Celia Sweet wearing a dark dress standing behind her daughter Verla in a white dress sitting on top of a roof aboard her boat, Relue with water behind them.

Notable Women of San Diego

Commemorating 100 Years of the 19th Amendment When Women Took the Vote

By Karen Scanlon

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex…” so goes the text of this celebrated passage. 

Women’s suffrage ended on August 18, 1920, culminating nearly a century of protest. Though she took the vote, other rights granted continued to evolve—to live free from violence, slavery, and discrimination. The rights to be educated, own property, and earn equitable wage.

 Interestingly, German-Jewish immigrant Louis Rose, who settled the community of Roseville in Point Loma some 150 years ago, showed himself to be an early feminist in that he deeded property to women. How startling!

A number of well-known women of San Diego began to assert themselves beyond the kitchen. For example, in the late 1880s, humanitarian visionary Kathryn Tingley created an international community of free thinkers, known as Raja Yoga Academy, or Lomaland. It became a highly regarded educational institution.

At about the same time, American horticulturalist Kate Sessions was cultivating plants. In 1892, she leased 30 acres of land in City Park and planted 100 trees a year. She would become known as “Mother of Balboa Park,” and was connected to the philanthropic generosity of businessman, George Marston. 

But there are other women whose contributions to San Diego ought to be remembered. 

The First Female Harbor Pilot

Celia Sweet of Ballast Point was the lightkeeper’s wife. James, and often Celia, tended the bay beacons and lamp in the tower. He also built boats known as Sweet Craft. In 1907, Sweet christened Pilot, San Diego’s first motorized harbor-pilot vessel, Celia bursting the champagne bottle against its bow.

Celia Sweet wearing a dark dress standing behind her daughter Verla in a white dress sitting on top of a roof aboard her boat, Relue with water behind them.
Celia poses with daughter Verla from the wheelhouse roof aboard her husband-built craft, Relue. (Courtesy of the Sweet Family Collection.)

While raising two children, Celia became the first federally licensed woman harbor pilot in San Diego, and also ferried passengers across the bay to Coronado’s Tent City. When she could solicit no female competition, Celia raced the Relue against her male equals of San Diego Yacht Club. Sweet’s 28-foot Relue set a Pacific coast speed record of 22 knots.

Celia Sweet wearing a long sleeved light colored dress holding baby Alton in her arms in a room in the lighthouse.
Celia Sweet cradles son Alton in the living room of Ballast Point Lighthouse, 1906. Those arms also supported a number of boat racing trophies she had earned. (Courtesy of Sweet Family Collection.)
A large cylindrical light with a green center made from many pieces of small glass in different orientations focusing the beam of light.
On exhibit in the CNM’s Assistant Keepers’ Quarters is the 5th order lens used at the Ballast Point Lighthouse. The green chimney inside lens helped distinguish the beacon from city lights as electricity was introduced.

Southern Belle Saves Surfing in San Diego

An extravert known as Miss Billy Riley of Oklahoma burst onto Shelter Island’s entertainment scene when tourism efforts were flailing. Through evolving monikers of the 1960s—Windsong, L’Escale, Half Moon, and Humphrey’s—Miss Billy became the first woman manager of a major hotel and eventually part owner. She served as the first female president of the San Diego Hotel-Motel Association, director of San Diego Chamber of Commerce, and strongly advocated the construction of Ocean Beach Fishing Pier.

 Miss Billy will be remembered for defending the 1966 World Surfing Championships when city officials uttered distain for the whole affair. “Five years earlier, surfers had misbehaved during a similar event,” she said, “and the city was forced to consider the future of surfing in San Diego generally.” 

Miss Billy Riley in a pink dress standing between Kimo McVay wearing a colorful blue shirt with orange flowers and The Duke” Kahanomoku wearing a blue with white flowers Hawaiian shirt.
Surfing greats Kimo McVay (left) and “The Duke” Kahanomoku (right), with Miss Billy Riley, pose during 1966 World Surfing Championships. (Courtesy Billy Riley.)

“I gathered a bunch of those 200 surfers in the parking lot of Bali Hai and told them you’re going to have a rough time in our city—people think you’re a crummy bunch. We expect you to conduct yourselves honorably to represent the surfing industry.” As it was, surfing greats Kimo McVay, Nat Young, and ‘the Duke’ Kahanomoku took to the waves in Ocean Beach, while spectators crowded the new pier.

 In downtown’s Gaslamp District, Billy’s name appears on the outside bronze plaque of the Horton Grand Hotel. “We’d heard that the old Horton Hotel and Kahle’s Saddlery were being torn down and felt the urgency to preserve what we could,” she said. “Some of us moved sections of those buildings into storage in an old garage on Island Avenue, brick-by-brick, windows and everything. And when the time came, we, and other investors, recreated a hotel.” The Horton Grand is testament to Miss Billy’s tenacity and goodwill.

 The City’s History Professor Emerita

Iris Engstrand, PhD, has taught thousands of students at University of San Diego over 49 years as professor of American history. In turn, she says, “These students have themselves become teachers and authors. They serve as politicians, city planners, national and state park employees, mayors, and in other positions of leadership. Teaching others is truly a gift that keeps on giving.”

Iris Engstrand wearing a blue and white horizontally striped shirt standing next to Ray Ashley wearing a blue cap. They are standing on the bow of a ship.
Professor Engstrand on one of her history romps, shipboard with Ray Ashley, Director of Maritime Museum of San Diego. (Courtesy of Iris Engstrand.)

Of relevance is Engstrand’s pictorial history of San Diego, first published in 1980 and reprinted three times in revised editions. “This factual account,” she says, “tells a complete story of San Diego beginning with the indigenous population and continuing through the Spanish, Mexican, and American periods.”    Other notable women were to be recognized at this year’s Congress of History of San Diego and Imperial Counties, an annual two-day conference. But “Remarkable Women 1920-2020” fell by the pandemic wayside. The Congress is scheduled to reconvene, fingers crossed, on February 26-27, 2021 when the contributions by women over the last 100 years will be celebrated.

One thought on “Notable Women of San Diego

  1. Miss Billy Riley became a friend, mentor and a lady we’d all be lucky to know. I knew her in San Diego through a committee on tourism. Returned to San Diego a decade later. While shopping for Victorian antiques, another woman was looking at the same thing for a friend who loved them too. After a while one of us mentioned her name. I thought she moved to TX. She was back and living near me. I rushed to see for myself. A great adventure began being a part of her life and having her in mine. We went to concerts, museums, private parties for significant women in SD. She adore my husband and he adored her. Everyone did. I have treasured the things she gave me and think of her most every day. I was with her when Alzheimer’s was winning but she held out for our last visit. I’ve known thousands of people in my busy life but nothing close to Miss Billy.
    Devoted Friend

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