Sleeping Porches & Suffragist Banners
By Hilda van Neck-Yoder
Board Member, North Park Historical Society
Mary Maschal (1924-1998) bought 1436 31st Street in 1986, hoping to establish a place where women could reclaim their history and where she could exhibit her vast collection of suffragist memorabilia. With its large, inviting porch, 1436 would fulfill her dream in every respect. It became the home of the Women's History Reclamation Project and the birthplace of the San Diego Women's History Museum, one of only five such museums in this country.
It is a remarkable coincidence that Mary Maschal chose the house whose first owner, Veronica Burke (1877-1951), had actually marched with the suffragists. In the dining room where Mary Maschal held her weekly organizational meetings and in the living room where she hung a historic suffragist banner, Veronica Burke had, eighty years earlier, taught her daughters about women's rights and had shared her optimism about the historic possibilities available for the first time to her and her daughters.
In its early history, 1436 was owned by a woman who reflected the attempts by early twentieth-century women to free themselves from centuries of patriarchal oppression and to create new identities. As the outlines of her life indicate, Veronica Burke tried to claim a new kind of life for herself. She marched in suffragist parades and made history in her Iowa home town as the first woman to own and drive a car. In progressive California, where women had gained the right to vote in state elections in 1911, Burke initiated a divorce from her husband in 1919 and was listed in the 1920 census as "Divorced" and "Head-of-house," living with her three daughters in 1436 31st Street. From 1919 to 1928, Veronica Burke was, in fact, the sole owner of this house.
Veronica Burke raised her three daughters, Mary, Mildred, and Noreen, to take advantage of new possibilities in education, culture, and politics. Her oldest daughter, Mary, made history when, as a sophomore, she was elected the first female Class President at Russ High School, a position that both her younger sisters would hold as well. A high achiever and outstanding student leader, Mary was admitted to Stanford University. Both younger sisters, equally exceptional students and leaders, graduated from the University of Oregon.
In 1921, Mary and three friends from Russ High School founded the Thursday Club that would provide "warm friendship" and offer "cultural opportunities" and "civic and benevolent activities." Mary was elected the first president of the Thursday Club, serving from 1921 to 1922, and again from 1923 to 1924. Later, both Mildred and Noreen became equally involved in the Thursday Club. Within seven years, the organization had 140 members. This 501 (c) (3) organization still exists and continues to raise substantial amounts of money for many organizations, such as Children's Hospital, Goodwill Industries, and the Cancer Society.
Left Veronica was an accomplished musician, who played the piano and violin, and a talented writer. Her mother, who had died when Veronica was six, belonged to a prominent family in Puerto Rico and, upon her marriage to an Irish engineer, had immigrated to Iowa.
Middle Mary made history when, as a sophomore, she was elected the first female Class President at Russ High School. Her school career culminated in her position of Vice Chair of her Senior Class. She was admitted to Stanford University. Before she could enter, however, Stanford decided to permit only three girls in its freshman class. Because Mary was number four, she was rejected and, therefore, attended the University of California at Berkeley.
Mildred, was as active in Russ High School as her older sister Mary had been. An excellent student, she briefly attended Berkeley and graduated from the University of Oregon in 1923. She married Ed Fletcher, Jr., the oldest son of Ed Fletcher, Sr., the State Senator and real estate developer.
The "colorful" life of Noreen, the youngest of the three sisters, started when, at the age of 14, she got trapped for three months on a three-masted schooner in the icy waters off the coast of Alaska. Noreen received her pilot's license in the early thirties and once landed by accident on a secret airbase. An avid pilot all her life, she had one of only ten private airstrips in the country.
Right Portrait of Mary B. Maschal by Susan E. Rhoden, pastel. San Diego Women's History Museum.
Mary B. Maschal, While Mary Maschal's five brothers went to college, her mother told Mary that she did not need to further her education because "she would always have a man to take care of her." But despite the expectations of her mother, Maschal ended up working all her life, supporting her five children mostly by herself. During the Second World War, Maschal made ends meet as a "Rosie the Riveter," working in St. Louis as a "lineman" making torpedoes for the Defense Department. She moved to San Diego in the fifties, working for Convair.
After she became a widow in 1970, she first supported her family by caring for boarders in her house and later by conducting her own business, a "handy-woman's business," cleaning, repairing, painting and wallpapering homes. After a life time of painful, personal experiences and having been hemmed in by gender bias, Maschal devoted her later years to developing opportunities for girls to learn about women's history and educating young women about the ideals and the struggles of the Suffragists. Maschal's contributions were recognized during her life time. She received the Unitarian of the Year Award in 1982 and the NOW Susan B. Anthony Award for Contributions to the Feminist Movement in 1997.
Mary Maschal's devotion to reclaiming women's history at 1436 came out of her own disappointment over the lack of knowledge about women's history among the younger generation. After moving to 1436, Mary Maschal and as many as thirty women would gather weekly around her dining room table, constructing the Women's Reclamation Project, while drinking coffee and eating muffins made by Judy Forman, owner of The Big Kitchen.
Mary Maschal never threw anything away, collecting books, kitchen objects, and memorabilia related to the lives of women. Most significantly, she inherited the Alice Park collection of objects of the Women's Suffragist Movement. This treasure trove included rare artifacts and correspondence of Mrs. Park, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. All these objects Mary Maschal stored in 1436, in the rooms, in the many closets, and even in the unfinished attic.
Finally, on the day before Mother's Day in 1995, Mary Maschal and her friends opened 1436 to the public. The downstairs of the house became the public exhibition space. Everything was professionally labeled. The event was well attended and covered by the media, including articles in the San Diego Union. With this Open House, 1436 became the formal birthplace of the San Diego Women's History Museum, the name of the Women's History Reclamation Project since 2003.
The Women's History Museum (now located in Golden Hill) has developed into an important and influential cultural institution, with a variety of changing exhibits, a monthly lecture series, poetry readings, film screenings, and outreach educational activities. It has received numerous grants and collaborates with UCSD and SDSU.
Though many of the particulars may have been lost, the broad outlines of the lives of Veronica Burke, her three daughters, and Mary Maschal may inform us of ways in which remarkable women in San Diego, living in the same house, claimed new possibilities in the early part of the twentieth century and, shocked by the lack of progress, reclaimed those almost forgotten accomplishments at the end of that century.
Editor's Note This is an abbreviated version of the original; please visit NorthParkHistory.org, the website for the North Park Historical Society, for the complete version, which includes discussion of Arts & Crafts architecture and homebuilding, the history of South Park, and more about the people who owned the home in the past.
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