Congressional First Woman: In Pairs

Since 1922, a large percentage of the women who have gone to Congress have been First Women, the first to serve, the first to serve without following a husband into a position, the first to be elected, the first from a specific state, the first woman of color, and other variations. In the 116th Congress there are also many First Women, but with a new twist. Six of those First Women in the House of Representatives share titles.

For the first time there is a Latinx woman from Texas in the Congress—and there are two. For the first time there is a Muslim woman in the Congress—and there are two. For the first time in our history, there is a Native American woman in the Congress—and there are two.

First Latinx Woman from Texas

Sylvia Garcia was born and educated in Texas. Her law degree is from the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at a historically black university. She first ran for this seat in 1992 and lost to Gene Green, who then served for 26 years. When he retired, he supported Garcia and she won 63% of the vote in a seven-way primary. She is committed to women and immigrants, as well as affordable healthcare and equality for all. She was elected in eastern Houston.

 Veronica Escobar serves El Paso, Texas, where she is a native. When Beto O’Rourke resigned from his seat in the House of Representatives to run for the Senate, Escobar ran for his seat in a majority-Hispanic district. Like Garcia, she won her primary handily, earning 61% of the vote in a six-way race. Escobar is focused on the economy, as well as immigration reform, and protecting the environment.

First Muslim Woman in Congress

Ilhan Omar was the First Somali American elected to legislative office in the United States when she joined the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2016. Now she is the First Somali American elected to the United States Congress and the First Muslim Woman elected to Congress. After she was elected, the U.S. House lifted their ban on head coverings on the floor of the House, so Omar is also the First Woman in Congress to wear a hijab. She supports free college tuition for those in certain income levels, Medicare for All, and LGBT rights.

Rashida Tlaib represents a portion of Detroit and its suburbs. She was the First Muslim Woman to serve in the Michigan legislature, one of ten Muslims serving in state legislatures in the entire United States. She is the First Palestinian-American Woman in Congress and also, along with Omar, the First Muslim Woman. She says, “Sometimes I say ‘Thank her’ because my Allah is She.” Tlaib supports Medicare for All, wants to abolish ICE, and supports a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

First Native American Woman in Congress

Sharice Davids is the first openly gay person elected to the U.S. Congress from Kansas. She is also the First Native American woman elected to Congress. She is an attorney, a former mixed martial artist, and a member of the Ho-Chunk people. She learned to be a strong woman from her mother who served in the Army for more than 20 years. Davids beat out a candidate who had been endorsed by Bernie Sanders in the primary. She is focused on having a Congress that functions better, and has worked in the past on social services for native populations.

Deb Haaland is also an attorney and represents the Albuquerque portion of New Mexico where she is a member of the Laguna Pueblo people. She shares a history with Davids as her mother was in the U.S. Navy. Her father also served in the Marine Corps and won a Silver Star in Vietnam. Haaland ran for Lieutenant Governor of New Mexico on the Democratic ticket but lost to the Republicans whose Governor candidate, Susana Martinez, was the First Woman governor of New Mexico, and the First Hispanic Governor in the United States. Haaland wore traditional Pueblo dress when she was sworn into Congress. Her primary focus is on the climate and environment.

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Women Senators in the 116th Congress

The media has been abuzz with news about the number of new women entering the 116thCongress, and we should celebrate! However, that celebration should be tempered a bit. When we look at the United States Senate, we find that the number of women did not increase in the past election. Two new women were elected to the Senate, but two women were defeated, so the number of women in the Senate remains at the same.

The two women who lost their seats are First Women:

–Heidi Heitkamp, the First Woman elected to the U.S. Senate from North Dakota, lost her uphill battle as a Democrat in a Trump state.

 

–Claire McCaskill, the First Woman elected to represent Missouri in the U.S. Senate, did not survive $39.5 million in attack ads by outside groups.

 

The two new women elected to the Senate are also First Women:

— Krysten Sinema, the First Woman elected from Arizona, is also the first openly bisexual member of Congress. The most exciting thing about her race was that Arizona had two women running for the seat, so a woman was assured that position even before the election.

 

–Jacky Rosen is the First Woman freshman member of the House of Representatives to win a seat in the Senate. She represents Nevada, one of five states that have two women Senators: California, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Washington.

The Senate now has, as in the previous Congress, twenty-three women among its members. Women, who are a majority in the country, are a significant minority in the Senate. The math is easy: 100 Senators with 23 women equals 23% women. And, remember those five states with two women senators. That means that only 18 of the 50 states have women representing them in the Senate.

There’s one more way to look at the representation of women in the Senate. Let’s round up the number of women, not because I’m feeling generous, but because the math is easier. Let’s say one-fourth of the Senate is comprised of women. That means that one of every four Senators is a woman, and three of every four is a man. Translation: there are three times as many men as women in the U.S. Senate.

I would not be one to argue that men can only represent men and women can only represent women. There have always been men who represented women well. In fact, were it not for men, women would not have the right to vote. And women can certainly represent men. My own Senator Patty Murray is a valiant advocate for veterans, the majority of whom are men. And yet it seems that true representation of the population for this country might look a bit different than it does now. So, let’s celebrate women’s successes, but let’s keep them in perspective.

Nevada is Number One!

Happy New Year! In 2019 we will see some exciting women participating in the U.S. Congress for the first time—and I will be writing about them. Let’s start the year though with some exciting news out of the Western United States.

Nevada is the first state in the United States to have more women in its legislature than men. Women hold 51% of the 63 seats in the Nevada legislature. This percentage is comparable to the population of the United States, as women are 51% of the total nationally.

In mid-December, the Clark County Board of Commissioners selected Beatrice Duran and Rochelle Thuy Nguyen to fill two vacant seats in the legislature. Duran is a staff member of the Culinary Workers Union Local in Nevada and Nguyen is a criminal defense attorney. They will hold these seats until 2020.

As in the United States Congress, women’s numbers in the senate are lower than in the assembly. In Nevada women hold 42% of the seats in the state Senate, but 55% of the seats in the Assembly. In 2009, New Hampshire had a majority of women in their Senate, but women still comprised only 37% of the total legislature. Nevada has indeed chipped the glass ceiling.

This is a cause to celebrate, but it also occurs to me that it is nice for once to be looking at gender parity rather than party divisions? It sounds like progress, in more ways than one.

 

Barbara Underwood, First Woman State Attorney General of New York

        As the country considers the connection between men’s sexual behavior and the judiciary, I thought it might be appropriate to trumpet last May’s appointment of Barbara D. Underwood as the First Woman Attorney General of the State of New York. The position became available when the previous Attorney General resigned after the exposure of his abusive treatment of women. This contrasts with Underwood, who has defended students and staff in federally-funded colleges and universities from sex discrimination. She also has argued in court to protect buffer zones around health clinics that provide abortion services.

        A magna cum laude graduate of Radcliffe College, when its women were still segregated from Harvard College, she attended law school at Georgetown University. She then clerked for David L. Bazelon, Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and Justice Thurgood Marshall, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.

        Yale Law School offered her a professorship in the 1970’s and she taught there for ten years. She also taught at Brooklyn Law School and at New York University School of Law. She left academia for the practical application of law, serving with three County District Attorneys in New York.

        In 1997 U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno appointed her as Acting Solicitor General of the United States. This post is especially prestigious as the Solicitor General is the person who represents the United States government before the Supreme Court. Underwood was the First Woman in that position. In all there have been 56 appointments to the position of Solicitor General since the office was established in 1870. Its appointees include many luminaries: William Taft, appointed by Benjamin Harrison, became president of the United States; Thurgood Marshall, appointed by Lyndon Johnson (and the First African-American in the position) became a Justice of the Supreme Court; and Elena Kagan, appointed by Barak Obama, also became a Supreme Court Justice. (Kagan did not have an “acting” title as did Underwood, so she could also claim the title First Woman in the Solicitor General position.)

        Underwood is 73 years old and promised not to run in the next election. She was approved by the state legislature almost unanimously. Her credentials are impeccable and she was praised on all sides, but I can’t help but wonder, in these contentious times, if her promise not to run was a large factor in her bipartisan approval.

        When she leaves the position, there is a possibility she could be replaced by a woman. Three women have announced their candidacies; all are Democrats. They will face three men, all Republican. Whoever wins the position, it is almost inevitable that more women’s issues will intersect with the judiciary.

Clara Shortridge Foltz – First Woman Deputy District Attorney

Even though she was born in the middle of the nineteenth century, Clara Shortridge Foltz’s life may not have been dissimilar from some women today. She was a mother and career woman; she ignored barriers; and she had the courage to achieve in areas where there were no models for her to follow.

Born in Indiana, she moved with her family to Iowa during the Civil War. When she was fifteen, she eloped with a man who had difficulty supporting his family. He took her to Portland, then to San Jose. She kept body, soul, and family together by writing letters to The New Northwest and articles for the San Jose Mercury. Her husband finally deserted her and she became the single mother of five children.

In order to support her family, she gave public lectures about women’s suffrage, one of the few avenues for women to earn an income in that time and place. She also “studied” law in the office of a local judge, but when she went to take the bar exam she discovered that the California constitution specified one qualification for admission to the bar that she could not meet. She was not a “white male.” Not one to be deterred, she promptly used her legal training and drafted an amendment to change that language to “person.” She persuaded the legislature to pass the amendment, and became the First Woman admitted to the bar in all of the Western United States.

Wishing to perfect her skill, she applied to Hastings College of the Law, along with her friend Laura de Force Gordon, but they were denied admission. Although they did not have law degrees, they had studied enough law to bring a legal case against the school. They wrote the brief and argued the case all the way to the California Supreme Court. And they won.

In 1893 Foltz spoke to the Board of Lady Managers at the Chicago World’s Fair and proposed a new position for the legal system, that of public defender. This novel idea of providing legal assistance to the indigent is now practiced throughout the country. She also advocated for the separation of juvenile offenders from adults. That same year she organized the Portia Law Club with other women lawyers in San Francisco. Seven years later, in Los Angeles, she became the First Woman deputy district attorney.

In addition to being the First Woman admitted to the bar, and the First Woman deputy district attorney, she also held the following firsts in California:

–the First Woman clerk for the State Assembly’s Judiciary Committee,

–the First Woman appointed to the State Board of Charities and Corrections,

–the First Woman licensed Notary Public,

–the First Woman appointed as director of a major bank, the United Bank and Trust Company of San Francisco, and

–the First Woman to run for Governor of California. (She was 81 years old at the time.)

While not busy racking up firsts, she also founded and published the San Diego Daily Bee, and the New American Woman Magazine. She wrote a monthly column for the magazine until her death at the age of 85.

The women of Hastings College of the Law organized in 1991, and compelled the college to honor Foltz with a Doctor of Laws degree, fifty-seven years after her death. In 2002, the Los Angeles Criminal Courts Building was renamed the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center, a visible tribute to a legal dynamo.