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.

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Aretha Franklin, First Woman in Fact and in our Hearts

Many have paid tribute to Aretha Franklin but few have outlined all her achievements as a First Woman:

     –First Woman inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame (and second in the UK)

     –First Woman to have 100 titles on Billboard’s top R&B/hip-hop songs chart

     –First Woman to win the newly created Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. She won this award in 1968, the year it was created. The first eight years the award was given, she won every year. She later received the award three more times and was nominated for the award a total of twenty-three times. She won seven other Grammys as well.

Aretha was an innate musician. As a child she taught herself to play the piano by ear. She was ten years old when she began to sing in her father’s church. She toured on the gospel circuit and made her first secular album in 1961. Her last album was produced just last year. She has so many Grammys, degrees, and medals her mantle must have sagged from the weight—if one mantle could even hold them all.

When musicians we loved as younger people and continued to follow as adults take their final bows, we reminisce about all the joy they gave us through the songs they sang. We do reflect on their lives, their struggles, and their successes, but more often it is the music that connects us to them, and to the world. A favorite tune becomes an “ear worm,” and rather than be annoyed at its intrusion, we rejoice in all the blessings it bestowed upon us.

We remember the special places where we heard those songs played, during our first kiss, while we pondered ending a relationship, when our love was overwhelming, when our hearts were broken. We relive those times, we rejoice in them, and we regret the passing of the voice of those memories.

For me, that connection feels even stronger with Aretha Franklin. She sang words that defined who we were, that gave us power as women, that wrenched our souls. She spoke forwomen and she made us feel like “A Natural Woman.” It is as if she, through her music, did exactly what that song said, “When my soul was in the lost and found, You came along to claim it.” Aretha Franklin built us up and comforted us in our struggles. It is with enormous “Respect,” that “I Say a Little Prayer,” for her, and for me, that I might be the woman of her songs.

LaToya Cantrell, First Woman Mayor of New Orleans

New Orleans, one of my two favorite cities in the United States, is celebrating its 300th birthday. Three hundred years of vibrant history, but also three hundred years without a woman mayor—until last month.

LaToya Cantrell became the first female mayor of New Orleans when she was sworn in on May 7. There was no question that the next mayor would be a woman, as her opponent in the final election was also a woman. She beat Desiree Charbonnet with 60% of the vote.

One drawback for Cantrell was the fact that she was not born in the city of New Orleans, as was every mayor for almost all of the last six decades. She did move there when she was eighteen, to attend Xavier University of Louisiana. After earning a BA in sociology, she studied executive management training at the Kennedy School of Government.

Her skills came to the fore after Hurricane Katrina when the Broadmoor district of New Orleans was flooded by the levee break. The city decided that the Broadmoor section of the city, and a number of others would be turned into green spaces. As president of the Broadmoor Improvement Association, Cantrell and her compatriots mobilized as they revitalized the area for business and housing. Later Cantrell was elected to the city council, which was the springboard for her election as mayor.

Her inauguration was typical New Orleans. It began, teetering on that thin line between Church and State, with a Mass at St. Louis Cathedral. It ended with the mayor and her daughter exiting with umbrellas lined with feathers and huge white plumes, a typical New Orleans “second line.”

The inauguration itself was rich with women. The emcee for the day was Donna Brazile, former Democratic National Committee Chairwoman, and New Orleans native. Music was provided by New Orlean’s only female brass band, The Original Pinettes, and Irma Thomas, known as the “Soul Queen of New Orleans.”

Mayor Cantrell proclaimed “Almost 300 years, my friends—and New Orleans, we’re still making history.” In this year when so many women are running for office, let’s hope she is on the front end of a long curve upwards.

Forward Momentum in the Senate

There were two major developments for First Woman in the U.S. Senate this year. One received extensive press coverage; the other did not.

Tammy Duckworth

Tammy Duckworth, Senator from Illinois, holds many firsts:

–First Woman double amputee of the Iraq War

–First disabled Woman elected to Congress

–First Asian-American Woman to represent Illinois.

–And now, the First Woman in the U.S. Senate to give birth while in office.

Considering how many women give birth, and that this country was founded 242 years ago, this seems almost inconceivable, but Senator Duckworth was the first. While she was pregnant the Senator raised the issue of family leave with the Senate. She advocated for benefits for families with young children or other family needs. She also helped overturn the prohibition of children on the Senate floor. After her baby was born, she brought her infant with her to the Senate floor, and made the news. A woman, with a baby, in public, doing her job.

Cindy Hyde-Smith

While Tammy Duckworth has received significant press, Cindy Hyde-Smith has not. Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi retired in April, for health reasons. At that time the Republican Governor of Mississippi, Dewey Phillip Bryan, appointed Cindy Hyde-Smith to fill Cochran’s term. She has indicated that she will run for the seat this November, hoping to utilize her background in agriculture and commerce to win support.

Cindy Hyde-Smith is not only the First Woman Senator from the State of Mississippi, she is, in fact, the First Woman to represent Mississippi in Congress. Perhaps, the long dry spell is not surprising, given that Mississippi did not ratify the Nineteenth Amendment that gave women the right to vote until 1984. But in Mississippi’s defense, there are still 20 states that have never sent a woman to the Senate. Do the math: 20 out of 50 states (or 40%) have never elected a woman Senator.

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Only 52 women have served in the Senate in the span of U.S. history; and only 23 are serving at this time. Once again, do the math: 23 women out of 100 (or 23%) represent more than 50% of the population. They have said that, given past progress, it will take another 100 years for women to achieve parity in Congress. Perhaps Senators Duckworth and Hyde-Smith are barrier-breakers who can speed up the trajectory for women’s success.

 

 

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.