On Sept. 10, 1915, a delegation of Mexican officials refused to see the mayor of Los Angeles, reported the Los Angeles Herald, “upon learning that a women was holding the position temporarily.” Earlier in the day, Councilmember Estelle Lawton Lindsey had made history by becoming the first woman to serve as Los Angeles mayor – and the first to hold the office in a major American city, even if on a temporary basis – when both Mayor Charles E. Sebastian and City Council President Martin F. Betkouski left to attend the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.
Lindsey had achieved another municipal milestone three months earlier when she won her seat on the City Council. In doing so, she became the first woman elected to a governing body of a major U.S. city. It would be another 38 years before Rosalind Wyman became the second woman elected to the Los Angeles City Council.
In 1915, Lindsey became the first woman elected to the governing council of a major U.S. city.
During Lindsey's first days on the council, the Los Angeles Record profiled its former reporter, who remarked “the first thing I want to do is to establish the fact that a woman is capable of sitting in the councils of city, county, and state.” Throughout her two-year tenure, she championed public health issues, fought for greater city services for women, and increased the number of female deputies assigned to crimes involving women and children.
Lindsey credited her political success to the popularity of one woman: Cynthia Grey. “I have no organizations to thank for being elected. If I’ve anybody at all to thank it’s Cynthia Grey,” she commented in Sunset magazine. Cynthia Grey was the pseudonym of Lindsey’s front-page column in the Los Angeles Record. The column was Ann Landers, Miss Manners, Julia Child, and Bill Nye the Science Guy rolled into one. Lindsey spent five years addressing a wide-range of Angelenos’ inquiries: managing a troubled marriage; cooking Chinese Chop Suey; telling the phases of the moon; removing nits from hair. In response to the last of these, she wrote: “For the eleventh hundred and eleventy-leven [sic] thousandth time, COAL OIL.”
She began writing for the Record shortly before arriving in Los Angeles with her husband in 1908. Prior to life as a journalist, Lindsey worked as a German teacher and then, in Kentucky, worked for the forerunner to the Internal Revenue Service. She was born in 1868 to a wealthy family in South Carolina but ultimately rejected the trappings of her family’s society lifestyle. A WPA interview with Lindsey explained that she preferred writing to “the genteel past time of china painting or portrait painting." The 1916 Sunset profile suggested that her Lawton ancestors were turning over in their graves “when here in California, [she] went into newspaper work and [joined] the Socialist party."
As a member of Los Angeles' Socialist Party, Lindsey ran unsuccessfully for the California State Assembly in 1912 and 1914. She credited a party organizer (who liked her opinions expressed as Cynthia Grey) for convincing her to run for city office. But in Nov. 1914, the local Socialist Party attempted to oust her when she failed to vote along party lines. At the Socialist convention three months later, Lindsey’s loyalty was again questioned when she accepted campaign endorsements from particular women’s clubs. Covering this issue in the convention, the Times reported “it is a well known Socialist doctrine that a true Socialist must accept support from no one but Socialists.” Forced off the Socialist ticket, Lindsey still managed to win as an Independent with the support from the rank-and-file Socialists along with the women’s clubs (despite her earlier assertions that no organized group deserved credit for her political victory).
Lindsey worked not just to make a career for herself, she told the Herald. "I shall work for the city and strive to leave Los Angeles eager for more women in government.”
When Lindsey failed to win re-election in 1917, she returned to journalism and remained active in public life through her advocacy for women’s issues and her involvement in women’s clubs. She and her husband continued to live in their Echo Park bungalow for more than 40 years before she passed away Nov. 27, 1955.
Though Estelle Lawton Lindsey held the title for only 36 hours, her tenure as acting Los Angeles mayor made national headlines. The Washington Post claimed, “Los Angeles has qualified as the first city of the first class in the United States to boast a woman mayor.” The Los Angeles Times reported that Lindsey was “greeted with a salute of 17 flashlight guns as she entered the Mayor’s office” which was followed by “rapid-fire movie cameras” later in the day. In both her temporary role as mayor and as a city councilwoman, Lindsey worked not just to make a career for herself, "but to make a record for woman suffrage,” she told the Los Angeles Herald. "I shall work for the city and strive to leave Los Angeles eager for more women in government.”
Zoe Hartman, “A City Mother,” Independent ... Devoted to the Consideration of Politics, Social and Economic Tendencies, History, Literature, and the Arts, November 27, 1916, 356.
Sherry J. Katz, “Redefining ‘The Political’: Socialist Women and Party Politics in California, 1900-1920,” in We Have Come to Stay: American Women and Political Parties, 1880-1960, ed. Melanie S. Gustafson et al. (New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press, 1999), 23
Estelle Lawton Lindsey, “Running to Win: The Story of My Campaign and Election to the City Council of Los Angeles,” Ladies Homes Journal, November 1916, 14, accessed July 12, 2016, https://books.google.com/books?id=VHdAAQAAMAAJ&pg=RA10-PA18#v=onepage&q&f=false
Gertrude M. Price, “To Guard Rights of Sex, and Aid Babies, Platform of Councilwoman Lindsey,” Los Angeles Record, July 6, 1915.
Bertha H. Smith, “Interesting Westerners,” Sunset, January 1916, accessed July 12, 2016, https://books.google.com/books?id=gEREAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA28#v=onepage&q&f=false