First Women of San Francisco

Last week my husband and I flew to San Francisco, into that rarefied air that can only be California. Our first stop was San Francisco, or the polyglot that columnist Herb Caen used to call Baghdad by the Bay (back when Baghdad had a romantic aura about it). As we traveled around the city, several First Women asserted themselves into my reflections —as strong women are wont to do.

On our way to Grace Cathedral, where we are always rewarded with inspiration, we walked to the cable car CABLE CARwaiting only a few blocks from our hotel. Little did I know that inspiration would strike even before we reached the Church. We secured a seat on the cable car, relatively easy to do on a Sunday morning outside of tourist season. The iron bar that reaches down to clamp the ever-rotating cable, giving the cable car conductor control over when the car halts and lurches forward, was only a few feet from my own hands. The wooden handle was polished from years of firm grips and I could almost see Maya Angelou, the first black woman to be a San Francisco streetcar conductor. I could visualize that determined young woman gripping the wooden handle with her gloved hand, and almost certainly greeting her riders as they jumped on board.

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Later, on a bus tour of the city with my brother and sisters, who had joined us in “The City,” we passed City Hall.The guide did not comment on its grizzly history, when Dan White entered the building and assassinated gay activist and city supervisor Harvey Milk, as well as Mayor George Moscone. This tragedy elevated Dianne Feinstein to the position of Mayor—the First Woman Mayor of San Francisco. (Feinstein later became the First Woman Senator from California.)

DSC_0036 - Version 2 My siblings, my husband and I sailed out to Alcatraz, that infamous prison of book and lore. The tour of the prison, narrated on an audiotape by a former warden, was sobering, but the history of Alcatraz is more than the history of a prison. The ruins of an old fort still hold fast to the hillside and remnants of the Native American occupation of the abandoned island in 1969 still demonstrate tribal efforts to be heard and honored. Pictures of the occupation reminded me of Wilma Mankiller who visited the island frequently, worked in the San Francisco command post, and raised money for the cause of respecting treaty rights. She wrote in her biography that the people she met there had “major and enduring effects on me.” The lessons she learned during that nineteen months put her on the road to the position of First Woman chief of the Cherokee Nation.

As I flew away from “The City,” and back to my writing, I wondered how many other First Women it had produced.


Afterthought: This site is about First Women, but one statement on a display at Alcatraz caught my eye and pricked my focus on First Women for a moment. Frank Weatherman, known as AZ 1576, was the Last Man to leave Alcatraz. “Alcatraz was never no good for nobody,” he said on the occasion.

Night Witches: Russia’s First Women’s Bomber Regiment

My brother James visited Seattle this week. While he and I crossed on a ferry to San Juan Island for a little getaway, he saw the brochure for the Flying Heritage Collection at Boeing’s Paine Field. One picture of a P-51 Mustang and he was smitten, so we made time to visit the exhibit of World War II planes.

We had not been in the hangar long when a helpful guide came up and said to me, “We have something you would be interested in. Have you ever heard of the night witches?”

“Yes, I have,” I told him. Because I am working on stories about First Women a friend thought I might be interested in the night witches and had sent me information a couple of years ago.

“Well, out of the thousands of visitors we have here, you are maybe one of 26 who have. We have one of their planes.”

And now I was smitten as well.

During World War II, Russia trained young women, many of them teenagers, to fly. They were assigned wood-and-canvas biplanes in which they bombed Germany. The plane held only a few bombs; some of them were tossed out of the cockpit by the navigator in the second seat. They carried no parachutes because the planes were so small they needed the extra weight for bombs and they flew so low the parachute wouldn’t be effective anyway.

They often flew eight missions a night, sitting in the cold to refuel and reload then flying out into a sky so cold their feet froze to their boots.

They would approach their targets, then idle the engine and glide to the bombing target at an extremely low altitude. They flew 23,000 sorties for what became the most decorated unit in Russia.

Polikarpov Po-2 biplane – 23 women received the “Hero of the Soviet Union” citation.


Two anecdotes show their ferocity:

When the pilot of a plane was shot on one sortie, the navigator stood, leaned forward, pulled the pilot off the yoke and flew the plane back to base from the back seat.

Another pilot was fired upon and caught in the searchlights. She pretended she was shot and spiraled downward. The shooting stopped and eventually she was out of the searchlights. At that point she gunned the motor and flew away.

Because of their stealth tactics, the Germans feared their raids. As has happened throughout history, when men are confronted by women’s actions they cannot understand, the fliers were labeled “Night Witches.” The Russians called them “Heavenly Creatures.”


Flying Heritage Collection

The exhibit at Paine Field near Everett, Washington has American, Japanese, German, Russian and British planes from World War II as well as rockets and jeeps. The planes are operational and are flown periodically. Even if you don’t love planes, the trip is worth it for the history. Learn more at:

First Male Spouse

Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 9.58.24 PM        I thought I had written enough about First Women in the White House, at least for now, but former President Bill Clinton led me to an addendum. Recently, he said,

“There has been a lot of talk about breaking the glass ceiling. . .

I want to break a ceiling. I am tired of the stranglehold that women have had

on the position of America’s first spouse.”

         Okay, first, we laugh. Then we realize that if we have a woman president, a male presidential spouse would be in the same position as all First Women. Being the first of one’s gender to hold a position means the ability to define that position for others, but it also means that the person in that position must expect slurs about one’s suitability. Perhaps Bill Clinton would be a good choice for First Spouse. Surely his public errors of the past have made him more immune to criticism than many other men.

        Bill Clinton would not be the first man who defined a roll for himself when his wife became a prominent First Woman, but he could wind up being the most visible. In any event, I am certain that many American women would be interested in watching how he and his wife would adjust to this change.

        Personally I would hope that the partner of a First Woman President would retain the model set by women who had held the position. I would wish that the role is more than supporting the president, but also one where the spouse promotes a personal agenda that improves the nation.


Musings on First Women in the White House: Part Three


Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 11.05.38 AMHillary Clinton was the first First Lady ever elected to national office (Senator from New York) and the First Woman to win a presidential primary, in New Hampshire in 2008. She was not the first First Lady to be influential; Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt, is recognized as one of the most influential women of the twentieth century. She was not an appendage to her husband, but active in her own right. She was also a First Woman: the first presidential spouse to hold press conferences, speak at a national convention, or write a newspaper column.

Eleanor Roosevelt was no the only first lady to be a First Woman, although history does not do other first ladies the honor of recognizing their contributions. For instance, Claudia Alta Taylor who became “Lady Bird” Johnson, wife of Lyndon Johnson, is known for using her “office” to adopt a cause and work to beautify the country. What is less known is that she was a wise investor, responsible for her family’s wealth. She was the first First Lady to hire a press secretary, work directly with Congress, and electioneer on her own.

Two other First Ladies were also First Women. Rose Cleveland was the first First Lady to publish a book. One of her books, published with feminist leader Frances Willard in 1887 was How to Win: A Book for Girls. Herbert Hoover’s wife, Lou Henry Hoover, was proficient in Chinese, the first First Lady to speak an Asian language.

How many other First Ladies were strong in their own rights? It stands to reason that, just as powerful men today often appreciate strong women by their sides, powerful men in the past might also have preferred a thinking helpmate.


Musings on First Women in the White House: Part Two

Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 11.01.40 AMWhen researching Hillary Clinton’s biography, I noted that she had graduated from a woman’s college. Clinton graduated from Wellesley, as did the First Woman Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright. Nancy Pelosi, the First Woman Speaker of the House of Representatives, was a graduate of Trinity Washington University, also a woman’s college. I began to wonder how many women in power attended women’s colleges. My database doesn’t have that information readily available, but here are a few I found on a very quick review:

–Rebecca Ann Latimer Felton, graduate of Madison Female College, was the First Woman to serve in the United States Senate, in 1922.

–Geraldine Ferraro, graduate of Marymount Manhattan, was the First Woman selected by a major party to run for Vice-President of the United States, in 1984.

–Christine Todd Whitman, graduate of Wheaton College, was the First Woman who served in a presidential cabinet-level position after serving as governor.

–Ella Tambussi Grasso, graduate of Mount Holyoke College in 1940, was the First Woman governor who did not succeed her husband in office.

–Jeanne Kirkpatrick, the First Woman ambassador to the United Nations, was a graduate of Barnard.

I wonder how many more women who are graduates of women’s colleges assume positions of power. And then I wonder if there is a direct correlation between being empowered in an environment that excludes men and achieving political success. There does not seem to be a drawback as these women effectively function in the world of men.