100 years later: Commemorating Nevada County’s connections to the 19th Amendment

Victoria Penate
Special to the Sierra Sun

On the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, many people remember the contributions made to the historic movement by two former residents and prominent figures of Nevada City — Aaron A. Sargent and Ellen Clark Sargent.

“The Sargents are our preeminent power couple if you go through history,” said Bernie Zimmerman, chairman of the Nevada County Historical Landmarks Commission.

Originally from Massachusetts, Aaron A. Sargent moved to Nevada City in 1850, where he worked as a journalist, practiced law, and became the Nevada County district attorney in 1856. He was elected to the U.S. Senate from 1873 to 1879, and in 1878 introduced the original wording for what we now know as the 19th Amendment.

The bill he introduced proposing the amendment was not passed during his time in Congress, and it would continue being reintroduced unsuccessfully for 42 years until its eventual ratification in 1920. Although Sargent died in 1887, and never saw the nationwide effect of his introduced bill, his contribution is commemorated permanently as his exact words were used in the eventual amendment.

Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment on Aug. 18, 1920, becoming the 36th state to ratify it and the last one needed to make it an amendment.

Ellen Clark Sargent was active in her advocacy of women’s suffrage throughout the state and nation. She founded the Nevada County Women’s Suffrage Organization, and went on to serve as president of the California Woman Suffrage Association and treasurer of the National Woman Suffrage Association.

“Women in particular, and the country as a whole, owe the two of them a debt of gratitude for bringing us into the modern world when granting women the right to vote,” said Zimmerman.


With regards to the recognition of Ellen Clark Sargent’s achievements, Zimmerman said, “There’s no monument or plaque in Nevada County to Ellen (Clark Sargent), even though she is in some ways one of our most prominent women in history.”

Earlier this year, a project to honor Ellen Clark Sargent with a plaque in Nevada City’s Calanan Park was approved by the city and Nevada County Board of Supervisors, although an official dedication has not yet taken place.

The Nevada County Historical Society, the Captain John Oldham Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and Native Daughters of the Golden West advocated for the project, noting in application materials that Calanan Park would serve as a good focal point for commemorating the movement because downtown Nevada City — and Broad Street in particular — was home to a great deal of women’s suffrage activity, from meetings to a major rally in 1911.

According to Margaret Curry, a member of Grass Valley’s Captain John Oldham Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the organization was excited to honor Ellen Clark Sargent, who was herself a member.

“(Aaron A. Sargent) has a big plaque by the site of their home on Broad Street, so we thought, ‘What about her?,’” said Curry.

She said it is important to remember the Sargents’ contributions to women’s suffrage in the context of understanding Nevada County and Californian history, adding this could be considered the “birthplace” of the movement.

“I spent a lot of the last year talking about Ellen Clark Sargent to various groups, and it amazes me how few people know about her,” said Zimmerman. “We’re finally going to correct an omission in history.”

He noted that Ellen Clark Sargent was well known for her advocacy work during her life, as shown by the memorial response to her death. At that time, she resided in San Francisco, and flags were flown at half staff throughout the city following her death — the first time in the history of the city, and California, that a woman’s death was honored in this way.

“San Francisco knew who she was. Nevada City just forgot, but we’ll remind them,” said Zimmerman.


“It was a family affair,” said Bill Sargent, the great-grandson of Aaron A. Sargent.

According to Bill Sargent, neither Aaron A. Sargent nor Ellen Clark Sargent would have made the contributions to women’s suffrage that they did without the support and influence of the other.

He said it is more important to focus on the positive effects of their work than on commemorating individuals, but that he is in favor of honoring them in a way that highlights both Aaron A. Sargent and Ellen Clark Sargent. In reference to the way they worked together, Sargent said she was a “charger” who got him onboard the women’s suffrage movement and energized him for that cause, and he was open to new ideas.

“That’s the mark of a good leader, someone who can listen to both sides without dismissing it out of hand, and go from there,” said Sargent. “That’s the kind of guy he was. I wish I would have known him, and I’m proud to be his great-grandson.”

Victoria Penate is a staff writer for The Union. She can be reached at

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