New Mexico was the only state west of the Mississippi River that did not enfranchise women prior to the federal 19th Amendment in 1920. At the first opportunity in 1922, however, voters elected two women to statewide office, as well as the first female legislator.
Soledad Chacon (1890-1936)
Soledad Chávez de Chacón of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was the nation’s first Hispanic woman to win a statewide election. The daughter of Francisquita Baca de Chávez and Meliton Chávez, she could trace her ancestry to the Spanish conquistadors; New Mexico was first settled by an expedition of Mexican families in 1598. She was educated in Albuquerque’s public schools and at age 20, married Ireneo Chacón, son of an author and educator and grandson of a politician.
When New Mexico women were enfranchised with the 19th Amendment in 1920, Chacón planned a successful campaign for secretary of state in 1922. She won by margin of nearly 9,000 votes, making her the nation’s first woman to hold this office. Isabel Eckles also won her statewide race in the same year, but the office for which Eckles ran had many precedents in other states. Within a decade, two other Hispanic women followed Chancon as secretary of state. She died prematurely at 46, and In 1996, historian Dan D. Chávez wrote her biography, Soledad Chávez Chacon: A New Mexico Political Pioneer, 1890-1936.
Isabel Eckles (1877-1971)
A native of New Castle, Delaware, Isabel Eckles was one of thousands of teachers who found more opportunity in the West than in the East. She taught in the Silver City public schools for fifteen years and was elected o the state board of education in 1912. A strong advocate for education, she then was the elected superintendent of Grant County schools for two terms.
North Dakota voters had set the precedent of electing a woman to the top election job in 1892, and so Eckles’ 1922 victory for state superintendent of public instruction was not uncommon in the West: In the East, however, many decades would pass before states elected women to the equivalent position.
A strong Democrat, Eckles was a delegate to the 1924 Democratic National Convention. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, she administered the women’s division of the Works Progress Administration for New Mexico, an agency that employed women who could not find jobs in the private sector. Eckles also co-founded museums in Roswell and Silver City, and she is honored in the New Mexico Education Association Hall of Fame.
Bertha M. Paxton (1896-1966)
Bertha M. McAntire was born in Las Cruces, Dona Ana County, New Mexico. Upon graduation from Baird College, she married J.H. Paxton and became known in Las Cruces as a dynamic figure who was a forceful speaker and original thinker.
A Democrat, Paxton won her 1922 bid for the New Mexico House of Representatives, and according to the Las Cruces Citizen, delivered her maiden speech on January 29, 1923. This proposed resolution for the observance of Mother’s Day passed unanimously – but later in the day, she co-sponsored a more controversial bill to eliminate the Board of Water Commissioners. Appointed to chair the committee on enrolled bills, she sponsored progressive bills on child welfare reform and vocational education, as well as successful programs for agricultural cooperative marketing.
Bertha Paxton was not reelected, but started a trend for other women: within the decade, ten more women won seats in the New Mexico Legislature.