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.

Tammy Baldwin – Senator from Wisconsin

“The times, they are a-changing.” [Bob Dylan]

 Screen Shot 2014-02-09 at 4.08.17 PMTammy Baldwin was the first woman elected to the US House of Representatives from Wisconsin. She later became the first woman elected to the US Senate from Wisconsin. For these achievements alone, she enters the annals of First Women To. . .but she also holds a distinction that reflects changes in American culture. Tammy Baldwin was the first openly gay person elected to Congress. There are other gay representatives and senators in our nation’s capitol, some even openly so, but none had come out until after being elected to Congress.

Tammy Baldwin was quoted in Time magazine as saying, “I didn’t run to make history,” but her success is our history. She has never hidden her sexuality and yet held public office at all levels. In 1986 she was elected to the Dane County Board of Supervisors and served in that position for eight years. She also filled a vacancy on the Madison City Council for one year.

She was elected to represent Wisconsin’s Second Congressional District, a liberal section of Madison, in 1999 and won seven terms. By the time she ran for the Senate, she won in spite of the fact that the rest of the state is less liberal than her own district. She ran against Tommy Thompson, a four-time former Governor of the state, and Secretary of Health and Human Services under George W. Bush. She ran as a progressive, concerned about economic issues such as unemployment, protecting American goods and supporting technology. As a sign of the changing times, the issue of Baldwin’s sexuality was a nonissue, in a state that had approved an amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriage and civil unions only six years earlier.

Baldwin may be one of the most liberal members of Congress. She voted against the invasion of Iraq, and authored the amendment to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (commonly called Obamacare) that permitted young people to remain on their parents’ insurance plans until the age of 26. She is a proponent of universal health care and urges stronger enforcement of laws against sexual violence and all violence against women.

Now that this “rainbow ceiling” has been broken, perhaps we can focus on why women make up only 17percent of the Senate and House. A recent Institute for Women’s Policy Research study showed that at the current rate, it would take more than a century for women to reach parity in Congress.


See her Wisconsin Senator page:

Check out her committee assignments and the bills she has sponsored:


What concrete actions can we take to change the Women’s Policy Research projection that it will take a century for women to reach parity in Congress?