The National Women's History Museum in celebration of the National Foundation of Women Legislators 70th Anniversary presents Women Wielding Power: First Female State Legislators

Summary

 

    The Wyoming Territory was the first political jurisdiction in the world to grant women full voting rights.  That was on December 10, 1869, and the Utah Territory followed a few weeks later, in January 1870. 

    Neither, however, elected women to their legislature at the time:  that was left to the third state to grant the vote – Colorado, in 1894.  At the very next election, Colorado voters sent three women to the legislature, Clara Cressingham, Carrie Clyde Holly, and Frances Klock.

    Utah women lost the vote in the battle over polygamy, but regained it to become the second state to elect women to their legislature – including the nation’s first female state senator.  Elected in 1896, she was Martha Hughes Cannon, a well-educated physician who beat out her husband for a seat in the Senate.

    Idaho followed in 1898, and Mary Allen Wright went on to be nominated for Speaker of the Idaho House.  In contrast to the quick action of women in these three newly enfranchised states, Wyoming finally elected a woman to its legislature, Mary Godat Bellemy, in 1910 – 41 years after women there had the vote.

    Meanwhile, frontier states also had begun electing women to statewide office, especially as state superintendents of schools.  North Dakota was the first, electing Laura Eisenhuth to this position in 1892.  She and other Midwestern women had “partial suffrage” that allowed them to vote in school-related elections, but no others.

    The Far West continued its pioneering attitude, with Frances Axtell elected to the Washington House in 1912, and Frances Munds became the nation’s second female state senator in Arizona in 1914.  Other women would be elected in California, Kansas, Oregon, and Nevada during the next few years; in 1918 alone, Californians chose four female legislators.

    A big barrier broke in 1916, when Montana elected Jeannette Rankin as the nation’s first congresswoman.  The second would be in 1920 – Oklahoma’s Alice Robertson, actually opposed the vote for women.  The U.S. Senate would be a much higher hurdle:  no woman was elected to it until 1932, when Arkansas chose Hattie Caraway.

    By the time that the first eastern state, New York, enfranchised its women in 1917, every western state except New Mexico had granted full voting rights.  New Mexico would redeem itself, however, by choosing the first woman to win a non-education related statewide office.  She was Secretary of State Chacon Soledad, elected in 1922.

    The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that granted full voting rights to all American women was adopted on August 26, 1920 – and some women were astute enough to have filed to run in that fall’s elections.  Michigan had enfranchised women in 1918, and in 1920, voters made Eva McCall Hamilton the nation’s third female state senator.  New Hampshire was the first New England state to send women to its House, with two women winning in 1920; seven women ran in Indiana, but only one was elected.

    In off-year elections in 1921, five states set the precedent:  Connecticut, Kentucky, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Tennessee.  Three of the five arguably can be defined as Southern states, and both North Carolina and Tennessee chose women as senators.  One of the five Connecticut House members, Emily Sophie Brown, lived to age 103 – ending arguments about whether women could stand the strains of political life.

    The 1922 election was the first after the 19th Amendment in which women had time to prepare a campaign, and eighteen states in the all regions of the country sent their first women to legislatures in:  Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, and West Virginia

    Among the most interesting women in the class of ’22 was Massachusetts’ Sylvia Donaldson, who was age 73 when elected.  Minnie Craig went on to be Speaker of the North Dakota House in 1933, and voters there soon elected Byrnhild Haugland, who set a record for longevity – she never lost an election in 52 years of service.  Some of the 1922 winners had been major leaders in the suffrage movement, including Gail Laughlin of Maine and Mississippi’s Nellie Nugent Somerville.  Perhaps most significantly, Ohio voters not only sent six women to the legislature (two as senators), but also elected the first woman to a state Supreme Court.  Both Florence Allen and her mother, Corrine Tuckerman Allen, were active feminists.

    The presidential election of 1924 was the first since the 19th Amendment, and states that had not already set the precedent joined the list.  They included Delaware, Nebraska, Virginia, Wisconsin, and the Hawaii Territory, which elected Rosalie Kel’inoi.  The slowest states were Florida, Iowa, and South Carolina (1928), as well as Louisiana (1932).  The Alaska Territory also joined the list in 1932 with “Flying Nell Scott,” who piloted her own plane to campaign.  Finally, Pennsylvania has the distinction of electing the first African-American woman to its legislature; Crystal Bird Fauset won in 1938.

 

Exhibit curated by Doris Weatherford, researched by Will Geiger, Kristen Lundquist, and Claire Love.

Back NWHM Home