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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Unmasking History: Who Was Behind the Anti-Mask League Protests During the 1918 Influenza Epidemic in San Francisco?

Published Web Location Commons 'BY-NC-ND' version 4.0 license

On April 17, 2020, San Francisco Mayor London Breed did something that had not been done for 101 years. She issued an order that face masks be worn in public as a measure to help prevent the spread of infectious disease in the midst of a pandemic. This act promptly raised questions about how things were handled a century ago. The media soon picked up on the antics of an “Anti-Mask League” that was formed in San Francisco to protest this inconvenience, noting some historical parallels with public complaint about government overreach. This essay dives deeper into the historical context of the anti-mask league to uncover more information about the identity and possible motivations of those who organized these protests. In particular it shines light on the fascinating presence of the leading woman in the campaign—lawyer, suffragette, and civil rights activist, Mrs. E.C. Harrington.

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