It’s Election Day and therefore, today seems like as good a day as any to share a few random facts and opinions about the history and role of women in U.S. politics.
(That clicking sound you hear is the sound of a handful of men all navigating away from this page at the same time.)
As I wrote on Women’s Equality Day, American women did not truly win the right to vote until 1920. Before then, women could (and some were) put in jail simply for trying to exercise a right that we now all take for granted. Oddly enough, in most states, women could run for and hold public office. They just couldn’t vote for themselves.
The first woman ever to be elected to any public office in the United States was Suzanna M. Salter who was elected mayor of Argonia, Kansas in 1887. She was 27 years old at the time. She served as mayor for one term before retiring at the age of 29. She lived to be 101 years old and never sought ran in another election.
Nellie Taylor Ross also lived to be a 101 years old. As well, she was the 1st women to be elected governor of a state. She was elected governor of Wyoming in 1924, succeeding her late husband in office. She was defeated for reelection two years later but remained a prominent figure in Democratic politics.
The first woman ever elected to the U.S. House was Republican Jeanette Rankin, who was first elected from Montana in 1916. She’s famous for opposing (and voting against) American entry into both World War I and World War II. In both instances, her pacifism led to her either being voted out of or voluntarily leaving office. While it’s difficult for me to accept her vote against entering World War II, she was a woman who consistently stood by her beliefs even when they weren’t popular and even when she knew they would lead to the end of her career. That’s a lesson that several of our current government leaders would do well to learn.
The first woman to serve as a state senate majority leader was also the first woman to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court — Sandra Day O’Connor.
The first female senator was Rebecca Felton of Georgia. A Democrat, she was appointed to the Senate in 1922 and served a total of one day. The first woman to actually be elected to the U.S. Senate was Hattie Carraway of Arkansas. A Democrat, Carraway was first elected in a 1931 special election to fill the seat that had previously been held by her late husband. She later shocked a lot of people for running for winning two terms on her own.
Since 1922, 38 women have served in the U.S. Senate. 17 currently serve in the U.S. Senate. In today’s general election, a total of 16 women (including incumbents) will be running for a Senate seat. According to current polling, there should be a record number of women in the U.S. Senate after today’s election. That number will still probably only account for about 20 to 22% of the total membership.
(Meanwhile, 51% of the citizens governed by this 80% male Senate are female.)
Women have been running for President even before they were legally allowed to vote. However, the first woman to launch a serious campaign for the presidential nomination of either one of the two major political parties was Republican U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine who ran in 1964. Smith was followed by Shirley Chisholm and Patsy Mink (two Democrats who ran in 1972), Pat Schroeder (Democrat, 1988), Elizabeth Dole (Republican, 2000), Carol Mosely Braun (Democrat, 2004), and Hillary Rodham Clinton (Democrat, 2008).
Clinton came the closest of that group to actually winning the nomination and, arguably, was the first woman to ever have a truly serious chance at doing so. That said, it still wasn’t good enough to convince Barack Obama to offer her the vice presidency. That role went to Joe Biden, a well-meaning, old school sexist if there ever was one.
In fact, only two women have been nominated for Vice President by a major political party. Geraldine Ferraro was nominated by the Democrats in 1984. Sarah Palin was nominated by the Republicans in 2008. In both cases, the nominations were dismissed as gimmicks and both Ferraro and Palin were subjected to criticism and scrutiny that had little to do with their qualifications (or lack thereof) and everything to do with the fact that they were women being judged by a male-dominated mainstream media. Hence, Ferraro was attacked for marrying a charming guy who turned out to be a crook and Palin was attacked for the clothes she wore and her daughter’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that either Ferraro or Palin was a good choice for the Vice Presidency or the Presidency. Obviously, there are many legitimate concerns about Sarah Palin. While I’m only familiar with Ferraro from history books, it appears that the same could be said about her. My only point here is that rather than focus on the legitimate issues about either one of these candidates, the media decided to focus on their gender and judged them less on the issues and more on preconceived assumptions of the “proper” role of a woman in politics.
(That role, by the way, is to be a sexless, opinionless, and humorless cardboard cut-out with absolutely no history beyond the day they were first elected to public history.)
Though no woman has ever been nominated for the presidency by a major political party, many women have run for President on third-party tickets. The first to do so was my personal hero, Victoria Woodhull. In 1872, 34 year-old spiritualist, journalist, and free love advocate Woodhull attempted to run for President as the candidate of the Equal Rights Party. For her troubles, she spent election day in jail. The election was won by Ulysses Grant who, it is generally agreed, was one of the worst Presidents in U.S. history.
Since Woodhull’s day behind bars, approximately 25 women have been nominated for the presidency by a third or independent party, everyone from the National Equal Rights Party’s Belva Ann Lockwood (the first female attorney to ever argue a case in front of the Supreme Court) in 1884 to the Green Party’s Cynthia McKinney in 2008.
The first woman to ever receive a vote in the electoral college was Theodora Nathan, the libertarian candidate for Vice President in 1972. She received one vote from a California elector named Roger MacBride.
Both my Aunt Kate and my mom were fond of saying that if women were in charge of the world, there would be no more wars. I don’t agree with that but then again, could Victoria Woodhull possibly have been a worse president than Ulysses S. Grant?
It’s something to consider.