From Roots of a Socialite, a Social Activist Grew

Times Staff Writer

Eighty-six years before a group of Northern California women spelled P-E-A-C-E with their bare bodies to oppose war with Iraq, a forthright socialite who kept her clothes on was just as outspoken about World War I.

The properly brought-up Los Angeles woman was threatened with tar and feathers and kept under government surveillance for standing up for peace amid a clamor for war. She did so at a time when she, like other women, wasn’t even allowed to vote.

Fanny Bixby Spencer, one of California’s richest women, was a gutsy turn-of-the-century social and political activist who cared more for her causes than for the approval of society.

From the slums of Boston and San Francisco to the streets of Los Angeles and the farmlands of Costa Mesa, her turbulent political career was marked by a commitment to the downtrodden and to a world free of war. She was a celebrity heroine to many, and a celebrity dupe to others who jeered her in the streets. Daughter of Jotham Bixby, “the father of Long Beach,” she was part playwright, poet, social worker and philanthropist who roused emotions with her advocacy of radical causes, including organized labor, women’s suffrage and halting the child-labor abuses that helped shape 20th century Los Angeles.

Like a rebel in paradise, she spent most of her life caught up in socialism and feminism. But she could retreat from that hurly-burly to the bucolic setting of her birth, a two-story adobe on the Rancho Los Cerritos overlooking the Los Angeles River.


She was born Fanny Weston Bixby in 1879 and grew up in one of Los Angeles’ wealthiest families, owners of the 27,000-acre sheep ranch that evolved into the cities of Long Beach, Downey, Paramount and Lakewood.

It was there that her education in socialism began in the 1880s.

As a child she observed her grandfather, the Rev. George W. Hathaway, telling stories about his career. He had been an avid abolitionist and Congregationalist minister in Maine who braved a disapproving crowd by inviting suffragist and abolitionist Lucy Stone to speak to his congregation.

Later, he turned his home into an underground railway station to help runaway slaves escape to freedom. His granddaughter Fanny, a risk-taker like her grandfather, would later write about his exploits in a pamphlet, “How I Became a Socialist.”

Her social conscience was again stirred when, at 19, she traveled to Italy and saw poverty that, she wrote, “struck my heart with such depressing force.”

In 1900, she attended Wellesley College, one of the elite “Seven Sisters.” There, she studied sociology under both Katherine Coman, an activist in union organizing, and Emily Greene Balch, who in 1946 won the Nobel Peace Prize.

As a student in Boston, Bixby helped run the Denison Settlement House founded by Balch, where she taught nursing care and domestic skills and counseled working mothers and immigrants. Three years later, she left Wellesley without graduating and moved to the slums of San Francisco, where she continued working with the poor.

“I looked upon the face of living poverty as I might look upon a whirlpool in the ocean. It confused me and distressed me unspeakably in its terrible, perpetual reality. I finally realized that it was not a disease to be cured by charity, but an integral part of the social order.... What I did for the poor of San Francisco I do not know, but I know what they did for me,” she wrote.

Mickey Mellevold, a docent at Rancho Los Cerritos, wrote in her Cal State Long Beach thesis on Bixby: “Her father did not agree with her political views but was generous with her allowance, which she spent on her causes.”

But driven by a street-level sense of right and wrong that was reinforced by her grandfather’s example, Bixby returned in 1904 to Boston, where she attended union meetings and fought for garment workers to get shorter workdays and better wages.

In 1906, she returned to Long Beach, where she became the city’s first police matron, volunteering to take charge of women’s and children’s cases.

Some of her experiences inspired her to write a volume of poetry, “Within and Without.” One poem, titled “Gehenna,” tells of searching for a runaway in a house of prostitution:

“Fine girls grown gross, bright girls dull, soft girls grown hard and old. Two faces pierced into my heart, will ever there remain....”

In 1908, she moved to Los Angeles and opened a settlement house on Marietta Street in Boyle Heights, a Russian-immigrant area.

She was so generous with the poor that her father feared she would find herself among their ranks. Consequently, he ensured that she received her inheritance in the form of a monthly allowance from a trust fund.

Embarrassed by her family’s wealth, she said she found the life of the leisure class “stupid and irksome.” That did not deter her from joining women’s upper-class clubs and leveraging her family’s political connections in waging her hard-nosed struggle for women’s statewide suffrage, which passed by a small margin in 1911.

Admired among even her rich acquaintances for her humanitarian work and well known for her pacifist speeches, she nonetheless was ostracized for her activism during World War I.

In the war fever that swept the country after the passenger ship Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland in 1915, those opposed to the conflict were considered traitors.

In June 1917, after a local newspaper editorial ridiculed her for refusing to salute the flag at a public meeting because she said it represented an approval of war, anonymous letters threatened her with tar and feathers.

More dramatically, she was literally run out of town -- South Pasadena -- when authorities broke up a Christian pacifists’ meeting. While two young ministers and a theology student were taken to jail, Bixby was escorted to the city limits and released. It was her family’s influence that kept her out of jail, much to her chagrin.

But the passage of the Espionage Act of 1917 forbade her and her fellow pacifists from speaking out against the government. The Justice Department kept her under surveillance and, because even her family couldn’t keep her out of prison if she broke the federal law, she remained publicly silent until after the war. Then she published antiwar poetry.

The following year, she married fellow socialist W. Carl Spencer and moved to the town of Harper, which was later renamed Costa Mesa in a contest she and her husband sponsored. The winner got a $25 prize.

With no offspring of their own, they took in disadvantaged children. They also opened their home to the homeless and prostitutes, as well as to political and religious refugees.

Although the couple donated land for a women’s clubhouse, gave money for school lunches, and donated thousands of books to the library, Fanny was jeered in the streets and called “un-American.” In a 1926 speech, she responded to the “patriots” who taunted her to go back to the country she came from.

She challenged them to deport her to the spot where she was born, saying: “You aliens have come in from New York, Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska and have destroyed the open spaces of my California, mine by right of the pioneer blood which planted me here.”

She stayed true to her beliefs until the end. Before she died of cancer in 1930, at 51, she provided a fellow patient, a black man, with enough money to ensure his recovery, and she shared her flowers with other patients.

Out of her $2.5-million estate -- to that date, the largest ever admitted to Orange County probate -- she left token $5 sums to several of her rich relatives, while giving thousands to loyal employees and foster children.

She left property for a city park and the Costa Mesa library, but specified that neither could be used for military training maneuvers, encampment for veteran groups or the Boy Scouts, a group she called a “kindergarten of war.”

Today, Fanny Bixby Spencer’s poetry and writings are housed at the 4.7-acre Rancho Los Cerritos Museum and Library in what is now known as the Bixby Knolls section of Long Beach. Some of her pronouncements could have been made yesterday:

“The Star Spangled Banner” should not be sung in schools because it is the most “bombastic and bloodlustful of any national anthem in the civilized world today.... If it is given to the children of the nation, generation after generation, as milk from the mother’s breast, how can we hope for peace?”