We have come again to the favorite month of the year for this History Rhymer. First, October is the birth month of The History Rhyme (and its associated Twitter page). Second, it is election time and any regular reader of this blog will know that the history of political issues, parties, movements, leaders, and the close associates of political leaders are of special interest here. Third, autumn is the most beautiful time of year in Iowa (and also when every food establishment brings out a variety of pumpkin-related items). So, in an effort to tie all of these factors together, I will now discuss an important “first” that will most likely occur in politics this autumn in Iowa and tie it to three important firsts in American elections. However, unlike most other political blogs, commercials, and pundits, I will be brief in my musings. Don’t believe me? Well, continue on and see for yourself.
According to the Center for American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University, there are only four states that have never sent a woman to either the United States Senate or House – Delaware, Iowa, Mississippi and Vermont. When you add the office of governor, that list shrinks to only Iowa and Mississippi who have not elected a woman. This is not to say that in Iowa (my home state in case you were not paying attention) there have never been a major party female nominee to these offices. The most notable examples were Roxanne Conlin (D), who ran for governor in 1982 but lost to Terry Branstad and then ran for Senate in 2010 but lost to Chuck Grassley, and Bonnie Campbell (D) who ran for governor in 1994 but who also lost to Terry Branstad. As an aside, there has been a trend of having female Lieutenant Governors but they are rarely prominent political players in Iowa politics. In the upcoming election, it appears that Iowa’s dubious distinction may be removed since, as of late October 2014, senate candidate Joni Ernst (R) and house candidate Staci Appel (D) are in very close races. If Ernst wins, she will also have the extra distinction of being the first female combat veteran elected to the Senate.
Since this blog is all about looking at the past to try show how current events developed or to show the significance (or lack thereof) of current events, we will now turn our attention to those responsible for the change in politics that made Iowa’s dearth of female governors, senators, or representatives so noteworthy – the women who were the first to be elected to those offices in the United States. Although their names might not be known to Americans in 2014, their accomplishments are worth mentioning if only for the fact that they were the first or many to be elected. These women were Governor Nellie Taylor Ross (D-WY) who served from 1925 to 1927, Senator Hattie Caraway (D-AR) who served from 1931 to 1945, and Representative Jeannette Rankin (R-MT) who served from 1917 to 1919 and 1941 to 1943.
Nellie Ross (1876-1977) was appointed governor of Wyoming by a special convention to complete the term for her recently deceased husband William, but then went on to be elected in her own right after a special election in 1925. While governor, she advocated for tax and lending policies that favored small farmers. After being defeated for re-election in 1926, Ross served as vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee and later was appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt as Director of the United States Mint.
Hattie Caraway (1878-1950) was appointed to the United States Senate by the governor of Arkansas upon the death of her husband Thaddeus in 1931. She later was elected in her own right in 1932, and 1938. While in office, she served as chair of the Committee on Enrolled Bills. After losing a re-election bid in 1944, she served on the Employees’ Compensation Appeals Board from 1946 until her death.
Jeannette Rankin (1880-1973) was first elected to the United States House of Representatives from Montana in 1916. Prior to her election, she had been an active participation in efforts to give women the right to vote in Washington (1911) and Montana (1914). Once in office, she was actively involved in the passage in 1919 of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution (which was approved by the requisite number of states in 1920), which gave women nationwide the right to vote. In 1972, Rankin stated that “If I am remembered for no other act, I want to be remembered as the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote.” Rankin gained more notoriety for her pacifist views when she was one of fifty representatives to vote against declaring war on Germany in 1917. After a failed attempt for a senate seat in 1920, she focused on the pursuit of peace. She returned to the house in 1939 which allowed her to once again vote against war in 1941. This time, she was the only “no” vote. After leaving office the final time in 1943, she continued to oppose US involvement in conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.
Before we conclude our look at these first women and their differing political careers, it is helpful to consider two aspects of the phenomenon of women elected to prominent offices: (a) the electoral landscape of the United States prior to the Nineteenth Amendment, and (b) the reason why so many of the women who have been senators or representatives were not elected but appointed to their posts. Prior to 1920, a woman’s right to vote was dependent on the her location in the United States. Thanks to the activism and influence of the progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (which has been partially documented in an earlier edition of the History Rhyme “The Will of the People”), most of the states west of the Missouri River allowed women to vote. For this reason, it is not surprising that the first elected governor and representative were from those states with long-established histories of women’s suffrage. The second aspect to understand when looking at women in office is that many of these women gained office by what is often called a “widow’s succession.” In fact it was not until Ella T. Grasso (D-CT) became governor in 1975 that a woman who was not the wife or widow of a previous governor, was elected to office. These women often gained their positions because they were the most politically safe person for the job since they had no political power base of their own and thus would not disrupt the balance of power of their husband’s party of choice. Although this factor does not diminish the accomplishments of important widows such as Governor Ross or Senator Caraway, it still must be acknowledged in order to understand that certain aspects of the roles women play in state and national politics have not come as far as might be hoped.
Will the state of Iowa be able to leave Mississippi as the only state without having an elected female governor, senator, or representative? In a few short days (from the time of this blog posting) we will know. If not, then it will be at least another two years until that may change. However, if Joni Ernst or Staci Appel is elected, then it will be up to future historians to see if they are in fact the first of many. In any case, this History Rhymer thanks you for all your support in the last year, and urges you to vote.