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.


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.




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.

Election History for First Woman To. . .2014

JONI ERNSTIt’s hard to believe it took until 2014, but Iowa just elected its first woman to serve in Congress. Joni Ernest won her seat by casting herself as a “farm girl” who was comfortable castrating pigs.


In Utah, Mia Love was the first black female Republican elected to the House—ever, in the history of the Republican Party. She will be part of the 10% of Republicans in the Congress who are women.


ELISE STEFANIKWhen Elise Stefanik was elected to Congress this week, she became the youngest woman ever elected, making her the first female thirty-year old to serve. The record for the youngest female member of the House was held previously by Democrat Elizabeth Holtzman, who was 31 when she was sworn in. Her record has stood since 1979.

Also this week, the President nominated Loretta Lynch to be Attorney General of the United States. If she obtains the post she will be the first African-American woman to hold the post, following the first African-American man to serve as Attorney General.

A man also made The First Woman To. . .history book this week.

In 2012 Scott Brown ran for the US Senate in Massachusetts and lost to Elizabeth Warren.ELIZABETH WARREN


This year he ran for the US Senate in New Hampshire and lost to Jeanne Shaheen.JEANNE SHAHEEN


As Emily’s List celebrated in an email. “Scott Brown made feminist history. He lost two Senate races in two states to Democratic women. That’s pretty awesome.”


Please note: The photos for the new representatives were taken from their official campaign websites; photos for the senators are from their official senate websites.


Margaret Chase Smith – Senator of Conscience

          When I featured Margaret Chase Smith as the Woman of Note on December 14, I knew she was a woman of many firsts. It was not until I researched further that I learned she was also a woman of great wisdom whose words resonate today.

Screen Shot 2013-12-29 at 9.52.42 AM          Margaret Chase Smith lived for most of the twentieth century and was a woman of many firsts, but most important, she was a woman of principle. A lifelong Republican, she always voted her conscience and not the party line. She supported the rights of women, cosponsoring the Equal Rights Amendment in the mid-1940s, and worked to improve the statue of women in the military, but her influence was not confined to women’s issues, her state, or even her country.

After teaching school, working for a woolen company and managing business operations for a weekly newspaper, Margaret Chase married Clyde H. Smith, who ran for Congress and asked his wife to serve as his secretary. When he became ill a few years later, he persuaded her to run for his seat, with the assumption that she would resign when he recovered. Instead, Clyde Smith died, and Margaret Chase Smith became the first woman from Maine to serve in Congress. Six years later she became the first woman to serve as Senator from Maine. This also made her the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress. Another first came later when her seat was challenged by Lucia Cormier, the first time two women competed for a Senate seat.

Senator Chase Smith’s most important first, however, was in 1950 when she became the first Senator (not just the first woman) to speak against the Communist witch-hunt of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Only two years into her first term, she rose to deliver a speech entitled, “Declaration of Conscience.” The sole woman in the Senate at the time, only six other Senators co-signed her statement. After her speech, Senator McCarthy had her removed from the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and replaced her with Richard M. Nixon. The speech was so significant that Robert C. Byrd, a conservative Senator from the South, included her speech in a book of 46 classic speeches given in the Senate between 1830 and 1993. (The only other woman in Byrd’s book is Rebecca Latimer Felton, the first woman to serve as a United States Senator—for all of 24 hours!)

Following the speech, when President Truman came to the Capitol for lunch, he asked Senator Smith to join him. “Mrs. Smith,” he told her, “your Declaration of Conscience was one of the finest things that has happened here in Washington in all my years in the Senate and the White House.” She became an informal ambassador, traveling to 23 countries, and conferring with world leaders such as Churchill, DeGaulle, Adenauer, and Chiang Kai-Shek. She interrupted her international trip to return to Washington in 1954 when the vote was called in the Senate to censure Senator Joseph McCarthy. Senator Smith later ran for President of the United States and was the first woman to be placed in nomination by a major political party.

Her Declaration of Conscience speech did not mention McCarthy by name and its message, unfortunately, still resonates today (see link below). Senator Smith lives on—and not only in her words. Her Senate seat is held today by Susan Collins of Maine, also a voice of reason within the Republican Party. And, ironically, Senator Collins is also a First Woman To. . .the first woman to chair the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.


To read the full Text of her Declaration of Conscience Speech:

Biographies:  Sherman, Janann. No Place for a Woman: a life of Senator Margaret Chase Smith. and Wallace, Patricia Ward. Politics of Conscience: a biography of Margaret Chase Smith

Also visit the Margaret Chase Smith Library website for a biography, timeline, awards, degrees, and more:


          Does witnessing Margaret Chase Smith’s courage, inspire you to take courageous actions?  

Dianne Feinstein – Senator, Mayor of San Francisco

DIANNE FEINSTEIN, OFFICIAL     Dianne Feinstein’s career has been a succession of firsts:

–the first woman to be President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors

–the first woman to be Mayor of San Francisco

–the first woman elected Senator from the State of California

–the first woman member of the Senate Judiciary Committee

–the first woman to chair the Senate Rules and Administration Committee

–the first woman to chair the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Dianne Feinstein was active in government as early as high school and, after graduating with a bachelor’s degree, she worked in city government. Her first political race was for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. She served for two and a half terms, later serving as the board’s president. She also ran for mayor twice during this period, but lost both times. Her rise to mayor came from a tragedy in 1978. A disgruntled city supervisor assassinated then Mayor George Moscone and another supervisor, Harvey Milk. Feinstein filled the remainder of Moscone’s term and then was elected in her own right. She served for ten years. City and State magazine named her “Most Effective Mayor” in the nation.

When Dianne Feinstein ran for Governor of the State of California, she lost and, in a turn of events that seems almost like a game of musical chairs, she became Senator from California. Feinstein’s opponent for Governor was Pete Wilson, then U.S. Senator from California. When he stepped down from his Senate seat to become governor, Feinstein won his Senate seat in a special election. Because she took office immediately, she is Senior Senator from California, even though Barbara Boxer was elected to the Senate in the same election.

During Feinstein’s first term as senator she co-authored the Gun Free Schools Act, the Hate Crimes Sentencing Enhancement Act, and legislation to ban the manufacture, sale and possession of military-style assault weapons, all of which passed and were signed into law. In 1984, before the Democratic National Convention, rumors abounded that Walter Mondale would select a woman for Vice-President and Feinstein’s name was on his list. A woman was selected, but it was Geraldine Ferraro, not Feinstein.

Feinstein continues to champion gun laws, laws to protect our national security and laws related to crime and punishment. She also is passionate about protecting the earth’s environment and citizen’s health.

In 2010 The New York Times said Feinstein appeared more often on Sunday talk-shows than any other woman. That record probably still holds, because, as chair of the Committee on Intelligence, she is often in today’s news whiles the country debates surveillance of its citizens. She holds another record, not just as a woman, but as an elected U.S. Senator. In 2012 she won 7.75 million votes, more votes than any other Senator in history.



FROM THE National Journal, “Do Women Make Better Senators Than Men?”



Dianne Feinstein: Never Let Them See You Cry by Jerry Roberts, and

Nine and Counting: The Women of the Senate Barbara Mikulski, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer, Patty Murray, Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, Mary Landrieu and Blanche L. Lincoln, written with Catherine Whitney


Has tragedy ever made you stronger?