Some Notes on Women's
Political Coming of Age
On August 29, 1920, the last of the two-third
states necessary to ratify an amendment to the United States Constitution
voted passage of the 19th amendment that mandated women's voting.
Before the ratification, a number of women had held
local offices but no federal ones.
The situation changed slowly, but it did change so
that in just 42 - swifter than a speedingThe situation changed slowly,
but it did change so that in just 42 - swifter than a speeding ballot box
- the woman's vote is now recognized as the deciding factor in most elections.
These are a few highlights of how it started and developed.
At the 1920 Democratic convention, Laura Clay,
American women's rights activist, became the first woman in American history
to receive a vote to be the presidential nominee of a major political party.
Event 10-03-1922: in a blatantly political
move to get the women's vote that had just been mandated under the
1920 amendment to the U.S. Constitution which he did not support (nor did
Georgia ratify), Georgia Governor Thomas Hardwick appointed 87-year-old
women's rights advocate Rebecca Latimer Felton to an interim seat of the
U.S. Senate from Georgia.
It was a token appointment because a special election
was held in time for the seating of the winner in the next U.S. Senate
Instead of accepting it as a token, Mrs. Felton shocked
everyone by going to Washington and forcing the Senate to accept her credentials.
She sat as a U.S. Senator for two days, Nov. 21 and
22, 1922 before the duly elected successor - who had waited like a true
gentleman while Miz Felton made her point - presented his credentials and
Gov. Hardwick's appointment of Felton didn't endear
him with the women because they remembered that Hardwick had opposed woman's
suffrage and under his leadership the Georgia legislature refused to ratify
the 19th amendment.
Hattie Wyatt Caraway (b.
02-01-1878) has gone down in the HIStory books as a sweet little old lady
who just kept her dead husband's U.S. senate seat warm.
You decide whether this is another case of selective
history with HIStorians writing of what they would like women to be instead
of what they really were.
HWC was first woman elected to the U.S. Senate in
her own right (1932); first to preside over a Senate sessions (1932); first
to conduct Senate hearings; first woman to chair a Senate committee; first
to be president pro-tem of the Senate (1943); first woman member of Congress
to endorse the Equal Rights Amendment (1943); and she fought valiantly
for federal help for many of her poverty stricken constituents who faced
starvation and life without hope during the darkest days of the Great Depression.
She chaired the Senate Committee on Enrollled Bills from the 73rd to 78th
She got to her Senate office every day at 8 a.m. via
the public streetcar and worked straight through to evening. She read EVERY
bill and EVERY word of the Congressional Record. She seldom spoke on the
floor of the Senate, explaining, "I haven't
the heart to take a minute away from the men. The poor dears love it so."
She never missed a committee meeting where, she said,
the real work of the Senate occurred. One day she filed 43 bills.
She wasn't quite the timid woman sitting and knitting
and just keeping her late husband's seat warm was she?
Her usual brightly colored wardrobe was replaced by
plain dark clothes for her first reelection campaign, and she continued
wearing them - playing the sweet-little-old widow role to the hilt.
When campaigning, she traveled the length and breath
of Arkansas in an open car. Many of the roads in that state were still
unpaved. In 1932 she surprised everyone by running for the office she had
been appointed to following her U.S. Senator- husband's death. In her second
campaign in 1938 she garnered a vote that equaled that of all her
six male opponents running in the primary!
Yet, for all her accomplishments, her portrait was
not hung in the Arkansas State Capitol until 1993.
Mary Williams Dewson
(b. 02-18-1874) is one of the most overlooked and powerful women of her
period. Her pronouncement that the advancement of women (in all fields
of endeavor) was directly tied to their political influence is obvious
Starting in Massachusetts grassroots politics in 1913,
MWD was instrumental in the passage of unemployment insurance programs
and of minimum wage laws in many parts of the country.
MWD organized women in several local campaigns in
the 1920s and was then appointed to head the Democratic Women's division.
Under MWD's tutelage the division became the guiding force of the democratic
party. The 1936 presidential campaign was almost entirely dependent on
materials - the so-called Rainbow flyers - that the women's division created.
Through MWD's influence the Democratic party changed
its rules for equal female representation on the Platform committee.
As a member of the Social Security Board, she finally
got things off dead center with Congress and developed a strong working
relations with the states.
MWD used her influence to get government jobs for
women party workers and is credited with Frances Perkins' appointment as
Secretary of Labor (1932). Dewson was a close working friend of Eleanor
Roosevelt and the highly influential group of politically active women
that surrounded her.
"Sometimes I feel like a ghoul. I'd read
the obits, and as soon as a man had died, I'd rush over to the White House
and suggest a woman to replace him,"
India wrote in her memoirs, Pulling No Punches (1977).
India Edwards, former
vice chair of the Democratic National Committee was unanimously elected
to the national committee in 1950, not because of any husband or family
She did it the old fashioned way: she earned it by
being a longtime volunteer in the party and developing into one of the
finest fundraisers the Democrats ever had.
As a consequence of "laboring in the fields"
she became one of the first women to gain major influence in party politics.
At one point in President Harry Truman's come-for-behind
victory in 1948, Truman turned to her and sighed, "India,
sometimes I think there are only two people who believe I will win. You
Largely because of Mrs. Edward's influence (showing
future women would-be politicians how to work in a campaign to get later
benefits), Truman appointed more women to top jobs than any other president
to that time.
Among the appointments were Eugenia Anderson as Ambassador
to Denmark, Perle Mesta as Minister to Luxembourg, Ruth Bryan Rohde as
alternate delegate to the United Nations, and Georgia Neese Clark as Treasurer
of the U.S.
Edwards who was one of the best fundraisers ever for
the Democratic Party said that John Kennedy looked upon women as "nothing
but sex objects." Kennedy made only 10 appointments of women that
required Senate confirmation. In the same period of their administrations,
Truman made 15 and Eisenhower made 14.
She was society editor and women's editor at the Chicago
Several women have campaigned for the nomination
of the major political parties but none have garnered any great across-the-board-support,
but more and more women are serving in the U.S. Congress, and women governors
are no longer rarities.
The number of women who serve as mayors of cities
large and small are almost as common as leaves on a tree.
All in 80 years...
As Dewson, see above, said seven decades ago: You'll
get your rights when you get political power.
Or as Carrie Chapman Catt who headed the National
American Woman's Suffrage Association said: "It
takes 100 years to change people's opinions."
Even the most ultra-conservatives
are acknowledging that by 2025 that the most powerful person in the world
- the U.S. President - will be MADAM president.
But it will only happen if you honor your foremothers
by getting involved in politics the way they did.
Don't squander your legacy.