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.

Fearless Females: A Column About American Women’s Contributions to History

I know it’s been a few months since I’ve blogged. Just been busy writing (the biography of Virginia and Francis Minor is done and is on submission with publishers!) and working.

Speaking of work, we have a group that is specifically for women leaders and is all about promoting women’s accomplishments and helping one another and the community. I’m not a member because you have to have a certain level title and I’m not that high up. Anyway, they found out about my interest and research into women’s history and asked me to write a monthly column for their newsletter, along with compiling a list of “This Day in History” anniversaries of major U.S. female accomplishments. So I thought I would share that information here as well.

I’m going to share them as I finish them. This one is technically Dec. 2020.

The Making of a Movement: Wyoming Women Get the Vote

Wyoming Women Voting. Source: WikiMedia Commons

December is a month full of not only holidays but also important anniversaries in women’s history. Household names such as Rosa Parks, Carol Moseley Braun and Jane Addams made history this month. We’ll talk about them in the future, but since this year marked the centennial of women winning the right to vote in the U.S., I thought it would be appropriate to talk about the history-changing event that started the 51-year battle for women of all states to be able to legally vote. No, not the Seneca Falls Convention—though that is widely considered the beginning of the women’s suffrage movement. I’m talking about Wyoming becoming the first territory to grant women the right to vote on Dec. 10, 1869.

Wyoming wasn’t even a state yet when it took the bold step of enfranchising women. While this may sound like a noble move to us in hindsight, it was far from it at the time. The area had fallen on hard times, with the workers who had braved the wild to build the railroad and pan for gold just a few years earlier having moved on to more lucrative areas. Lawmakers were desperate to bring their territory some good publicity so that more people would move to the area, especially women. There were six adult men in the Territory for every adult woman, and there were very few children—a population makeup that could not sustain itself for long.

The Democrats figured that if they gave women the right to vote, the women would thank them by voting for them, rather than the Republicans who opposed women’s suffrage. In addition, the attorney general had recently ruled that no one in the territory could be denied the vote on the basis of race, so former slaves and Chinese men were now allowed to vote; the men of the territory reasoned that women may as well be included, too.

The bill to give women over the age of 21 the right to vote in all elections held in Wyoming territory was introduced by legislator William H. Bright, a saloon keeper with no formal education, in 1869, possibly at the urging of his wife, Julia. Tradition says the bill was heavily debated, but no record of the proceedings exist. The bill passed 6-2 in the upper house and 7-4 in the lower house. Much to the Democrat’s surprise, Republican Governor John Campbell signed it into law on Dec. 10, 1869.* Women voted for the first time in September 1870.**

The 1871 legislature tried to repeal the law but failed. In 1890, when Wyoming became a state, it also became the first state to allow women to vote.

*Legend has it that Democrats wanted to use the bill to embarrass the Republican governor, whom they expected to veto the bill. Suffrage leader Esther Morris later told The Woman’s Journal on March 9, 1872, that the passage of the law “was the result of a bitter feud between the existing political parties, and it was done in a moment of spite – not out of any regard for the movement.” Interestingly, Wyoming was the first, and possibly the only, state to enfranchise women without the influence of suffragists.

** This was not the first time women legally voted in the United States. Women had the right to vote in New Jersey from 1776-1807, when the state government wrote female voting out of the state constitution. It would be another one hundred and thirteen years before women in New Jersey would vote again. On February 9, 1920, New Jersey became the 29th state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment.

Important Dates in U.S. Women’s History – December

Dec. 1, 1955: Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Ala, helping to launch the civil rights movement.

Dec. 9, 1999 – Carol Moseley Braun (D-IL) became the first Black woman and the first woman of color to be elected to the U.S. Senate. She had also been the first Black woman to win a major party Senate nomination.

Dec. 10, 1869 – Wyoming becomes the first territory to grant women the right to vote. In 1890, when Wyoming became a state, they also became the first state to allow women to vote.

Dec. 10, 1870 – Ellen Swallow Richards becomes the first woman admitted to MIT (which made her the first accepted to any school of science or technology), and the first American woman to earn a degree in Chemistry.

December 10, 1931 – Jane Addams became the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her work as a social worker and activist.

Dec. 13, 1923 – The Equal Rights Amendment, written by suffragist Alice Paul, is first introduced into Congress. It has still not passed into law.

Dec. 15, 1985 – Wilma Mankiller became the first woman to serve as chief of the Cherokee Nation.

Dec. 16, 1891 – City Health Dept. Inspector Marie Owens is appointed to the Chicago Police Department as a police officer assigned to the Detective Bureau, becoming the nation’s first female law enforcement officer.