Gladys Pyle (1890-1989)
Like many other educated women at the turn of the 20th century, Gladys Pyle's first occupation was as a schoolteacher, but she taught high school – still somewhat unusual for women – and she had the advantage of a politically active mother, Mary Shields Pyle of Huron. Called "Mrs. John L. Pyle" in the records of the national suffrage association, she participated in national conventions brought the issue of women's enfranchisement to 50,000 people at the 1914 state fair.
Her family was Republican, and because of her parents' activism, it was relatively easy for 32-year-old Gladys Pyle to win election to South Dakota State House of Representatives in 1922 -- the first realistic opportunity after the state's women won full voting rights with the federal 19th Amendment in 1920.
After serving in the legislature for four years, Pyle won election as South Dakota Secretary of State in 1926. As the Great Depression hit the Midwest earlier than the rest of the nation, she used this position to focus on corrupt banking practices. She served one four-year term and then ran for governor in 1930.
South Dakotans, however, were not ready to emulate Wyoming and Texas in electing a woman to the top state job. Those female governors were married women who followed their husbands in office, unlike unmarried, still-young Gladys Pyle. Her fellow Republicans granted her just one-third of their votes, and so she was not even nominated, let alone elected.
Apparently crushed by this defeat, Pyle never ran for public office again. She supported herself with a life insurance business – something that was a natural for a former secretary of state -- and served as a member of the South Dakota Securities Commission and its Board of Charities and Corrections.
Pyle became – ostensibly – the first Republican woman in the U.S. Senate when she won a special election for two-month vacancy in 1938. South Dakotans gave her with the highest vote count of any previous candidate, but voters knew this was not the race for a full six-year term. Because the Senate did not meet during this November to January period, she never was sworn in as a senator.
Another honor was in 1940, when she delivered a nominating speech at the Republican National Convention for Wendell Willkie. Probably the most liberal of 20th century Republican nominees, he nonetheless lost his bid to unseat liberal Democrat Franklin Roosevelt from an unprecedented third term.
That was Gladys Pyle's last significant political venture, although she lived on for almost a half-century. She managed a farm, maintained her life insurance business, and volunteered for organizations such as the Red Cross and the YWCA. She died just one year short of her 100th birthday on March 14, 1989.
Image credit: US Congress.