Charlotte Baker — Point Loma resident, suffrage leader, S.D.'s first female doctor — saw the last big pandemic
Charlotte Baker was an early Point Loma resident, the first female president of the San Diego County Medical Society and co-founder of the San Diego YWCA.
There were 18 stories on the front page of the Dec. 3, 1933, edition of the San Diego Union, more if you counted each of the items in Arthur Brisbane’s “Views of News” column separately. Local voters would soon be weighing in on the construction of a new civic center. A late-breaking radio talk by King Christian X of Denmark would be airing at 9:30 that morning on KGB. The Red Cross was looking for volunteers.
And Dr. Charlotte Baker, 78 years old and battling a heart ailment, was reminding San Diego what a pioneering woman sounds like.
“If I had my life to live over again,” Baker told reporter Forrest Warren, “I would not alter my course unless to fight harder.”
Baker was San Diego’s first female doctor and a leader in the California suffrage movement. Her life was shaped by the battles she fought, and San Diego’s course was forever changed by the history she made along the way.
Born Charlotte Johnson in Newburyport, Mass., Baker was both ahead of her time and of the moment. She went to the all-women’s Vassar College in 1873, balancing her schoolwork with a job teaching gymnastics. In 1879, she joined the small cadre of adventurous women who studied medicine at the University of Michigan.
She married fellow doctor Fred Baker in 1882, and the couple embarked on a life of shared passions for science, civic engagement and travel. The growing Baker family — Charlotte, Fred and their young children, Molly and Robert — moved to San Diego in 1888.
‘If I had my life to live over again I would not alter my course unless to fight harder.’
— Charlotte Baker
The Bakers were early residents of Point Loma, often making the trek to their shared downtown office by sailboat. Charlotte’s diaries, which are in the San Diego History Center’s archives, paint a thoroughly modern portrait of a woman who was raising children, delivering babies and doing charity work while also finding time to play tennis, dabble in photography and tend to a menagerie of pets that included a monkey named Jim.
Even when her heart condition left Baker unable to practice medicine during the great pandemic of her era — the 1918 Spanish flu — she kept tabs on the disease in her diary and sent condolence cards to friends who had lost loved ones.
A century or so before “work-life balance” was anyone’s goal, Baker took it as a given. She also found time to make her mark on a San Diego that was growing up fast and in need of a guiding hand.
Along with such fellow women of substance as horticulturist Kate Sessions and architect Hazel Waterman, Baker helped organize the San Diego Woman’s Home Association, which provided job training, shelter and child care for women who had been abandoned, widowed or exploited during the land boom of the late 1800s.
Charlotte Johnson Baker
Date of Birth: March 30, 1855
Place: Newburyport, Mass.
Died: Oct. 31, 1937
Education: Vassar College and the University of Michigan
Civic Milestones: San Diego’s first female physician, the first female president of the San Diego County Medical Society, president of the Equal Suffrage Association, co-founder and honorary president of the San Diego chapter of the YWCA
Major Works: Campaigned to secure voting rights for California women in 1911. Helped organize the San Diego Woman’s Home Association, which eventually became the San Diego Center for Children.
More than 130 years later, the Woman’s Home Association is now known as the San Diego Center for Children, making Baker’s project the oldest children’s nonprofit in the county.
An active member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Baker was instrumental in persuading the local power brokers to shut down the notorious Stingaree red-light district in 1912. But her biggest impact on San Diego (and beyond) came when she threw her considerable resources behind getting California’s women the right to vote.
Suffrage passed in San Diego in 1896, but it was defeated in the state. Californians did not vote on it again until 1911. By that point, Baker was the president of the Equal Suffrage Association of San Diego and firing on her many cylinders. Neither cranky letters to newspaper editors nor a note threatening death by dynamite could stop Baker from clearing a path to the ballot box.
In the fall of that year, Baker and association secretary Mrs. R.C. Allen did their version of rocking the vote, barnstorming around San Diego County in a decorated car and distributing posters and pamphlets from downtown all the way to Oceanside.
When the votes were being counted, early reports from San Francisco were not encouraging. “Made us feel blue,” Baker wrote in her diary. “But cannot give up hope.” But the tide turned, and suffrage prevailed.
It was a big moment in the large life of Charlotte Baker and a game-changing jolt for California, which became the sixth state in the United States to give women the vote. On Oct. 11, Baker was greeted at the Suffrage Association headquarters with flowers and an ovation, but according to a diary entry from that landmark day, she didn’t feel the need to linger long:
“At headquarters a little time and home at 6.”