The Silent Victories of Feminist Litta Belle Campbell
When considering American history, we're typically blinded by images of men defying great odds in order to secure some obscure semblance of freedom. Most of which errs on the side fiction and lore. The role of women, however, has been severely diminished and outright under-reported.
Where are the great female figures who stood up against all odds in a man's world and defied the status quo? Of course there are figures like Harriet Tubman, Amelia Earhart, and Susan B. Anthony, but compared to men, the list is dreadfully unbalanced.
Hiding within the recesses of a dark library, you just might find the (nearly) lost memoirs of a figure who changed the role of women, as well as state law, in California. Her name, you most likely have never heard before, but her actions are long-standing, and, of which, we are all benefiting from today.
Litta Belle Hibben Campbell was an early twentieth century attorney who championed women’s presence in the workplace, and subsequently served as the first female Deputy District Attorney of Los Angeles from 1916–1918.
Campbell’s husband, Kemper Campbell, Sr., served as president of the California Bar Association and was heavily involved in state politics, and, together, the duo had a significant hand in reforming much of California’s corrupt political landscape. Campbell herself was known to walk door to door, often with her young children in hand, educating the average Californian voter of the smokey backroom deals being made at the expense of taxpayers. Her tenacity paid off.
Campbell also took pride in her beloved family’s Rancho Verde (also known as North Verde) in the small Californian town of Victorville, which became an escape from Los Angeles during trying times, even becoming a source of income as a vacation spot to the rich and famous during the Great Depression.
In the following decades, Campbell and her family hosted hundreds of guests from all walks of life. Movie stars, poets, playwrights, and politicians were not an uncommon sight during the ranch’s heyday. In a more notable occurrence, Herman Mankiewicz, was sent to the ranch by Orson Welles to finish the script for what would be regarded as one of the greatest films of all time. Citizen Kane.
Campbell was an early model for aspiring career women. She embodied the first-wave feminist ideology of an independent woman who established her own stake in society rather than rushing into marriage or motherhood. In her own words, during her teenage years, “One fear followed me wherever I went — the fear that I would marry and settle down to raise an indefinite number of children on an Illinois farm.”
Campbell was a forerunner in early Planned Parenthood, thinking it morally necessary, and she fought, even losing friendships, to give women the right to make their own decision. Her spirit of independence carried into her personal life. She was an advocate for wives having separate bank accounts from their husbands, a notion that was nearly unheard of in her time. In an era when men controlled most aspects of their wive's rights, she held her own as a strong, defiant and charismatic woman.
The Campbells were impressive advocates for environmentalism in the desert, especially where they had a voice, in and around Victorville. The Campbells were offered over $400,000 in 1929 to sell the Mojave River, where it ran through their property. Not only did they reject the offer, which would have been helpful (as this was during the start of the Depression), but Kemper Sr. effectively killed the bill which would have allowed the destruction of the Mojave River. By result, the Campbells saved thousands of Joshua Trees that still stand to this very day.
Law and politics were always in close proximity to the members of the Campbell family. Due to this proximity, the Campbells had a loud voice and high standing in both the laws and politics of Los Angeles and Victorville. The political climate had undergone a momentous change while the Campbells were influential, standing as protectors to the average citizen over the power hungry elites.
As social reformers, the Campbells made it their sole mission to do what was right in a time that was one of the most corrupt in United States history. With the Transcontinental Railway running most of Californian politics, it took intellectual prowess and muscle, courtesy of Grove Johnson and his sons, to reform California’s politics to what it is today. But it was Campbell's finesse, charm, and silver tongue that allowed her the upper hand in flipping influential opinions to the side of good and prosperity for all, instead of a select few. It also didn't hurt that she held the ear of nearly every judge presiding within Los Angeles.
Campbell published her numerous memoirs later in life. These memoirs consist of slice of life gossip, socialite musings, anecdotes, and recollections of migrating from Illinois to California with her family. She also writes of the Transcontinental Railway's grasp on Californian politics, fighting for the environment in Southern California, and the plight of women of the day.
Her works are Marching without banners and other devices, Here I Raise Mine Ebenezer, Whom God Hath Joined Asunder, Words to the Unwise; cautionary tales.
Rather than let another impressive feminist figure fall quietly into the sands of time, let's celebrate the hard work and courage of Litta Belle Hibben Campbell.