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.

“Outlander” and a First Woman

The writers of Outlander know the power of First Women. In the second episode this season Claire is examining her lot in life. She has tried to fulfill her housewifely duties (with the notable exception of the bedroom). She keeps house, raises her child, entertains guests, and attends faculty parties, but she laments to herself that she does not feel “whole.”

While cleaning the breakfast dishes off the table, she reads the banner headline on the morning newspaper, “Truman Appoints First Woman Treasurer.” Just below is the name of Georgia Neese Clark.

One of the beauties of historical fiction is that real characters can appear in the narrative and Clark is very real. An economics major, she first tried her hand at acting. Later she worked at her father’s bank and, when he died, took over not only the bank, but a whole host of other business enterprises controlled by her father.

In her spare time, she was an active Democrat and supporter of Harry Truman. Men who support presidents often find themselves in the President’s administration, but from the beginning of the republic until Clark’s appointment in 1949 she was only the second woman to be rewarded. (The first was Frances Perkins, the First Woman cabinet member, appointed by FDR in 1933.)

For some reason, every Treasurer of the United States since Georgia Neese Clark has been a woman. The current Treasurer is Jovita Carranza.

The headline about Clark strikes Claire forcefully. She enrolls in medical school, where the white male students refuse to sit beside her. But she persists, graduates, and becomes a surgeon.

Outlander is one of my favorite sins. I crave it and indulge myself in its episodes. I appreciate that the series is adapted from a novel—and that the woman author is making big bucks from her work. It is historical fiction, combining fictional and real characters, my favorite genre developed in my favorite way. But, I also appreciate the artistry of the series: the lighting, the set design and decorations, the acting, the cinematography, the directing. And the writers, first of all Diana Gabaldon, author of the book, and the many artists who create the scripts.

Taking a whole episode to show a wedding night and maintaining tension throughout is a masterful creation. And now they have dipped their toes into my favorite topic. What could be better?

Claire is thrown into action by the example of a First Woman. The achievement of being first is laudable, but the greatest benefit is in the inspiration provided to other women. First Women are guiding lights. We cannot be what we cannot see.

Sylvia Trent-Adams – First Nurse Surgeon General

        Sylvia Trent-Adams is a nurse, and the first non-physician to serve as Surgeon General of the United States (assuming the one veterinarian who held the position is counted as a physician). The position of Surgeon General was created in 1871 under President Grant’s administration, and the first five physicians to serve as Surgeons General were or had been soldiers. All Surgeons General hold the rank of Vice Admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps (one of the seven U.S. uniformed services). Since the creation of the post, thirty-one people have served as Surgeons General, but twelve of them filled the position only as Acting Surgeons General. Four with the “Acting” title served 18 months or longer.

Five women have served at Surgeon General. Antonia Novello, a Hispanic, was the First Woman Surgeon General, appointed by George H.W. Bush in 1990. In 1993 Bill Clinton appointed Jocelyn Elders, who focused on AIDS. She was fired by the President after sixteen months and replaced by another woman, Audrey F. Manley, who was never given the full title even though she served for 3½ years. Manley had been the First African-American Woman appointed as chief resident at Cook County Children’s Hospital and the First African-American Woman to reach the rank of Assistant Surgeon General. Barack Obama appointed Regina Benjamin to the post in 2009, and she was confirmed.

Donald Trump has now appointed Sylvia Trent-Adams, although only in an Acting position as of now. Trent-Adams is not the only nurse to serve. In fairness, Richard Carmona, Surgeon General from 2002-2006, was a nurse, but also a physician (and had been a police officer and public health administrator as well). Trent-Adams does hold the distinction of being the first and only Surgeon General who spent her entire career in nursing. She had previously been a nurse officer in the U.S. Army and then served in the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. Bringing not only the perspective of a woman, but the added insights from nursing to the position, might shift its focus to children and family. One can hope!

Kate Brown and Barbara Kay Roberts, Governors of Oregon

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 9.18.20 AMYesterday Kate Brown was sworn in as Governor of Oregon. Previously she had served as Secretary of State. Since, there is no Lieutenant Governor in Oregon the Secretary of State is next in the line of succession. She was elevated to this office when Governor John Kitzhaber resigned after a scandal that disrupted his leadership. She is not the first woman to be governor of Oregon. That distinction belongs to Barbara Kay Roberts.

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 9.17.57 AMGovernor Roberts was the First Woman elected as Governor and remains the only woman elected to the position of governor, since Kate Brown obtained the position through succession. Like Kate Brown, Barbara Kay Roberts had served as Secretary of State and she was the First Woman to hold that position in Oregon as well. She was also the First Woman to serve as majority leader in the Oregon House of Representatives.