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.
The justice system in Dallas, Texas is now headed by three women of color. All three have walked into messes but, being women, they can probably handle it.
Renee Hall is the First Woman chief of the Dallas Police Department, beginning her position in September, 2017. She walked into a department that loses officers so routinely they are short 10% of the officers they need. Pay is low; pensions are in trouble; morale is negative. The challenge is substantial.
However, Hall may well be up to the task. She assumes the job after a successful stint as Deputy Chief of the Police Department in Detroit. While there she developed neighborhood policing and mentorship programs that resulted in reduced crime rates, even homicide. Pay was also low; pensions were in trouble; Detroit went through bankruptcy. It seems Hall might understand what she is up against. The City Manager of Dallas said she was hired for her “infectious presence.” As the First Woman she will need buckets of presence to overcome entrenched attitudes.
Hall will join Lupe Valdez, daughter of migrant farm workers, former Army officer, and Senior Agent at the Department of Homeland Security, who is Sheriff of Dallas County. Her election was followed closely as she was not only a woman and Hispanic, but also an openly gay candidate. The Sheriff’s department, like the police department, suffered from low morale. The department was also struggling with corruption charges and failing state and federal inspections for its jails. Valdez turned things around and is now serving her fourth term.
Another woman, and also a woman of color is District Attorney for Dallas County, Faith Johnson. Raised in the Jim Crow South, she was a Dallas County prosecutor and then a judge for 17 years. She has a degree in psychology which should be useful, as this department lacks public trust and need an overhaul. Known for her long hours, and tough attitude, she just might be up to the challenge.
Seattle recently hired its First Woman police chief, Kathleen O’Toole. She steps into a quagmire as the police department has been investigated by the Justice Department and placed under a federal consent decree for use of excessive force and biased policing. A group of officers filed suit to stop the agreements reached between the city and Justice Department, but they did not hire a lawyer, so one can only surmise that this bluster is simply an attempt to intimidate the new chief.
Previously Kathleen O’Toole was the First Woman police commissioner of Boston, serving that city from 2004 to 2006. Given her groundbreaking work, it is probably not surprising that there are other First Women in the Boston Police Department. The commander of the Police Academy there is Officer Allison Gunther, the First Woman to hold that post. The academy recently graduated a class that experienced another first. The class president and vice president, for the first time, were both women.
Perhaps Kathleen O’Toole’s influence here might lead to a stronger female presence in law enforcement. There is an adage from the 1970’s that proclaims a woman must be “twice as good as a man to go half as far.” I suspect Kathleen O’Toole is twice as good as a man and she has already gone more than half as far.