A look at the history of women’s rights reveals that until fairly recently (and, some might argue, not even then), women have taken a backseat to men when it comes to matters of equal rights.
Women did not secure the right to vote in the United States until 1920, and even today in some parts of the world wives are considered the “property” of their husbands. So it is all the more surprising to learn that early Monrovia women held large amounts of land in the developing city during a time when men were the family breadwinners and usually handled the household finances.
Most references to women in early Monrovia in newspapers and other publications were to things we would consider typical for the age and time, namely appropriate “lady like” pursuits. Maintaining the interior of the home, hosting social gatherings, and involvement in bringing a library to town were standard fare for the women of the day. After all, it was Mrs. J.F. Harvey who was given credit for the beautiful appointments in her home, not her husband.
Mrs. Anna M. Spence was probably the most land wealthy woman in Monrovia prior to 1900. She was the widow of E.F. Spence, a former mayor of Los Angeles and one of three others along with William N. Monroe who combined their holdings to form the original 240 acres that was to become the town site of Monrovia. In the 1893 Assessment Book of Property of Monrovia, Mrs. Spence held 371 pieces of property worth $53,595 (land value only)!
While a typical lot would have measured 50 feet by 150 feet, some lots were considerably larger. One can imagine the feeling of empowerment Mrs. Spence must have felt as she drove around those areas of town where much of the land she saw belonged to her. Today such a situation would not be considered unusual but back then women did not usually move in the same circles as men.
Mrs. Spence may have been exceptional in her land holdings, but she was far from being an isolated case. While many of these land-rich women were widows and inherited much of their holdings from their husbands, there were also a number of single, unmarried women who were able to acquire numerous pieces of land in the developing city.
The 1892 Assessment Book listed 607 entries of land owners (this does not count the owners listed as “Unknown”, a category necessary due to the frequency with which land was changing hands at this time), of which 105 were women. It should be noted that some of the owners of property were listed as businesses, and in many cases each entry would have included multiple pieces of land.
The movement of women towards a more equal footing with men did not originate in Monrovia. But the women who were part of the early town certainly viewed their role in the community with a more progressive outlook.