Design of Women’s Suffrage Float Stirs Controversy

The South Pasadena Tournament of Roses Committee’s final design. Design courtesy of South Pasadena Tournament of Roses Committee

The South Pasadena Tournament of Roses Committee (SPTOR) posted the initial drawing of the city’s 2020 Pasadena Tournament of Roses float on its Facebook page March 5. The Pasadena Tournament of Roses had just approved it for the Jan. 1 parade.

On May 31, the SPTOR released its final full-color rendering of the float.

Between March and May, SPTOR spent more time than usual to finalize the design. This was due to controversy about its preliminary sketch.

The theme of the city’s 2020 float is the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The entry celebrates the 100th anniversary of the amendment that guarantees women the right to vote.

South Pasadena resident and Pasadena Tournament of Roses President Laura Farber inspired the concept. She also chose the parade’s overall theme, “The Power of Hope.”

Mike Mera created the 2020 design that was selected by SPTOR. He also designed the city’s award-winning 2019 city float named “Three Little Birds.”

A central feature of the float’s original and final designs is a large image of a woman’s hat from the 1920s era. Enlarged replicas of pieces of jewelry appear along the float’s base. Jewelry was selected because suffragists wore pins, broaches and necklaces in specific colors, according to a 2018 article by Elaine Weiss in Lenny Letter, a Condé Nast online publication ( Colors worn by suffragists are used in the float’s ribbons, buttons and jewelry.

A document scroll and pen, symbolizing the amendment’s approval, are also included. Signage points out the 100th anniversary.  A ballot box marked “1920 Presidential Election” appears in the updated version, along with patriotic-type bunting. Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” will be played on the entry.

After the original design was made public March 5, almost 40 positive responses were posted on the committee’s Facebook page. TOR President Farber commented, “Beautiful.” City Treasurer Gary Pia responded, “Perfect.”

However, a number of local women’s organizations and community members expressed disappointment with how the long-sought achievement for voting rights was depicted.

Representatives of Women Involved in South Pasadena Political Activism (WISPPA) and the League of Women Voters Pasadena Area (League) registered their dissatisfaction. Six women prepared a letter of concern dated April 25 and emailed it to Janet Benjamin. She is SPTOR’s decoration chair and daughter of committee founder Ted Shaw.  

(Note: The author of this article is a member of WISPPA and the League. She contributed to the letter of suggestions sent to the SPTOR.)

The writers acknowledged that the design displayed items and signage depicting the women’s suffrage movement. “However,” it read, “it fails to convey the stark reality of the decades-long struggle to achieve a basic birthright.”  

“Decorating the float with a hat typical of the times and adorning the float with jewelry conveys an almost garden-party feeling to the effort,” it also read.

The writers recommended that a more dramatic depiction was needed. Suffragists who were arrested, harassed, and subjected to inhumane treatment could have been shown, they suggested.

Signing the letter were WISPPA members Betty Emirhanian, president; Bianca Richards, past president; and this reporter. Also signing were League members Yvonne Pine, past president; Dorothy Keane, president; and Pat Coulter, president-elect.   

Pine, a longtime South Pasadena resident, said another major weakness was that a mention of the League was not included.

“The League,” Pine said, “was established in 1920 before the amendment was ratified.” One of the organizations at the time, the National American Women Suffrage Association, reestablished itself as the League of Women Voters in 1920, according to “Votes for Women: American Suffragists and the Battle for the Ballot” (2018, Workman Publishing).

The League, as a result, is also celebrating its 100th anniversary. Pine said in the letter that signage on the float could read, “League of Women Voters: 100 Years Strong.” Pine also said that the League has been active in South Pasadena for many years.

Some members of the public also commented on the controversy. From May 9 to 12, a total of 42 comments, mostly negative, appeared on South Pasadena’s Nextdoor. The online service describes itself as a free private social network for neighborhoods.

Resident Linda McDermott said: “Women fought long and hard to win the vote here, including protests, arrests, marches, lobbying, fasting, and being jailed, ridiculed and publicly harassed!! Let’s represent the history that these women fought for with dignity, honor, and accuracy. Please.”

Responses ranged from “the float needs something more than fashion” to “it was probably designed by a man” to “it’s almost like they went out of their way to misrepresent these people….” A number of commenters made repeated postings.

Individuals also expressed support for the SPTOR volunteers.

Longtime committee member Benjamin said in a phone interview May 10 that the design was not meant to be political.

“We want to honor the women who got the amendment passed and celebrate the 100-year anniversary,” she said. “We wanted it to be positive.”

She also said they [the design team members] were extremely careful about what they selected to appear on the float. She added that Pasadena Tournament of Roses President Farber was pleased with the initial design.

Preventing SPTOR from making major changes was the fact that the original design had been approved by the Pasadena Tournament of Roses months ago. Design Committee members confirmed at a recent SPTOR meeting that only minor changes could be made in the final version.

“We’d have to go back to Tournament [if major changes were made], and they may not accept it,” Benjamin said in a phone interview.

Although the major elements of the original design remain, some changes were made. SPTOR incorporated a number of suggestions in the final schematic.

“I’m pleased to see the addition of the 1920 Presidential Election and the ballot box,” commented Mayor Marina Khubesrian by email May 31 on seeing the final design. “I know the SPTOR Design Committee worked to incorporate some of the feedback from the community with the constraints of the TOR regulations and resources available.”

On SPTOR’s Facebook page, almost 30 positive responses were posted following the release of the final full-color rendering May 31. “Wow! I see another self-built winner,” said Heather Brown. Robert Keith De Armond commented “… your float looks great.”

Resident and League leader Pine was philosophical about seeing that the League’s 100th anniversary was not depicted in the final design.

It’s “sure a lesson in the realization that, like the suffragists, you don’t win all the time,” she wrote in an email.

After seeing the final design, WISPPA President Emirhanian said in an email to The South Pasadena Review, “I hope we can find ways to celebrate and share knowledge about how the 19th Amendment came about in other ways next year.”

Benjamin from the SPTOR said during an interview at the committee’s June 4 meeting that the float is meant as “a celebration of the 19th Amendment. It has been 100 years that it has been in place.”

“It is a celebration,” she emphasized.