made … of the possible appointment of a woman as a member of the State Board of Prison Directors, specific reference being made to the naming of (Rose B.) Wallace of Alhambra, at present head of the Board of Trustees of (CIW), which directed the establishment of the new woman’s prison near Tehachapi,” according to an editorial in the Sausalito News, Sept. 39, 1933. “The suggestion strikes us as a splendid one. … We have been aware of the good work (Wallace) has done in getting the Legislature to establish this reformatory for women offenders, and above all are familiar with her deep interest in this kind of work. … It might not have been considered as a woman’s place some years back, but now we have women on juries who weigh evidence by which both men and women are sent to prison. A woman could certainly serve her state in assisting to administer its penal institutions.”

In 1941, state senators sponsored a penal reform bill.

“Designed to promote improved administration, a bill creating the State Department of Corrections has been adopted by the Senate and is now being considered by the Assembly…. It is provided that the next person appointed to the board shall be a woman and that there shall here after be a woman member,” reported the Sausalito News, May 15, 1941.

Female hired to run prison factory

Factories saw women workers during World War I and World War II, but they didn’t break into law enforcement until much later. After the first women began working in male prisons, they began to take on other jobs in traditionally male-dominated fields – such as running a factory at San Quentin. In 1974, Pat Schecter was tapped to be the first woman to do just that.

Woman cuts fabric.
Pat Schecter, 1974.

“Santa Monica College student Mrs. Pat Schecter will become the first woman in the United States to be a textile factory supervisor in the state correctional industries. According to Mrs. Schecter, she will be working directly with the inmates of San Quentin State Prison,” reported the Santa Monica College Corsair, Oct. 9, 1974. “She will supervise the instruction and making of garments such as the orange vests worn by street construction workers. Prisoner-made products are not sold to the public. Other duties … will include managing personnel and public relations. It all came about because Mrs. Schecter answered an ad in the California Apparel News requesting an experienced person in the clothing industry who would be interested in relocating. After that there was a series of tests and an interview. The nervously awaited news came at 7:30 a.m. by telephone from Del Brown, manager of San Quentin State Prison Correctional Industries.”

She started her new job in mid-October that year.

“The civilian quarters of the institution will be home for Mrs. Schecter while she finds a place to live. … Mrs. Schecter, now 54 years old, was born in London, England. There she received her training in technical college and from practical work. … She came to Los Angeles in 1964 and continued her work in the fashion industry … (enrolling) at (Santa Monica College) to further her apparel education. … She found what she was looking for and says of her instructor, Phillis Madison, ‘She makes the sewing machine talk.’ Mrs. Schecter is a bit modest about the whole thing and hopes it will pave the way for women into such jobs,” the paper reported.