This month we celebrate the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage. The legal right of women to vote was established nationally in the United States with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in August 1920. Prior to the passage of 19th Amendment, women had the right to vote in various elections in a number of states and localities. While a landmark moment in history, it would be several decades before all women, particularly women of color, were able to exercise their voting rights. In 1924, the Snyder Act granted Native Americans citizenship rights, including the right to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 sought to overcome legal barriers at the state and local levels that prevented racial minorities, especially Black voters in the South, from exercising their right to vote as guaranteed under the 15th and 19th Amendments to the Constitution. The 1975 extension of the Voting Rights Act ended discrimination against "language minorities.”
The road to full participation has been long and rocky, and even today we’re constantly reminded that progress towards women’s political power is slow. But perhaps we can take solace in the fact that many women who paved the way for women’s representation were not deterred by the many challenges facing them. They pressed on, even in the midst of uncertainty, defeats, intense social and cultural pressures, and what must have, to them, felt like agonizingly slow progress. While it’s easy to get frustrated by the slow pace of change, examining these women’s stories reminds us that, whether or not we all see the fruits of our labors, the work was not in vain.
The earliest entry in our CAWP Elected Officials Database is Laura J. Eisenhuth, the first woman elected statewide in the country, who became North Dakota’s superintendent of schools in 1893. When Eisenhuth ran, women in North Dakota were only permitted to vote on matters involving schools, and superintendent of schools was the only statewide office for which they could vote.[i] In a sign of how unusual it was to have women in political office, a national newspaper columnist wrote, "There was no convulsion of nature, neither did the sun stand still, nor was there silence in heaven for even half a minute when Mrs. Laura J. Eisenhuth, the newly elected state superintendent of the public schools in North Dakota, assumed the duties of her office. All goes well, and Superintendent Eisenhuth is administering her office with signal ability."[ii]
That same columnist went on to predict more success for women in office and also got in a somewhat snarky dig at male elected officials: “It has been predicted that women from Kansas and Wyoming will [illegible] as members of the Fifty-fifth Congress. If not then, they will soon after. And women United States senators will never have to go to a sanitarium or to medicinal springs to get over alcohol sprees.”[iii] That prediction was wildly off — it would take another 40 years for a woman to join the U.S. Congress from Kansas (Kathryn O'Loughlin McCarthy, a Democrat, was elected to the 73rd Congress in 1932) and a whopping 102 years for Wyoming (Barbara Cubin, a Republican, began serving in the 104th Congress in 1995).
Still, progress continued around the country. Sixty-five women served in state legislatures before the 19th Amendment was ratified, most of them in Western states, showcasing the fact that the West led the way for women’s public leadership from the earliest days. In December 1893, following the headline “Western States Favor Her Most,” a newspaper columnist wrote in The Goodland Republic (Kansas), “There has been a marked movement of late years in the number of States looking into the general improvement of the legal status of woman. The movement originated in the states west of the Alleghanies, and although there have been a number of champions of women’s rights, and particularly of female suffrage, in the eastern states, their efforts appear, so far, to have borne very little fruit.” Running down a list of states’ legal advances for women, the columnist later noted: “In Wyoming, women have things their own way. They may vote, hold office, acquire and hold property, carry on business, sue and be sued just the same as if they were men…Yet for all this, none have as yet secured seats in the legislature, although for the past 15 years they have held important clerkships and minor official positions. It will be seen that the tendency in the east and south is to keep woman in a restricted sphere, while in the west it is just the reverse, the idea appearing to be to give her all the rope she wants and let her swing.”[iv]
In December 1894, with a headline capturing the prevailing skepticism of women’s leadership abilities at the time, “Women in Politics. Experiment to be Tried in Colorado,” The Caldwell Tribune (Idaho Territory) noted Colorado’s historic election of the first three women to be elected to any state legislature along with the first woman to be elected statewide in Colorado. Angennette J. Peavey became the state’s superintendent of public instruction, and Clara Cressingham, Carrie C. Holly, and Frances Klock, all Republicans, joined the Colorado House of Representatives. The presence of four women in office, as well as the rise of women’s political activism, must have been a pretty novel development, as the newspaper noted: “Three women will assist the men to revise the old laws and form new ones at the next session of the Colorado state assembly, which meets in January in the new state house, Denver. It will be a curious coincidence that when the state officials for the first time assume their duties in the beautiful new capitol, among them will be found a woman officeholder…The society women of Capitol [H]ill, by making politics a social and popular matter, made this result possible. The next superintendent of public instruction, Mrs. Angenette J. Peavey, owes her position entirely to the women who took such a decided stand for representation in the Republican state convention.” The same column noted, “Mrs. Cressingham took a decided interest in equal suffrage…and in a recent school election she led the women against a cabal that was thought to be dangerous to the best interests of the district. In the Republican county convention, where the women were arrayed with the business men against the ‘gang,’ she was prominent in her bold stand for fair play and decency. The natural result was that in the distribution of offices the women were recognized by the placing of Mrs. Cressingham upon the ticket.”[v]
Historical accounts show that many of the earliest women who served in public offices played important roles in the passing of women’s suffrage nationally, both in their presence and in their politics. Frances Willard Munds, the first woman elected to the Arizona senate in 1915, had earlier successfully led efforts to get women’s suffrage passed in Arizona. The Chicago Day Book pointed out that “Women of Arizona had their first chance to vote at the November election and the first thing they did with the ballot was to a vote a woman, Mrs. Frances W. Munds, into the state senate…Mrs. Munds directed the campaign that won state suffrage for women in Arizona in 1912. Although she gives a great deal of time to civic and educational work, she has had time to earn the reputation of being the “best housekeeper in Arizona.” [vi] Following Munds’ footsteps, four female members of the Arizona legislature who were also suffrage leaders – Nellie Hayward, Rose McKay, Pauline O'Neill and Anna Westover – sponsored the state resolution to ratify the 19th Amendment in 1920.[vii]
Representative Sylvia Thompson, the third woman elected to the Oregon legislature, introduced House Resolution 1 in January 1920, and upon its adoption by both houses, Oregon became the 25th state to ratify the 19th Amendment.[viii] A report by the Associated Press in February 1919 highlighted the work of the first women in the California legislature – Representatives Esto Broughton, Grace Dorris, Elizabeth Hughes, and Anna Saylor – stating “[g]reater support from the state for elementary schools, equality for women with men under the law and establishment of a home for delinquent women, are the measures for which California’s first women legislators are working here.”[ix] Incidentally, Representative Broughton was the youngest woman serving in a legislature nationally; when elected, she was 26 years old.[x]
Twelve states elected women legislators, half of whom were newcomers, in 1924, according to the Bismarck Tribune. One of those states was Michigan, in which Cora Belle Reynolds Anderson became the first Native American woman to serve in any state legislature.[xi] In a statement, Reynolds Anderson said she “hopes to demonstrate that women are as necessary in the legislature as in the home. Too many laws are enacted, she believes, without considering the women’s angle. Some of them would be better if tempered to meet the needs of the wives and children on the farms and in the homes.”[xii] In a related article published by The Evening Star in Washington, D.C., the headline declared “Women Get New Legislative Seats; Three States Added to the List of Those Where Men Lose Pre-Eminence” — a somewhat amusing and unnecessary concern on the part of the editors, as almost 100 years later men still comprise over 70% of the 7,383 state legislative seats in the country.[xiii]
Due to racist laws and practices, many women of color, especially Black women, would be denied full access to the vote until the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed. In the two decades following the passage of that act, 23 states elected their first Black women state legislators (in the country’s almost two hundred years prior to the VRA, only 9 states had achieved this feat). Those firsts include women like Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who was elected to the California assembly in 1967 and later became the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress from California, as well as the first member of Congress to give birth while serving.[xiv] Another pioneer is Barbara Jordan, first elected to the Texas legislature the same year as Yvonne Burke entered the California legislature, 1967. Jordan later went on to become the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress from the deep South in 1973. Both Brathwaite Burke and Jordan are known for their tireless legislative work on behalf of minorities and women.
One of Brathwaite Burke’s colleagues in the California legislature was another trailblazer, March Fong Eu. Elected the same year as Brathwaite Burke, Fong Eu was the first Asian Pacific Islander woman and the first Chinese American elected to California’s state legislature .[xv] Among her many legislative accomplishments, she introduced prescient legislation that made voting easier by allowing registration by mail, allowing voters to register at the Department of Motor Vehicles, and insisting that absentee ballots be made widely available.[xvi] Fong Eu would go on to successfully run for secretary of state in 1974, becoming the first woman in California and the first Asian Pacific Islander in the country to be elected to a statewide office. [xvii]
The first two Latina state legislators in the country were Fedelina Lucero Gallegos (R) and Porfirria Hidalgo Saiz (D), elected to the New Mexico House of Representatives in 1930. Little is known about them, but the third Latina to serve in a state legislature was also from New Mexico: Representative Concha Ortiz y Pino, who was elected in 1936 and would go on to become the first female majority whip in a state legislature.[xviii] But Ortiz y Pino’s leadership did not stop at state government; no fewer than five presidents appointed her to national boards, including the National Commission on Architectural Barriers to the Rehabilitation of the Handicapped, the National Advisory Council to the National Institutes of Health, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.[xix]
Thousands have worked to advance women’s political power in the United States. While we can’t know the names of every woman who contributed to this effort, we can at the least recognize the women who put the first cracks in so-called “marble ceilings” of state and national legislative chambers. It is worth exploring the stories of those women who have served in elected office. Because of them and because of all the women who continue to serve today, the road is a little less bumpy for future generations.
[i] North Dakota and the 19th Amendment. National Park Service. Accessed August 13, 2020.
ii] “Women Are Marching on Towards Liberty and Citizenship.” Grand Rapids herald. [volume] (Grand Rapids, Mich.), 29 April 1893. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. Accessed August 14, 2020.
[iii] “Women Are Marching on Towards Liberty and Citizenship.” Grand Rapids herald. [volume] (Grand Rapids, Mich.), 29 April 1893. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. Accessed August 14, 2020.
[iv] “What is Her Sphere. The Western States Favor Her Most.” The Goodland republic. [volume] (Goodland, Kan.), 15 Dec. 1893. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. Accessed August 14, 2020.
[v] “Women in Politics. Experiment to be Tried in Colorado.” The Caldwell tribune. [volume] (Caldwell, Idaho Territory [Idaho]), 29 Dec. 1894. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. Accessed August 14, 2020.
[vi] "Arizona Senator is State's Best Housekeeper." The day book. [volume] (Chicago, Ill.), 02 Dec. 1914. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. Accessed August 14, 2020.
[vii] “100 years Ago today, Arizona ratified the 19th Amendment. Women led the effort in the Legislature.” The Republic, February 12, 2020. Accessed: August 14, 2020.
[viii] Woman Suffrage Centennial Web Exhibit. The Oregon Blue Book. Oregon State Archives, a division of the Secretary of State's Office. Accessed August 14, 2020.
ix] "Women Active as Members of the Legislature." The Cordova daily times. [volume] (Cordova, Alaska), 25 Feb. 1919. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. Accessed August 14, 2020.
[x] "Odd News About Women." The Richmond palladium and sun-telegram. [volume] (Richmond, Ind.), 14 Feb. 1919. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. Accessed August 14, 2020.
xi] "Many Women Will Take Places in Legislatures of Middle Western States During Coming Sessions." The Bismarck tribune. [volume] (Bismarck, N.D.), 18 Dec. 1924. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. Accessed: August 17, 2020.
[xii] "Many Women Will Take Places in Legislatures of Middle Western States During Coming Sessions." The Bismarck tribune. [volume] (Bismarck, N.D.), 18 Dec. 1924. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. Accessed: August 17, 2020.
[xiii] "Women Get New Legislative Seats." Evening star. December 27, 1924, Page 4, Image 4. Library of Congress. Accessed: August 17, 2020.
[xiv] “The first congresswoman to give birth in office was no stranger to breaking boundaries.” The Washington Post, April 9, 2018. Accessed: August 14, 2020.
[xv] A History of Asian Americans in the California Legislature. California Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus. Accessed August 14, 2020.
[xvi] Getting Her Elected: March Fong Eu’s Political Agenda. Hurley, Erin. California Historical Society. December 12, 2019. Accessed Aug 14, 2020.
[xvii] From the Archives: March Fong Eu, Pioneering Woman in California Politics. Accessed August 17, 2020.
[xviii] And Yet She Persisted: Women at UNM and Across New Mexico (Concha Ortiz y Pino). Conceived and curated by Mary Wise, PhD candidate at the University of Iowa, and Amy Winter, Program Specialist, of the Digital Initiatives and Scholarly Communication Program (DISC) in the College of Libraries and Learning Sciences at the University of New Mexico. Accessed August 17, 2020.
[xix] Concha Ortiz y Pino de Kleven, 96, Politician, Is Dead. Associated Press. October 9, 2006. Accessed August 17, 2020.