By KAREN SCANLON | San Diego Community Newspaper Group
“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex…” so goes the text of this celebrated passage.
Women’s suffrage ended on Aug. 18, 1920, culminating nearly a century of protest. Though she took the vote, other rights granted continued to evolve — to live free from violence, slavery, and discrimination. The right to be educated, own property, and earn an equitable wage.
Interestingly, German-Jewish immigrant Louis Rose, who settled the community of Roseville in Point Loma some 150 years ago, showed himself to be an early feminist in that he deeded property to women. How startling!
A number of well-known women of San Diego began to assert themselves beyond the kitchen. For example, in the late 1880s, humanitarian visionary Kathryn Tingley created an international community of free thinkers, known as Raja Yoga Academy, or Lomaland. It became a highly regarded educational institution.
At about the same time, American horticulturalist Kate Sessions was cultivating plants. In 1892, she leased 30 acres of land in City Park and planted 100 trees a year. She would become known as “Mother of Balboa Park,” and was connected to the philanthropic generosity of businessman, George Marston.
But there are other women whose contributions to San Diego ought to be remembered.
THE FIRST FEMALE HARBOR PILOT
Celia Sweet of Ballast Point was the lightkeeper’s wife. James, and often Celia, tended the bay beacons and lamp in the tower. He also built boats known as Sweet Craft. In 1907, Sweet christened Pilot, San Diego’s first motorized harbor-pilot vessel, Celia bursting the champagne bottle against its bow.
While raising two children, Celia became the first federally licensed woman harbor pilot in San Diego, and also ferried passengers across the bay to Coronado’s Tent City. When she could solicit no female competition, Celia raced the Relue against her male equals of San Diego Yacht Club. Sweet’s 28-foot Relue set a Pacific coast speed record of 22 knots.
SOUTHERN BELLE SAVES SURFING IN SAN DIEGO
An extrovert known as Miss Billy Riley of Oklahoma burst onto Shelter Island’s entertainment scene when tourism efforts were flailing. Through evolving monikers of the 1960s — Windsong, L’Escale, Half Moon, and Humphrey’s — Miss Billy became the first woman manager of a major hotel and eventually part owner. She served as the first female president of the San Diego Hotel-Motel Association, director of San Diego Chamber of Commerce, and strongly advocated the construction of Ocean Beach Fishing Pier.
Miss Billy will be remembered for defending the 1966 World Surfing Championships when city officials uttered disdain for the whole affair. “Five years earlier, surfers had misbehaved during a similar event,” she said, “and the city was forced to consider the future of surfing in San Diego generally.”
“I gathered a bunch of those 200 surfers in the parking lot of Bali Hai and told them you’re going to have a rough time in our city — people think you’re a crummy bunch. We expect you to conduct yourselves honorably to represent the surfing industry.” As it was, surfing greats Kimo McVay, Nat Young, and ‘the Duke’ Kahanomoku took to the waves in Ocean Beach, while spectators crowded the new pier.
In downtown’s Gaslamp District, Billy’s name appears on the outside bronze plaque of the Horton Grand Hotel. “We’d heard that the old Horton Hotel and Kahle’s Saddlery were being torn down and felt the urgency to preserve what we could,” she said. “Some of us moved sections of those buildings into storage in an old garage on Island Avenue, brick-by-brick, windows, and everything. And when the time came, we, and other investors, recreated a hotel.” The Horton Grand is a testament to Miss Billy’s tenacity and goodwill.
THE CITY’S HISTORY PROFESSOR EMERITA
Iris Engstrand, Ph.D., has taught thousands of students at University of San Diego over 49 years as a professor of American history. In turn, she says, “These students have themselves become teachers and authors. They serve as politicians, city planners, national and state park employees, mayors, and in other positions of leadership. Teaching others is truly a gift that keeps on giving.”
Of relevance is Engstrand’s pictorial history of San Diego, first published in 1980 and reprinted three times in revised editions. “This factual account,” she says, “tells a complete story of San Diego beginning with the indigenous population and continuing through the Spanish, Mexican, and American periods.”
Other notable women were to be recognized at this year’s Congress of History of San Diego and Imperial Counties, an annual two-day conference. But “Remarkable Women 1920-2020” fell by the pandemic wayside. The Congress is scheduled to reconvene, fingers crossed, on Feb. 26-27, 2021, when the contributions by women over the past 100 years will be celebrated.
— Karen Scanlon is a San Diego-based writer with an affinity for stories about local history.