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.

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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.

 

 

Hillary Clinton Owes a Debt to the Women who Went before Her

HILLARY FOR HILLARY       Hillary Clinton is the First Woman ever nominated by a major political party to run for President of the United States. She has established her credentials, campaigned vigorously, and won the title. She is not, however, the first woman to run for President and there are many women who paved the way before her. It is time to take a moment and give those women credit.

The First Woman to declare she would run for President, in the April 2, 1870 issue of the New York Herald, was Victoria Claflin Woodhull who ran for a place on the Equal Rights Party ticket. This was particularly surprising because women did not earn the right to vote until August 18, 1920. It turns out Woodhull was not qualified to run for President, not because of her gender, but because of her age. She was only 34 years old, one year younger than mandated by the constitution.

Less than a decade later Belva Lockwood ran for President with the National Women’s Equal Rights Party. “I cannot vote,” she said, “but I can be voted for.” She received 4,711 votes in nine states.

Many of the women who ran for President or Vice-President were nominated by minority parties (e.g., the National Equal Rights Party, the Peace Party, and the Communist Party). Blocked from power by the national parties, they followed their own paths. Even this year Jill Stein is running for President on the Green Party ticket. The Republican National Convention in 1900 was the first time a woman, Frances Warren of Wyoming, even served as a delegate for a major party.

After the nineteenth amendment, there were some changes, but at a pace suited to a snail. In 1924, Lena Springs, after chairing the credentials committee for the Democratic National Convention, received some votes for the position of U.S. Vice-President. That same year Suffragette Marie Caroline Brehm was the first legally qualified female candidate to run for the vice-presidency of the United States, on the Prohibition Party ticket with Herman P. Faris.

As women asserted themselves more into the political process, there were a number of courageous women who ran for President. Among them were:

–Margaret Chase Smith (1964) – She received votes from only 27 delegates at the 1964 Republican convention, but was the First Woman nominated for President by a major party.

–Shirley Chisholm (1972) – The First African American Woman elected to Congress was also the First African American Woman to run for a major party presidential nomination. She appeared on primary ballots in 12 states.

–Ellen McCormack (1976) – She appeared on the primary ballot in only 18 states but garnered more votes than Frank Church or Hubert Humphrey. (Jimmy Carter was nominated.)

–Sonia Johnson (1984) – She was a minor party candidate but was the first third-party candidate to qualify for federal primary matching funds.

–Pat Schroeder (1987) – When Gary Hart’s campaign fell apart, she stepped into the Democratic race, but was not organized well enough to succeed. She is best known for the fact that she cried when she withdrew, interpreted as a sign of her unsuitability for the position. (When did anyone ever mention John Boehner’s bawling?)

–Lenora Fulani (1988) – Running for the New Alliance Party, she was the first African American Woman to be on the ballot in all fifty states.

–Elizabeth Dole (2000) – Elizabeth Dole, like Clinton, served in Cabinet posts and was the wife of a former presidential candidate when she campaigned for President.

–Michele Bachman (2012) – She won the Iowa straw poll for the Republican Party caucuses.

In 1984 two women ran for President of the United States and ten women ran for Vice-President of the United States, but only one, Geraldine Ferraro, won a position on the national ballot from a major political party. The Democrats nominated her to run as Vice-President with Walter Mondale; they were heavily defeated by Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. In 2008 the Republican Party nominated Sarah Palin to run as Vice-President with John McCain; they lost to Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

And now a woman heads the ticket, heading for the glass ceiling, standing on the shoulders of all the women who tried before her.