Lives of Passionate Dedication

When First Women leave us, it is worthwhile to pause and learn what their lives taught us. Louise Slaughter served in Congress until the end of her life; Jeannette Woldseth fought to save lives as she was losing her own. Both show how a passion for others can fill a life.

Louise Slaughter (1929-2018)

Louise Slaughter was a U.S. Representative from New York, the First Woman to chair the House Rules Committee. When she died in March of this year, she was the oldest member of Congress and the last member of Congress who had been born in the 1920s.

While living in the Kentucky coal mining region, her sister died of pneumonia, firing an interest in health issues for Slaughter. At the University of Kentucky she earned a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and a master’s in public health.

It is no surprise that she was responsible for securing funding for the first time for breast cancer research at the National Institutes of Health (an earmark of $500 million) and worked for other health issues. She co-authored, along with Senator Joe Biden, the Violence Against Women Act. She later worked with Senator Christopher Dodd to establish a Woman’s Progress Commemorative Commission to monitor historic sites dedicated to women.

Jeannette Woldseth (1953-2018)

Jeannette Woldseth was the First Woman full-time paid firefighter in the state of Washington. She was 23 in 1977 when she joined the Bellevue Fire Department, after serving as a volunteer firefighter there. Her father had also been a volunteer firefighter and her grandfather had driven horse-drawn wagons to fires in Seattle during his career as a firefighter, so her choice was clearly in her blood.

She progressed to captain and was known for her precision and focus. When she first got breast cancer, she had a double mastectomy. When it recurred and had metastasized, she began fundraising money for other cancer victims, knowing the funds would not benefit her. Even as she was dying she focused on saving the lives of others.

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Women in Western Washington Politics

Is a new day dawning? At least on the Left Coast? Women in Western Washington have reached another rung on the ladder that leads to full parity in our legislative bodies. They are running in greater numbers for local offices and, in some cases in this past election, the final two candidates for some Washington positions were both women.

One example is Seattle. As I reported in August, the two candidates for mayor were both women, so Seattle was certain to have its first woman mayor since the mid 1920’s. Jenny Durkan, the new mayor, campaigned as the first openly gay U.S. Attorney.

In Everett, just north of Seattle, there are also two women running for mayor, after beating the incumbent in the primary election. They are currently deadlocked with only a handful of votes separating them. Unlike Seattle, Everett has never had a woman mayor.

Further south, just before the Oregon border, in Vancouver, Washington, Anne McEnerny-Ogle beat four men in the primary. After the current mayor dropped out, she was the only candidate remaining. Vancouver will have its first woman mayor since before the Civil War, when the city was founded.

Tacoma, Washington, a city near the capital city of Olympia, already has a woman mayor. In fact, if you travel the I-5 corridor (running from Bellingham in the north, to Vancouver in the south), there are eighteen cities with women mayors. For the whole state, there are more than thirty.

Just one step down from mayor are the city council seats. In Burien, just south of Seattle, women already hold the majority of city council seats. Seattle will follow suit with women holding six of the nine council seats. Women are running for these seats in greater numbers, as they are for seats in the state legislature.

Western states like Washington were on the forefront of granting women the right to vote, even before the Nineteenth Amendment clarified that right for every American woman. It is not surprising that they would also be on the forefront of electing women to office. A few years back, Washington had two women Senators and a woman Governor at the same time, the first and only state to do so.

Emily’s List (Emily means “Early Money is Like Yeast”) encourages women to run for office and helps raise funds for them. Last year 900 women indicated they were interested in running. This year 20,500 women contacted Emily’s List. It seems women are storming the castle. The ladder is braced against the castle walls. Hopefully, it won’t be long before women vault over the ramparts.

 

Women Head Dallas Justice System

The justice system in Dallas, Texas is now headed by three women of color. All three have walked into messes but, being women, they can probably handle it.

Renee Hall is the First Woman chief of the Dallas Police Department, beginning her position in September, 2017. She walked into a department that loses officers so routinely they are short 10% of the officers they need. Pay is low; pensions are in trouble; morale is negative. The challenge is substantial.

However, Hall may well be up to the task. She assumes the job after a successful stint as Deputy Chief of the Police Department in Detroit. While there she developed neighborhood policing and mentorship programs that resulted in reduced crime rates, even homicide. Pay was also low; pensions were in trouble; Detroit went through bankruptcy. It seems Hall might understand what she is up against. The City Manager of Dallas said she was hired for her “infectious presence.” As the First Woman she will need buckets of presence to overcome entrenched attitudes.

Hall will join Lupe Valdez, daughter of migrant farm workers, former Army officer, and Senior Agent at the Department of Homeland Security, who is Sheriff of Dallas County. Her election was followed closely as she was not only a woman and Hispanic, but also an openly gay candidate. The Sheriff’s department, like the police department, suffered from low morale. The department was also struggling with corruption charges and failing state and federal inspections for its jails. Valdez turned things around and is now serving her fourth term.

            Another woman, and also a woman of color is District Attorney for Dallas County, Faith Johnson. Raised in the Jim Crow South, she was a Dallas County prosecutor and then a judge for 17 years. She has a degree in psychology which should be useful, as this department lacks public trust and need an overhaul. Known for her long hours, and tough attitude, she just might be up to the challenge.

Women in a Local Election

The State of Washington held a primary election a week ago and, although the results are not finalized, there are some things we do know about an unusual race in Seattle. Although we live across the lake from Seattle and cannot vote in Seattle, we follow their news and are encouraged by this past election. It is a harbinger of changing times, an optimistic demonstration of the power of women.

The Seattle election was a bit of a mishmash as the current mayor announced he would not run for re-election very late in the race. As a result, there were 21 entries in the race, including another former mayor. Six were women and four of those women were the top four vote-getters. The woman in the lead, Jenny Durkan, won over 30% of the vote, in spite of the large field, and the top four women combined received 73% of the vote.

Since the top two in the primary go forward for the general election, we know that the next mayor of Seattle will be a woman. She will not be the First Woman mayor of Seattle, however. The last, and first, was in 1926, almost a century ago.

The best word to describe Bertha Landes, the First Woman mayor of a major city in the United States, is “colorful.” Seattle still had the feel of a frontier town when Bertha Landes’ impressive success in hosting a conference for Washington manufacturers led to praise from the president of the Chamber of Commerce and appointment by the mayor to a commission to study unemployment. The only woman on the commission, she received enough notice to win election to the City Council. During two of her four years, she was Council President. When Seattle’s mayor traveled to the Democratic National Convention, Landes became acting mayor. She immediately fired the police chief for corruption in his department, insubordination to her, and failure to enforce prohibition. Notified by telegram, the elected mayor returned early and reinstated the police chief.

Encouraged by those in the community who wanted to clean up the town, Landes was persuaded to run for Mayor of Seattle. She promised “municipal housekeeping,” her term for cleaning up city government, and she beat the incumbent. During her term, she worked to eliminate bootlegging and widespread corruption in the city. She ran a scandal-free administration, appointed professionals to head city departments, and made appointments based on merit. She improved public transportation, parks, and traffic safety. She converted the street railway system to a profitable enterprise and straightened out the finances of the city.

When she ran for re-election, a dark horse candidate beat her, largely by campaigning that a frontier town needed male leadership. Seattle is no longer a frontier town but one of the fastest-growing and technologically-sophisticated cities in the country. The two leading candidates for mayor this year are an attorney and an urban planner, both with a better sense of what is possible and reasonable than Mayor Landes. Hopefully though, Landes’ ability to accomplish her agenda will inspire the winner to push through the complications of democratic governance in Seattle and, with visionary leadership, accomplish great things. Bertha Landes will be a good model.

First Women in the Senate

When people keep telling you, you can’t do a thing, you kind of like to try.

[Margaret Chase Smith]

The First Woman who served in the Senate was Rebecca Latimer Felton in 1922. The governor of the state of Georgia had not supported the Nineteenth Amendment acknowledging the right of women to vote, and the new women voters were not happy. When a Senate seat became open, the governor hatched a plan. He appointed an 88-year old woman, a prominent suffragist, to fill a one-day term. No other woman from the state of Georgia has served in the Senate since.

Today, in 1917, there are 100 Senators in the U.S. Congress. Only 21 of them are women. More than half the population is represented by 21% of the Senate. On the surface of things, that would seem to mean that 42% of the states are represented by women but, in fact, California, California, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and Washington each have two women senators. The result is that only one third of the states have a woman senator. A total of 21 states have never elected a woman to the Senate.

Eleven of the women in the Senate are in their first terms. In an organization that relies heavily on seniority for influence, women are at a distinct disadvantage. The women with the most seniority are Dianne Feinstein of California and Patty Murray of California, both elected in 1992. Only four years behind is Susan Collins of Maine. The remaining eighteen women senators were elected in this century, four of them freshmen senators this year.

Of the 46 women who have served in the Senate, in the 97 years since women earned the right to vote, only 33 were elected by their constituents. The rest were appointed to fill open seats.

Hattie Ophelia Wyatt Caraway of Arkansas was the First Woman elected to the U.S. Senate. Following precedent, the governor of the state had appointed her to the Senate when her husband died in 1931. Not following precedent, she decided to run for election. And she won, surprising everyone, including the governor.

The First Woman to serve in the Senate without succeeding her husband was Margaret Chase Smith. She had succeeded her husband into the House of Representatives but won the Senate on her own. She was an independent woman, chastising Senator McCarthy’s witch hunt for Communists when her colleagues, for the most part, remained silent. She was the only woman serving in the Senate at that time.

Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas was the First Woman to serve in the Senate without succeeding her husband in any branch of the Congress. This did not happen until 1978, more than 200 years after the country was founded. She was also the First Woman to chair a Senate committee. It was not until 1992 that the First African-American Woman, Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, was elected to the Senate.

In 2000 two women, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Maria Cantwell of Washington made history by defeating incumbent elected male senators. In 2008, Kay Hagan was the First Woman to unseat another woman incumbent, Elizabeth Dole, the First Woman elected from North Carolina. And in 2013 Tammy Baldwin, the First Woman to represent Wisconsin in the Senate, was also the first openly gay U.S. Senator in history.

California was the first state to send two women to the Senate at the same time. The state of Washington was the first state to have two women senators and a woman governor at the same time.