Fearless Females: American Women’s Firsts in Politics

I just realized I never posted my January Fearless Females column on women in U.S. History. (If you missed the first one, check it out here.) Perfect timing, though, since today is inauguration day.

The first month of each year is chock full of important dates in women’s history because so many lawmakers take office when the new term of the government begins in January. From our first Lantina elected to the U.S. Senate, Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) on Jan. 2, 2017, to Dr. Condoleezza Rice (R) becoming the first Black woman appointed Secretary of State on Jan. 26, 2005, we could extoll a different woman almost every day of the month. If you’re curious as to why the dates are scattered throughout the month, check out this site. It explains when legislators assume responsibility, which varies from state to state.

And this year, we have an extra special first, with Kamala Harris (D-CA) becoming the first female vice president in the history of the U.S. on Jan. 20. She is also the first South Asian and first Black woman elected to that seat. She previously made history on Jan 3, 2017, as the first South Asian and second Black woman elected to the US Senate. In 2016 she became the first woman of color to be selected as the running mate on a major-party ticket, as well as the first multiracial woman, the first South Asian woman, and the first Black woman.

Did you know that the presidential inauguration wasn’t always held in January? The 20th Amendment moved it from March 4 (which had been the designated date since 1789, even though travel delays meant George Washington didn’t actually take office until April 9) to Jan. 20. The four-month gap created by the March date was important historically because it took a lot of time to count and report votes when they had to be gathered from across the nation by hand, on horseback and later by a much slower mail system than we have now. Plus, it gave the incoming president time to choose his cabinet and set up the rest of his administration. However, it also meant that the sitting president, if he wasn’t reelected, often left things to his successor, who had no power to act, a condition often referred to as a “lame duck” presidency. As technology sped up the vote counting process, this period became increasingly problematic, so Congress passed the 20th Amendment, which was ratified on Jan. 23, 1933, and moved Inauguration Day to Jan. 20 and the first meeting of the new Congress to Jan. 3.

Here’s a list of other political female “firsts” in January:

Jan. 2, 2017 – Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) became the first Latina elected to the U.S. Senate.

Jan. 3, 2013 – Mazie Hirono (D-HI) became the first Asian-Pacific Islander woman — and only the second woman of color — elected to the U.S. Senate.

Jan. 3, 2019 – Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) became the first Muslim women sworn into Congress.

Jan. 4, 2007: U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA.) becomes the first female speaker of the House. In 2019, she reclaims the title, becoming the first lawmaker to hold the office two times in more than 50 years.

Jan. 4, 2007 – Nydia Velasquez (D-NY) became the first Puerto Rican woman elected to Congress.

Jan. 12, 1932 – Hattie Wyatt Caraway (D-AR) becomes the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate.

Jan. 15, 1981 – Jeane Kirkpatrick (D) becomes the first female U.N. Ambassador

Jan. 23, 1977 – Patricia Roberts Harris (D) was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. She was the first Black woman to serve in a presidential cabinet and the first woman to hold two different cabinet positions (the second was Secretary of Health and Human Services).

Jan. 23, 1997: Madeleine Albright (D) is sworn in as the nation’s first female secretary of state under President Bill Clinton.

Jan. 26, 2005 – Dr. Condoleezza Rice (R) becomes the first Black woman appointed Secretary of State.

We thank all of these trailblazing women who were ahead of their time and dared to do what others deemed “impossible.” Because of them, there is only one glass ceiling left in the United States government—one that someone will someday break, proving to women across the nation that there is nothing they can’t do.

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