Days Past: Days Past Struggle for Arizona women to serve on juries (1921-1945)

Suffrage came in 1912, 32 years later jury duty caught up

The first women to serve on a jury in Arizona, photo graphed in 1945. (Courtesy of the author)

The first women to serve on a jury in Arizona, photo graphed in 1945. (Courtesy of the author)

In 1912 Arizona women won the right to vote; two years later they elected Francis Willard Munds and Rachel Berry to the state legislature.

Yet, while women began voting and serving as state legislators, they were barred from serving on juries until 1945.

In 1914 Maricopa County attorney Frank Lyman refused to seat nine women as jurors in Mesa because the state constitution specified only men could serve on juries. From 1921-1933, women’s jury service bills were introduced and died in legislative committee hearings.

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There was some progress in 1933 when Cochise County Representative Jessie Bevan gained passage of the women’s jury bill in the Arizona House of Representatives, but not in the state senate.

During the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Gila County Senator John Dougherty stated: “There is no more reason for putting women in the jury box than for putting them in front line trenches.”

Coconino County Senator Earle Slipher agreed: “Women should be allowed time for their home leaving the inferior matters of jury duty and politics to men. This law would serve only to take women out of home. It would be just another stone pulled out of the foundation of this nation.”

Maricopa County Senator James Minot countered: “It strikes me there are a good many children whose cradles were not properly rocked even though their mothers were not in the jury box.”

Yuma County Senator Kean St. Charles agreed: “We have a declaration of independence but we seem to have left women out of it. They have women jurors in California and no one has heard it said they cook any the worse for it.”

After voting 11-6, the Senate Judiciary Committee indefinitely postponed consideration of the women’s jury bill.

In 1935 a heated legislative debate occurred when Maricopa County Representative Bridgie Porter introduced a women’s jury bill. When the bill was tabled by a vote of 23-19, Porter demanded a roll call which almost succeeded until two state legislators switched their votes.

The Arizona Republic observed: “Mrs. Porter’s all-woman jury bill furnished the house with more impassioned oratory than has rung around its wall this session.”

During these years the Arizona Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs (BPW/AZ) organized a state-wide lobbying campaign for women to serve on juries.

The organization worked hard to elect women to state office, especially the legislature. Most of the early women state legislators were BPW/AZ members. In 1933 all of the women state legislators (Jessie Bevan, Mary Francis, Bridgie Porter, Annie Campbell Jones, and Nellie Bush) were BPW/AZ members.

The BPW/AZ members discussed women’s jury service at club, district and state meetings, invited state legislators as guest speakers, lobbied legislators, and attended state legislative committee hearings.

Articles about the issue were published in the BPW/AZ state magazine along with lists of Arizona legislators opposing the issue. Members were urged not to forget their state representatives’ voting records when they went to the polls.

In 1938, Phoenix’s League BPW club sponsored a jury training school for women. Designed to “improve the competence of jurors,” it consisted of five weekly sessions with mock juries re-trying actual cases.

Despite attendance by 450 men and women and extensive newspaper coverage, the women’s jury bill again failed in the state legislature. When the bill died, Arizona Republic editor Pauline Bates Brown observed: “Arizona legislators once again relegated women to a class below that of morons and criminals by their defeat of a bill to permit their representation on juries.”

Arizona women did not gain the right to serve on juries until 1945 when the bill passed the Arizona House of Representatives by 55-2 and the Senate by 15-3. The bill was immediately signed into law by Governor Sidney Osborn on an emergency basis, and the first trial with women jurors was held on March 10, 1945. Overshadowed by women’s suffrage and the Equal Rights movements, the struggle of Arizona women to serve on juries has become a forgotten part of Arizona history.

Today few people realize women were unable to serve on juries in Arizona until 1945.

Jan Lo Vecchio is a Tucson writer and speaker on Arizona women’s history. This article is a preview of a presentation she will make at the 14th annual Western History Symposium that will be held at the Prescott Centennial Center on Aug. 5. The Symposium is co-sponsored by the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral and is open to the public free of charge. For more details, call the Museum at 928-445-3122 or visit the sponsors’ websites at www.sharlot.org and www.prescottcorral.org.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles to dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122, ext. 14, or via email at dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com for information.