Women in American Politics: History and Milestones


Edited by: Doris Weatherford

  • Citations
  • Add to My List
  • Text Size

  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Copyright

    View Copyright Page


    When I was a child, my parents taught me that I could grow up and become anything I wanted. I believed them. After all, I was born in 1966, in the era of women's empowerment. I never knew a time when there were no women in public office. My parents also taught me to reach for the stars and to follow my dreams. Just a few years later America witnessed Sally Ride literally prove them right. But it wasn't always that easy.

    Ever since Abigail Adams told her husband to “remember the ladies,” American women have been fighting to be included in our nation's collective memory. For years, women were told to wait their turn, to busy themselves with more important work, to let men do the talking.

    Unable to remain quiet, unwilling to stand down, they resisted. They spoke up. They fought not with violence but with their voices, their pens, and their vote. This chorus started many years ago and continues today. Women are no longer barred from voting or owning property, but they still earn only 78 cents to every dollar a man earns. And though they make up more than half of the nation's population, they comprise only 17 percent of Congress.

    Many firsts are cited in the pages of this reference: Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to serve in Congress, who is perhaps most famous for sticking to her principles and being the only member to vote against the United States entering World War I and World War II; Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman to serve in Congress, who passionately spoke out on behalf of underserved and under-acknowledged members of society; and Bella Abzug, the first Jewish woman to be elected in her own right, whose words are a reminder to this day that a woman's place is in the House … and the Senate too.

    But, even after the election of Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House, one first remains elusive. Former first lady, sitting U.S. senator, and eventual secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008 came closer than any woman before her to being elected president. When she announced the end of her candidacy on June 7, 2008, to a capacity crowd at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., she left behind not only eighteen million cracks in the glass ceiling but also a path to the White House—rocky, hard-fought, and paved—for the women coming up behind her.

    A woman's work is never done, and it is never easy. But the firsts—and the seconds, the thirds, and even the tenths—in this book illustrate that our work is not only valuable, it is vital.

    Women bring an undeniably unique perspective to politics, and American democracy suffers when women's voices are excluded from the dialogue. Women have a different way of looking at policy and of approaching the obstacles before them. In my experience, women are especially effective at working across party lines, building consensus, and coming up with creative solutions to problems. That's why it was so devastating that in 2010, for only the second time in history, the number of women elected to serve in Congress declined. Women are already 50 percent less likely than men to consider running for office. In the tradition of Hillary Clinton and all the way back to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, they must work to increase the number of women who seek public office and remember that when they achieve something great—whether it is elected office or the corner office—they must reach behind and extend a hand to the next generation of women.

    As a mother of two young girls, this concept is paramount to me. My daughters don't think twice about their mom being a member of Congress, as I've been in public office since before they were born. I have made it a priority not only to encourage them as young women in their own right but also to share the stories of the women who came before them, women who made it possible for their mom to run for office and serve as the first Jewish woman to represent Florida in the U.S. Congress.

    And even that had its challenges. During my first election for state representative at the age of twenty-five, the fact that I was a woman did not give the good ol’ boys club pause so much as my youth. The men didn't take me seriously because they thought I didn't stand a chance without a massive war chest and key connections. But what I lacked in resources I made up in shoe leather—knocking on twenty-five thousand doors that summer—and I won the six-way Democratic primary with 53 percent of the vote.

    Thanks to my parents, it never occurred to me that my opportunities in life would be limited because I was a woman. It's important to me that I pass on this belief to my own children, and future generations, that women can achieve anything with hard work. At the very beginning of my career, I made a promise to myself that I would never be unsuccessful or lose an opportunity, a floor vote, or an election because I was outworked. And I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the women who spent years struggling to have their say, and be given their due, all with the hope that one day the tide would turn.

    This important reference work documents a rising tide. But there is more work to do. And it is up to us—to the next generation of women—to set the example. Just as we look to Abigail Adams, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Hillary Clinton, the next generation is looking to us to ensure that women continue to rise and thrive in politics and in every other segment of our society.

    Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (FL-20)

    December 2011


    Much like the old saw that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it, an unfortunate lack of awareness of their history has caused political women to continue to invent wheels that have been invented earlier. Over and over again, individuals and the media announce something as a first that is not. Experience matters in politics, as in every other aspect of life, but women have repeatedly failed to avail themselves of the leadership skills and organizational strategies that have worked (or failed to work) in the past—because the past is not known or understood. This book aspires to begin correcting that mistake.

    Brief Overview of Women's Political History

    While women's political activism for other causes predated the fight for their own right to vote, the suffrage movement that began in the mid-nineteenth century was the first robust engagement of women in political life. After men refused to allow their participation at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton launched the women's rights movement by organizing the first gathering in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. The 1850s were a time of great energy for both political and social change, and women's rights became a permanent part of the political landscape during that decade, as national conventions with representation from many states became annual occurrences. This momentum got lost during the Civil War, however, as women subjugated their own cause to that of others.

    In the years following the war's end, women's political engagement and activity increased again. Women in at least a dozen political jurisdictions, from South Carolina to California tested the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution by attempting to vote. The amendments were intended to give civil rights to black men, but not to women of any race. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Minor v. Happensett (1875) that the gender-neutral language of the Fifteenth Amendment did not imply that women were granted any rights, women were forced to set out on a long political process. Overturning the decision meant either winning enfranchisement on a state-by-state basis or mounting the high hurdles of amending the U.S. Constitution.

    Not surprisingly, the decades that followed were frustrating, especially as Susan B. Anthony and other leaders aged and died around the turn of the century. The West led the way, with Colorado and Idaho granting full voting rights in the 1890s. The movement truly revitalized with California's victory in 1911. In the East, younger and more polemically radical women, such as Alice Paul and Lucy Burns of the National Woman's Party, brought new attention. Brilliant strategist Carrie Chapman Catt led the mainstream organization when victory finally was achieved in 1920. It is useful for modern leaders to know that more than two million people paid dues to her organization, constituting a much greater proportion of the population than today's political groups.

    In the first election in which all women could vote, 1922, many dozens were the first elected to offices in their state, but the Roaring Twenties developed as socially liberal and politically conservative. In terms of the election of women, that political conservatism continued in the 1930s, when the Great Depression meant that women gave up all sorts of jobs, including political ones, to men. World War II in the next decade again brought much social change, but little political achievement. The era nonetheless produced significant women who have been largely forgotten, including women who chaired the House Labor Committee and the House Veterans Committee.

    Not until the 1960s did a movement revive the level of feminism that had won the vote in 1920. (“Revive,” actually, is an exaggeration, as most 1960s activists thought they were inventing the proverbial wheel. Most had little to no awareness that they could have benefited from understanding their grandmothers’ experience in politics.) This time period, commonly referred to as second-wave feminism, was fueled by Betty Friedan's 1963 groundbreaking analysis, The Feminine Mystique. Other hallmarks of the period included the 1964 presidential candidacy of Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, the 1965 Supreme Court ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut against the state's ban on contraceptive sales (even to married people), and the 1966 formation of the National Organization for Women, with Friedan as president.

    The 1970s continued with more milestones. As measured by feminist legislation and women elected to new offices, another dip occurred in the 1980s. With 1992, the Year of the Woman, new precedents again were set, especially in the election of women to Congress. The 2000s, however, went measurably backward, and the periodic waves of feminism threaten extant sandcastles, which lack a sufficiently firm foundation grounded in knowledge of past dips and eddies. I trust that readers will find this book filled with inspiration that can reverse this negative trend. By learning and using the lessons of experience, perhaps another crash can be avoided akin to that which followed the victorious year of 1922, when women made a brilliant beginning at elective office but failed to follow through.

    Structure and Features

    Women in American Politics: History and Milestones is organized in a framework both logical and useful to readers and researchers. Chapter 1 begins with the campaign to win the vote, from 1840 to 1920, and the second chapter follows with the numerous women who were elected to office prior to 1920, both in places where they could vote and in places where men elected voteless women to office.

    It continues with women in state legislatures. The first representatives were in Colorado in 1894; the first state senator, in the very next election, was in Utah. Other chapters focus on women in both houses of Congress, from the first elected in 1916 up through 2010, as well as state executive officers, governors, mayors, cabinet members, presidential candidates, and ambassadors. Chapters on the judiciary and on partisan policies are next. At the end is a brief essay on each of the fifty states. Much of the research is original, gathering material that will help students, scholars, teachers, speechwriters, lobbyists, and especially politicians to understand the complicities of American women and politics.

    Dozens of tables cover everything from where the first women's rights conventions were held to which states have elected women as treasurers. Each table provides a somewhat different perspective, all intended to put the political process in order. Chapter 6, on women in the U.S. House, has the most. In chronological order, its twelve tables aim to create a sense of how the election of women happened—and what is happening now.

    Women in American Politics is not merely a book of lists, however. Tables are accompanied by analyses of the complex and sometimes contradictory trends behind the facts of women's political milestones. The narrative describes how women achieved what they did in the differing categories of elective and appointive office. It puts elections in the context of their times and explains the ways in which differing political issues—as well as economic and social patterns—affected whether or not women won at the polls. Much of the information in this reference will surprise researchers and readers.

    Along the way, sidebars offer stories illuminating the drama (and sometimes comedy) of political life—everything from a U.S. representative from Kentucky whose husband ran against her to Ambassador Florence “Daisy” Hurst Harriman's flight from fascists in Norway. Chapter 13 explicates how women entered the judiciary, and readers will learn that the first woman admitted to the bar in the Washington Territory was motivated to become a lawyer after being tried for murdering her husband. Among the sidebars are interviews with some contemporary women in politics, such as Florida's chief financial officer Alex Sink and Michigan governor Jennifer M. Granholm.

    In addition to sidebars, each chapter has a section of biographies on women who may be famous (Hillary Rodham Clinton, for example, in the chapter on presidential candidates) or obscure. Among those who are obscure—but should not be—are Wyoming's Estelle Reel, the first woman appointed to a position high enough to require Senate confirmation; New Mexico's Soledad Chávez Chacón, the first female state secretary of state; and Utah's Martha Hughes Cannon, a polygamist physician and the nation's first female state senator. In Chapter 14, on state judiciaries, readers will discover that Florence Allen organized her fellow feminists to be elected to the Ohio Supreme Court in 1922. The chapter on mayors has a biography of Bertha Landes, elected in Seattle in 1926, and the chapter on cabinet officials highlights Frances Perkins, who, as labor secretary in the 1930s, implemented Social Security.

    Familiar names include those from the past, such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to the modern, including Republicans Elizabeth Dole and Condoleezza Rice and Democrats Geraldine A. Ferraro and Nancy Pelosi.

    Notes on Political Terminology

    Political terminology is a map for understanding the framework in which women have approached issues. Conservative means to conserve, to keep as is, to oppose change. In a political context, conservative implies an attachment to traditional behaviors and systems, which means, by definition, that conservatives can be expected to resist broad social and political movements such as feminism. Leading conservatives who opposed the right to vote are a feature of in Chapter 1. Like Phyllis Schlafly in the 1970s, anti-suffragists were well known in 1920 but because the change that they fought proved popular, these conservatives became obscure. A second example of this pattern is Iris Faircloth Blitch, a U.S. representative from Georgia who opposed racial integration in the 1950s and 1960s. Her reputation declined, and she is largely forgotten. Those who championed change, such as U.S. representative Shirley Anita Chisholm, are remembered as more heroic.

    Those who worked for racial integration in the mid-twentieth century and for the abolition of slavery a century earlier were classified as liberal, which by dictionary definition means forwarding-thinking and open to new ideas. Its definition in terms of political science also stresses belief in gradual reform and planned, democratic change, as opposed to impulsiveness, violence, censorship, and armed force. Liberalism is not restricted to one party. Many of the initial Republican women in Congress were more liberal, especially on race, than their Democratic counterparts. Great variation can exist even within a party. Montana Republican Jeannette Rankin, the first woman in Congress, worked for the vote full time and was such a thorough-going pacifist that she opposed both World War I and World War II. The second woman in the U.S. House, Oklahoma's Mary Alice Robertson, also was a Republican but so inherently conservative that she had opposed her own right to vote.

    The least ambiguous political term was adopted by Progressives, or Populists, who were vital to changing political discourse from the 1880s to the 1920s. As befits champions of progress toward improved democracy, the Progressive Party supported the vote and included women in leadership. The clearest examples of Progressive success were the two constitutional amendments ratified in 1913, predating women's full enfranchisement. The Sixteenth Amendment gave Congress the authority to collect income taxes, overturning U.S. Supreme Court action declaring such taxes unconstitutional. The Seventeenth Amendment provided for the direct election of U.S. senators, who up until that point had been elected by state legislatures.

    Possibly a victim of its own success, the Progressive Party died out soon after the 1920 amendment that enfranchised all women, but many minor parties—with participation from women—have influenced politics both before and after it. Women from major political parties were a minority among the first female legislators, in Colorado during the 1890s. The nine included no Democrats but represented the Populist, Silver Republican, Fusion, and other parties. From the American (Know-Nothing) Party of the 1840s to the left-leaning Green Party and the right-leaning Tea Party of the 2000s, some women inevitably join some men in marching to the different drummers of minor parties.

    Some of these women are mentioned at the end of the book, where the state-by-state guide emphasizes the pioneer women's movement, mainly because the myriad details of that older story are the least accessible today. While the state section expends more words on the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, modern women are more likely to be covered in the first eighteen chapters. Each chapter also has a fairly lengthy bibliography about the topic—women in the federal judiciary, for instance, or female activists in the political parties—while the individual states have much shorter bibliographies directly related to that state.

    The name and subject indexes should prove a useful guide for finding specific information. For example, the narrative about Vermont in the state section refers to Consuelo Northrop Bailey. The indexes take users to Chapter 5 on state senators, where readers will discover that she was the nation's first female senate president, as well as Speaker of the Vermont House. That might lead to curiosity about whether Bailey's speakership also was a national first. Chapter 4, on state representatives, will answer the question: Vermont was preceded by North Dakota.

    The indexes are the bridge connecting pieces of an individual woman's history. For example, March Fong Eu appears in the California profile in the state section, and the indexes lead users to her biography in Chapter 3, on the first women elected to statewide executive offices. The Pennsylvania narrative mentions Kathleen “Kathy” Dahlkemper, and the indexes lead to Chapter 6, where readers learn that her husband was the first man to be president of the Congressional Spouses Club.

    Special Challenges in Researching Women's History

    That leads to marriage and marital honorifics. Sometimes they are used because the only name that can be found for a woman is that of her husband. This is particularly true for the tables in Chapter 1 of prominent suffragists and anti-suffragists. Even when a woman's full name is known, marital honorifics can be helpful to researchers, which is why they especially are used with the generally unknown women listed among the states as the first presidents of the League of Women Voters. A researcher looking for more on Connecticut's Miss Mabel Washburn, for example, may appreciate being aware that her name might have changed a few years later.

    Name change is one of the most serious problems in doing women's history. All too often, meritorious women have been forgotten simply because historians found it too difficult to track them in the newspapers and other documents of their lives, when their names may have differed. Women who married and changed names after their moment of fame are particularly difficult to trace.

    Some cases still are confused. For example, more research needs to be done before it can be said with assurance that Nettie C. Tator, who applied to the California bar in 1872, was the same person as Annette W. Cronise, who was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1873. She probably left her brief marriage, practiced with her sister, Florence Cronise, and became Nettie Cronise Lutes after a second marriage. The book provides many such starting points for young historians and political scientists.

    Even more intriguing questions occur about possible conflict between kinswomen. Was Delaware's Emily P. Bissell, who was perhaps the nation's strongest anti-suffragist, from the same family as Hannah S. Bissell, a supporter in Ohio? Was Mrs. Garrett A. Hobart, a New Jersey anti-suffragist, kin to Baltimore's Mary Garrett or New York's Mary Garrett Hays, who were leading supporters? And was Elizabeth Boynton Hobart, a pioneer feminist in Illinois and Indiana, related to New Jersey's anti-feminist Hobart?

    Some other relations, especially mother and daughter teams, are known. The first woman elected to a legislature in the South was Mississippi's Nellie Nugent Somerville in 1922. Her daughter, Lucy Somerville Howorth, won a seat during the next decade. Mamie Shields Pyle was South Dakota's prominent suffragist, and her daughter, Gladys Pyle, was the only woman elected to significant offices in that state. Ohio representative Frances Payne Bolton served at the same time as her son, Oliver Payne Bolton. He was not nearly as good a politician, however, and her tenure was much longer.

    Modern examples also exist, sometimes with the same name and sometimes different. Missouri's Jean Carnahan and daughter Robin Carnahan both won major elections, but is it much harder to tell that Nevada treasurer Patty Cafferata is the daughter of Rep. Barbara Farrell Vucanovich. They managed a notable political feat in 1982, when both won their positions in the same election cycle. But even in the Internet age, such questions recur. Perhaps an Oregon historian can explain what, if any, is the connection between three women named Roberts who held high office there in the 1980s and 1990s.

    The state sketches also list pioneer feminist publications. The known ones range from none in many states to four in Indiana. I trust that when researchers visit their state archives, they will appreciate knowing, for example, that Rhode Islander Anna W. Spencer began publishing Pioneer and Woman's Advocate in 1852, and Arkansans could subscribe to Woman's Chronicle in 1888.

    A final area of women's history that is hugely important, but is not often explored, is the effect of pregnancy, especially unintended pregnancy, on careers. Was, for example, future emissary Mary McLeod Bethune pregnant when she married and added that surname? It seems probable, as her husband dropped out of her life almost immediately. Rep. Ruth Bryan Owen may have been pregnant instead of merely rebellious when, at barely eighteen, she left college and married a much older man. Women's history is more complicated than “men's history,” and researchers have only begun to look seriously for its lessons.

    Acknowledgments and Notes on Sources

    The primary source of historical information up to 1922 is the History of Woman Suffrage. The first three of these six tomes—one of which exceeds a thousand pages—were written by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Matilda Joslyn Gage. Although the least known, Gage arguably was the best writer and theorist among the three women. She definitely was the most knowledgeable about women's global history. Those volumes were published in the 1880s, and Gage split with Anthony and Stanton in 1890, forming her own Woman's National Liberal Union. A few years later, the National American Woman Suffrage Association formally condemned Stanton, its former president, for her Woman's Bible (1895). Thus Anthony saw to publication of the fourth volume in 1902 on her own, with assistance from her secretary and publicist Ida Husted Harper. Harper wrote the remaining volumes, published in 1922. Those last two volumes are the source for much of the information in Chapters 1 through 3, especially for political women prior to the Nineteenth Amendment, as well as for many of the women in the section on states.

    Several individuals helped dig out the mostly unknown women featured in Chapters 2 and 3, especially Phillip J. Roberts of the University of Wyoming —who replied to my inquiry from Dubai—as well as Dan Chavez of the University of New Mexico and Sarah Walker of the North Dakota State Archives. Because North Dakota elected the first woman to statewide office, in 1892, and other western states followed with women as state superintendents of schools, the National Council of State School Officials also was a source. Throughout the book, but especially in Chapter 3, a great deal of thanks is due to the Center for Women and Politics at Rutgers University, which has been maintaining excellent records of women elected to statewide offices and to Congress for many years. It is a fundamental source for anyone interested in the topic, and the same may be said of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University, which also has answered my inquiries.

    Chapters 4 and 5, on state legislators, owe a tremendous debt to Elizabeth M. Cox's extremely detailed Women State and Territorial Legislators, 1895–1995: A State-by-State Analysis, with Rosters of 6,000 Women, which was published by McFarland and Co. in 1995. A second source is Women Wielding Power, a “cyber-exhibit” by the National Women's History Museum (NWHM) in Washington, DC. Although I was the curator for this 2007 work, NWHM's program director, Nikki Emser, did its graphics, much of the research, and all of the supervision of interns who worked on the project. Robin Read, longtime executive director of the National Federation of Women Legislators, also was helpful for these chapters. Special thanks is due, too, to Lois Ricciardi for her research on one of the biographies, that of Florida's Mary Lou Baker.

    More than any other source, Chapters 6 and 7 depend on Women in Congress, 1917–1990, which was issued by the Office of the House Historian in 1991. The House committee officially in charge of its publication was chaired by Rep. Corinne Claiborne “Lindy” Boggs of Louisiana. The House subsequently updated that work, publishing more than a thousand pages in Women in Congress, 1917–2006, with that committee headed by Rep. Marcia Carolyn “Marcy” Kaptur of Ohio. Second to congressional sources is Almanac of American Politics, which began publishing its biannual volumes on members of Congress in 1972, as well as the biographies of women members of Congress that were written by Mary Ellen Snodgrass in the four-volume encyclopedia A History of Women in the United States: A State-by-State Reference, of which I was general editor.

    Bruce Calvin and Ann S. Kelly of the National League of Cities provided information for Chapter 9 on mayors, as did Frances S. Pollard and Joan Crigger of the National Conference of Mayors. Special thanks for Chapter 10 again are due to Nikki Emser of the National Women's History Museum, who supervised interns in creating “First But Not Last: Women Who Ran for President,” which was launched early in 2008. I was a consultant on this project, and Kristen Blake created lesson plans.

    The American Bar Association was helpful with the chapters on the judiciary, and the last chapters on organizations, parties, and political action committees are based largely on information provided directly by the groups profiled. In the section on states, those who answered obscure questions include Mary Libby Payne of Mississippi, and South Carolina historians Marjorie Spruill, Keller H. Barron, and Sheila Henry. My friend from graduate school days, retired judge Bea Ann Smith of Austin, provided answers and colorful context on Texas.

    Hilary Poole and Valerie Tomaselli of MTM Publishing have been my faithful business associates for more than a decade, and I greatly value both their editorial skills and their steadfast encouragement. It goes without saying, but perhaps should be said, that thanks always are due to my wonderfully supportive husband, Roy Weatherford, and our daughter, Margaret Prater, who is a law librarian with the Department of Justice. They not only are personally important, but often are helpful with difficult points of research and computer competence.

    This is a book for dipping into, for moving around in, for discovery of one little tidbit that leads to another interesting scenario, and so on—until you gain a broader picture of American politics and its evolving place for women.

    Doris Weatherford

    Seffner, Florida

    December 2011

Back to Top

Copy and paste the following HTML into your website