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.

Gwen Ifill – A First Woman in Television News

Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff, co-anchors of PBS News Hour

A special woman died in November of last year and her life is a model for all women. Gwen Ifill, co-anchor of New Hour on PBS, separated her professional life from her personal life, not even informing others of her illness as she was dying. It is unfortunate that often we do not get to know special people until they are gone. We know only the public persona, which in Ifill’s case was impressive enough, but we know little of their private selves.

A “preacher’s kid,” Gwen Ifill grew up in a family that watched news and news-related shows on television. Ifill saw there (in her own words), “No women. No people of color.” This did not defer her progress.

Ifill attended Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts, a college founded for women, that still has a women-centered focus today. She graduated with a degree in communications and went to work for the Boston Herald American. She later worked for the Evening Star in Baltimore, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.

Tim Russert of NBC persuaded her to make the shift to television and in 1999 she became moderator of “Washington Week” (called “Washington Week in Review at that time). She was the First Black Woman to host a political affairs talk show. She was also managing editor of the program. In 2013 she and Judy Woodruff became the First Women co-anchors of “NewsHour” on PBS. They were also co-managing editors.

Ifill was the only first woman or black to moderate a vice-presidential debate, both in 2004 and 2008. She later moderated a primary debate between Senator Bernie Sanders and Secretary Hillary Clinton, with her co-host Judy Woodruff.

There were several words that recurred in describing her and they provide inspiration for women who still strive to become First Women.

She had “courage.” She strode forward where no one had trod before. “I’m very keen about the fact,” she said, “that a little girl now, watching the news, when they see me and Judy sitting side by side, it will occur to them that that’s perfectly normal—that it won’t seem like any breakthrough at all.”

She embodied “fairness.” She pushed her interviewees hard, but always treated them respectfully, a model for those journalists that now think attacks are interviews.

And she represented “class.” She maintained her demeanor and professionalism.

These (and many more) were the ideals she conveyed to those around her. Having made her way up the ladder, she supported other women. The most touching tribute came from Ruth Marcus, a columnist at the Washington Post, who revealed that it was Gwen Ifill who recommended her for a commentator position at PBS.

Perhaps the greatest tribute came from someone who was not a work-a-day colleague. Scott Pelley, anchor of CBS News (for which she never worked) said she was “among the best we’ve ever had.” Another First Woman of stature and grave.

New Congresswomen 2017

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-11-00-58-amCatherine Cortez Masto is the First Woman elected to the Senate from the State of Nevada. In addition she is the first Latina ever elected to the Senate. A Democrat, she replaced former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. She was sworn in this month, along with three other new women members of the Senate (all Democrats):

–Kamala Harris of California replaced outgoing Barbara Boxer;

–Tammy Duckworth of Illinois defeated Mark Kirk; and

–Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire defeated Kelly Ayotte

Another seat held by a woman, that of Barbara Mikulski of Maryland who retired, was filled by a man, bringing the net change of women in the Senate to +1. In the previous Congress 20 women served in the Senate; now the number is 21 women.

Only 50 women have ever served in the United States Senate. I realize we are late coming to the game, as we couldn’t vote for 60% of our nation’s history. But come on, we have had the vote for 96 years. We still only fill 21% of the seats in the Senate and twenty-two states have never elected a woman to the Senate.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-11-02-14-amThere are two new First Women in the House of Representatives: screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-11-01-26-amIlhan Omar of Minnesota is the first Somali-American lawmaker and Pramila Jayapal of Washington is the first East Indian-American to serve in the House.

There are 52 new members in the House of Representatives. One-half are Republicans and one-half are Democrats. A grand total of eight are women, 15% of the incoming class. Of those, two are Republicans and six are Democrats. There will be a total of 83 women in the House of Representatives, 19% of the body. This percentage means that almost half the countries of the world exceed the United States in the percentage of women represented in their governing bodies.

Although the numbers of women are discouraging, I found something encouraging among the incoming Representatives. In addition to the two First Women in the House, who represent minorities in this country, there is also a Vietnamese refugee going to Congress, Stephanie Murphy, formerly named Đặng Thị Ngọc Dung. Another newcomer, a gentleman from California, was born in Mexico and his father was a farmworker. Perhaps the congress is slowly beginning to reflect this country. Unfortunately for women, however, at the current rate of progress, it will be another century before women achieve parity in Congress.

 

Women’s Day – Election, 2016

screen-shot-2016-11-08-at-4-08-46-pmBoth of the editorials in The Seattle Times today are about women, not surprising given that today is historic. For the first time since this country was founded we are voting in an election where a woman is a major contender for the Presidency.

Hillary Clinton is not the First Woman to run for President,but she is the First Woman to represent one of the major political parties. Translation: This is the first time a woman has the possibility of gaining the Presidency. So, it’s not surprising that one of the editorials in today’s paper was about her. The evidence of how far women have come, after slogging through centuries of battles, is apparent.

But, the evidence is also there for how much work remains, right there in the second editorial about how Harvard University cancelled the season for their men’s soccer team after the team produced “scouting reports” on the women’s soccer team, ranking them by appearance and ideal sexual position.

It is important that we not become complacent because a woman has the opportunity to reach the top of the government. After all, only 20% of the Senate seats are filled with women and a slightly smaller percentage in the House of Representatives—and men still rank women by their appearance and not their skill. We must remain vigilant if women are to be assured that their views and opinions are considered, that they can affect how this country treats its citizens and one another.

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Today’s paper also carried an obituary for Janet Reno. The article points out that she was the First Woman Attorney General in the United States, appointed by Hillary Clinton’s husband. It recounts her achievements and her mistakes. What it does not mention is her terrific sense of humor. She was an amazing woman, full of strength and an ability to laugh. I wish I could have met her.

Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman

screen-shot-2016-10-26-at-12-58-35-pmLast weekend I attended a concert by the Lake Union Civic Orchestra and found a First Woman in the program. But, first, about the concert.

I was attracted to the concert because they were playing two fanfares: Aaron Copland’s stately Fanfare for the Common Man and Joan Tower’s energetic Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman. The Copland I knew well, but I had never heard the Tower piece before.

Although they are scored for the same instruments (with Tower using a bit more percussion), they are a contrast in gender. Copland’s fanfare is a majestic melody, fit for royalty. It is often used for sports spectaculars, corporate promotions, commercials, and space flights. Tower’s fanfare is more frenetic, much like a woman’s life. And yet the repeated patterns exchanged between instruments felt like cooperation between disparate elements, an art women learned long ago.

One of the most entrancing parts of the concert evening was watching the percussion players. Two of the three were women and they were amazing. During the Copland fanfare, the bass drum player struck the massive drum with her whole body, not just her arm, lifting herself off her feet. During the Tower fanfare, the timpanist made sounds on the kettledrums I had never heard before. Mallets, sticks, wrists, and flickering fingers flew through the Tower piece.

Joan Tower says her fanfare honors “women who take risks and are adventurous.” Doesn’t that include most women? Aren’t most women “uncommon” in that they are capable of amazing things? Perhaps Joan Tower’s Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman should be the theme song for my First Woman Project.

First Woman: Tower dedicated her fanfare to Marin Alsop who, as music director for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, was the First Woman conductor of a major U.S. metropolitan orchestra. Alsop is also music director of the Sao Paulo State Symphony Orchestra. She has won prizes and recognition for her conducting throughout the world. One of her first awards, the Koussevitzky Prize awarded to the outstanding student conductor at Tanglewood, was also presented to Seiji Ozawa and Michael Tilson Thomas when they were at Tanglewood as students.

You can see Marin Alsop conducting Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZdqjcMmjeaA