Jeanette Rankin, First Woman in Congress

Montana has only one representative in the U.S. House of Representatives and yet it has the distinction of having elected the First Woman representative. Montana gave women the right to vote in 1914. In 1917, three years before the rest of the nation granted suffrage to women, Jeannette Rankin ran for Congress and won. She is still the only woman to have ever served in Congress (House or Senate) from the state of Montana.

Rankin was a native of Montana, born near Missoula in 1880. Her reputation as a suffragist, aided by her brother’s pocketbook, paved her path to Congress. When she arrived in Congress, her male colleagues rose to cheer her. When she proposed a committee on Woman Suffrage, her colleagues agreed and appointed her to the committee. It was Rankin who opened the debate on women’s suffrage when it was considered by Congress in 1919, the year the Nineteenth Amendment would finally pass in Congress, after having been submitted every year for 41 years.

The vote to enter World War I occurred during Rankin’s term, and she voted against it, one of 50 no votes out of 423 cast. She was widely criticized nationally but supported by her Montana constituents. However, there was a mining disaster in Butte during her term and the union went on strike. Rankin supported the union members and Montana’s mining companies assured that Rankin would only serve one term.

Rankin spent two decades working for organizations that promoted peace and then in 1940 decided to run for the House once again and was elected. During her term the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Jeannette Rankin was the only member of Congress who did not approve the resolution to enter World War II. This time her colleagues did not cheer her; they booed and hissed.

Not only was Rankin opposed to war, but she was opposed to the manner in which some had the authority to decide that others could be sent to war. “As a woman I can’t go to war,” she said, “and I refuse to send anyone else.” She also argued that, if the country was going to go to war, the older men should be sent to fight so that the young men could “propagate the race.”

She was not re-elected.

After three more decades of working for peace, women, and civil rights, Rankin considered running for Congress again so that she could vote her opposition to the Vietnam War. By this time, however, she was in her 90’s and illness prevented any further stand against war. One could say she was a fierce warrior for peace.

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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.

Irony in First Women’s Lives

The first six chapters of my book on First Women are drafted and my research keeps revealing ironies that intrigue me. I thought I’d share four ironies I uncovered in three of my First Women stories.

Irony One: Nellie Tayloe Ross was the First Woman governor in the United States. She was elected in the state of Wyoming, the first state to grant women the right to vote. Before she ran for office, her husband had been governor of Wyoming. When he died Tayloe Ross was left in dire straits, due to her husband’s poor money management. She possessed no other skills, so she solved her financial problems by running for his office. Later in Tayloe Ross’ life, this woman who got into politics because of her pecuniary circumstances, was appointed by President Roosevelt as the First Woman Director of the U.S. Mint.

Irony Two: Rebecca Felton was the First Woman to serve in the U.S. Senate. She was appointed by the governor of the state of Georgia, the first state to reject and fail to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment that gave women the right to vote. This ironic twist, in fact, led to her appointment. After the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, the women of the state were irate with the governor and he thought he would appease them by appointing a woman to an open seat in the Senate.

Irony Three: The state of Georgia gave us the First Woman Senator in 1922. In the 98 years since Georgia has never had another woman senator.

Irony Four: Margaret Chase Smith of Maine was the First Woman Senator who did not assume her husband’s seat; she won it in her own right. She was serving on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy as the witch hunt for communists began. A woman of principle, she wrote and delivered a “Declaration of Conscience” from the Senate floor. The declaration proclaimed that every American had a “the right of independent thought.” She signed the document along with six of her male colleagues. (She was the only woman in the Senate at that time.)

McCarthy was so enraged he removed from the committee. In 1997, Senator Susan Collins became the First Woman to chair the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Like Chase Smith, she is from Maine.

Future Ironies? As I continue my research and writing, I will be on the lookout for more ironies. Stay tuned.

 

 

Wonder Woman Firsts

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This year the United Nations selected Wonder Woman as an honorary ambassador to promote gender equity. An uproar ensued, and the United Nations withdrew the ambassadorship because Wonder Woman was too sexy. Apparently strong women cannot also be sexy women.

Fortunately, the United Nations did not have the authority to compel the United States Postal Service to stop issuing a Wonder Woman stamp in October (with a preview at Comic-Con in July). In celebration of the 75th anniversary of Wonder Woman—she first appeared in 1941—USPS printed four power poses, representing four ages of Wonder Woman.

In the first row she wields a hammer. Although this image carries an allusion to Thor, it is intended to represent the Modern Age and show Wonder Woman’s “power and determination.” The second row represents the Bronze Age, with bullets bouncing off Wonder Woman’s bracelet as she fights injustice. In the third row Wonder Woman has her golden lasso close at hand, the instrument with which she compels her enemies to tell the truth. (Where is she when we need her so today?) Representing the Silver Age, and demonstrating her strength and speed, she “prefers compassion to the use of brute force.” Finally, we see Wonder Woman of the Golden Age, just as William Moulton Marston created her. Yes, you read that correctly. She was created by a man. It was his wife who suggested that Marston create a woman superhero, but it was Marston’s belief in a woman’s strength and ability to determine her own path in life that led Marston to imbue Diana Prince with power and dignity.

Nor did the United Nations have the ability to diminish the honor bestowed by Entertainment Weekly earlier this year. The magazine evaluated 50 Superheroes along a number of dimensions and Wonder Woman came out on top. Granted, the ten criteria used to evaluate the superheroes included Cultural Impact and Modern Relevance, where Wonder Women received perfect scores. Her overall score of 90.3 (out of a potential 100) just beat out Spider-Man at 90.0 and Batman at 89.7.

The United Nations also could not stop the production of a movie about Wonder Woman—the first movie about a woman superhero. To put this in perspective: Batman has had nine movies made about him and Superman has headlined seven. And to put icing on the cake: A woman, Patty Jenkins, will direct. Jenkins has the distinction of being the first woman hired to do a Marvel movie. She was to direct the sequel to Thor but “creative differences” led to another director taking over. Jenkins credits the studio for hiring her, even if she did not complete the movie. The movie about Wonder Woman is scheduled for release in 2017.

 

For more Information on Wonder Woman: I highly recommend Jill Lepore’s book The Secret History of Wonder Woman

Navy Honors Grace Hopper

GRACE HOPPERThere has never been a building at any of the major military academies named after a woman—until now! The First Woman to have this honor is Grace Hopper whose name will grace the U.S. Naval Academy’s new cyber facility. Grace Hopper was a pioneer in computer programming and a U.S. Navy Rear Admiral.

Hopper holds the title of First Woman in several other instances as well:

–She was the First Woman director at Ecker-Mauchly Computer Corporation where she worked on compiler-based programming languages for UNIVAC. Back in the days before many others realized that someday we would all have computers, Grace Hopper was working to make computers accessible.

–She was the first recipient (not just woman) of the (catch the name) Science Man-of-the-Year award presented by the Data Processing Management Association in 1969.

–She was named a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society in 1973. Not only was she the First Woman in the world to receive this honor, she was also the first person from the United States who was recognized.

Prior to the Naval Academy’s decision to name a building for her, Grace Hopper also had a guided missile destroyer christened in her name. I can’t help but wonder is she wasn’t a guided missile herself, aimed directly at destroying stereotypes about women.

(For more information about Grace Hopper, read my earlier blog from 2013)