The women behind California’s landmark vehicle emissions law

Oct 11, 2019 | Environment

By Steve Swatt and Susie Swatt | Special to CalMatters

President Trump’s blood feud with California over its authority to set its own clean air standards brings to mind the state’s embryonic fight against noxious smog in the 1960s, when the Golden State first imposed anti-pollution requirements on automakers.

And we can thank a handful of women–worried about their children’s health–for accelerating public awareness and government action.

Los Angeles had experienced its first official smog attack on July 26, 1943. A thick, brown, acrid cloud hung low over the city for several hours. Visibility was near zero. The Los Angeles Times called it a “gas attack” and reported that thousands of people had irritated eyes, noses and throats. City workers found the fumes “almost unbearable.”

In the ensuing years, the smog alerts became more frequent and severe, not surprising given the city’s rapid growth, automobile culture and its infamous inversion layer that trapped the smog close to the ground.

In 1952, Caltech scientist Dr. Arie Haagen-Smit discovered that smog was produced, in large part, when tailpipe emissions mixed with sunlight. But government’s initial anti-pollution efforts didn’t target auto exhaust, and a restless citizenry looked for quixotic gimmicks to help, from using cannons to tear a hole in the inversion layer to building giant fans to blow the smog away. The idea of using fans was easily dismissed after Dr. Haagen-Smit determined that the electricity needed to run the fans for just one day would require the output from Hoover Dam for eight years.

By late 1958, a handful of fed-up Beverly Hills moms–many with husbands in the entertainment industry–had had enough.

When Marge Levee’s 2-year-old daughter was rushed to the hospital after a severe asthma attack, doctors told her to move out of the Los Angeles area.

“I decided instead to stay and do something about air pollution,” she told Family Circle magazine in a 1968 interview. She and a handful of her friends formed Stamp Out Smog, or SOS, and held meetings in Levee’s living room.

The group’s ties to Hollywood gave it an entrée to the news media and prominent coverage. Levee was married to a talent agent and film producer.

Other members included the spouses of TV personality Art Linkletter, actor Robert Cummings, a Warner Brothers producer and an executive at Music Corp. of America.

Interestingly, newspaper style back then was to tie a married woman’s identity to her husband. Early stories about “Stamp Out Smog” referred to Mrs. Michael C. Levee, Jr., Mrs. Art Linkletter, etc.

Early in the organization’s existence, Afton Slade gave a pitch at a PTA meeting. One woman rose and asked, “Sure, air pollution is bad, but what can a bunch of women do about it?”

The answer came quickly.

Savvy in the ways of publicity, the women of SOS held colorful marches and publicity stunts to garner public attention and support. Often, they brought their children to events wearing gas masks. They learned about catalytic converters and other smog-abatement technologies, consulted with experts, met with mayors and testified at state and local government hearings. The group earned a reputation as a tenacious fighter for families fearful of dirty, unhealthful air.

To increase its political clout, SOS quickly built a huge coalition of more than 400 disparate groups, from chambers of commerce and garden clubs to unions and health organizations. Members were activated before critical government hearings with phone trees and chain letters—the social media of the day.

The Palm Springs Desert Sun gushed that “SOS probably packs the most concentrated and potent feminine determination ever directed towards achievement of a common goal in the history of our Golden State. Woe betide the hapless politician or industrialist who fails to show complete cooperation.”

SOS pushed for a coordinated state response to the smog scourge and a mandate that vehicles in California be equipped with exhaust-reduction devices. It packed Capitol committee hearings with advocates and played a major role in securing passage of the California Motor Vehicle Control Act in 1960, the nation’s first statewide air pollution control act.

The law created a board to regulate tailpipe emissions and included scientists, academics, auto experts, public health officers—and Margaret Levee. The board developed the nation’s first vehicle emissions standards.

Once, when the panel met with the heads of the nation’s largest car companies, Levee was the only woman in attendance.

A man leaned over to her and whispered, “Tell me, how are you going to scare them?” Levee whispered back, “Perhaps I’ll tell them that SOS will get the public to decide not to buy a new car every year or so.”

Warren Dorn, who served on the LA Board of Supervisors between 1956 and 1972, once credited SOS with having a hand in 150 pieces of state and local anti-pollution legislation. The county’s air pollution chief, Louis Fuller, put it this way: “These SOS women are afraid of no one.”

Backed by science and legions of anxious citizens, the women of Stamp Out Smog galvanized public opinion and pressured government action because they—more vividly than politicians and scientist—were able to create a sense that public health was at risk.

Sixty years later, the Trump Administration is threatening to reverse many of the anti-pollution gains that these women fought so hard to enact.


Steve Swatt and Susie Swatt are co-authors of “Paving the Way: Women’s Struggle for Political Equality in California,” They wrote this commentary for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters. To read their previous commentaries for CalMatters, please click here and here.


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