Isn’t it amazing that we are still experiencing women’s firsts across many areas of business and government? In May 2018, those firsts were everywhere. Gina Haspel, a career employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, became the first female director in its history, after her confirmation by the U.S. Senate. The Democrats in Georgia made history when they put Stacey Adams on the slate for Governor, the first African-American woman to win a major party nomination for Governor in any state. The groundwork for these firsts were made by many other women throughout U.S. history. In this month’s women in history column, we feature some of U.S. women’s political firsts. All of these women have been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
After successfully working to bring suffrage to Montana (1914), Jeannette Rankin ran for the U.S. House of Representatives from that state. In 1916, she became the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress. She quipped, “I may be the first woman member of Congress, but I won’t be the last.” A committed pacifist, in 1917, Rankin became one of the few members of the House and Senate to vote against U.S. entry into World War I. She subsequently ran for and lost the election for U.S. Senate from Montana. In 1940, she ran on an isolationist platform and was elected again to the U.S. House of Representatives from Montana. In 1941, she became the only member of the U.S. Congress to vote against U.S. entry into World War II and the only member of Congress to have voted against entry into both World Wars. She was an active antiwar protestor during the Vietnam War as well. Rankin famously said, “We’re half the people, we should be half the Congress.”
The first woman to serve in the cabinet, Frances Perkins was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor from 1933-1945. Her lifelong dedication to improving working conditions manifested itself after she watched the horror of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911. Formed by her grandmother and her education at Mount Holyoke, Perkins was aghast at the working conditions for women and children that she observed at textile mills along the Connecticut River. Conforming at first to family expectations at that time by teaching, Perkins then volunteered at Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago. She later took a position at the Philadelphia Research and Protective Association. By 1910, she was working in New York City for the National Consumers League, focusing on improving working conditions. After her friend Al Smith was elected governor of New York, Perkins became the first woman hired in administrative government in the state. When FDR became governor, Perkins became the state’s Industrial Commissioner, with oversight of the labor department. With her many years of experience in the area, it was natural that FDR would ask her to join his cabinet after he was elected President. Her many contributions and accomplishments include the Social Security Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and many of the components of the New Deal – to put people back to work after the Great Depression.
A role model for women in politics, Margaret Chase Smith was the first woman to be elected to both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Serving first in the House in a special election in 1940 to replace her husband (the first woman from Maine in either house of the U.S. Congress), Smith won the primary and then the 1940 election. During her four terms in the House, Smith advocated for women and was responsible for the Women’s Armed Forces Integration Act, which integrated women as full members of the military. It was signed by President Truman in 1948. Also, in 1948, Smith ran for the U.S. Senate seat in Maine. She would serve for three more terms becoming the first woman to serve on both the Appropriations Committee and the Armed Services Committee. At the 1964 Republican National Convention, she became the first woman to have her name put in for nomination for the presidency by a major political party. The Margaret Chase Smith Library became the first of its kind to focus on the collection of papers of a female member of Congress. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George H.W. Bush.
The first woman to be elected a governor of a state in her own right, Ella Grasso was elected Governor of Connecticut in 1974. Grasso had served in the Connecticut General Assembly since 1952 and had never lost an election. Like Frances Perkins, Grasso attended Mount Holyoke College where she earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees. In the General Assembly, Grasso served as the Floor Leader, the first woman so elected. From 1958 to 1970, she served as Connecticut’s Secretary of State. She became the first woman to chair the Democratic State Platform Committee and in 1970, was elected to the first of two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. Grasso was elected to a second term of governor in 1978; she resigned for health reasons in 1980. She is recalled fondly for remembering the needs of the working class and for paving the way for other women in politics.
The first African-American member of Congress, Shirley Chisholm began her service after her 1968 election as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from a New York City borough. Her college education focused on sociology and childhood education; she earned her M.A. degree from Columbia University. Her first foray into politics was serving in the New York State Legislature when she was elected in 1964, the second African-American woman. A fighter and outspoken member of Congress, Chisholm focused on the causes she had worked on as a community activist, including day care and education. In 1972, she declared her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for President. Although she was not successful in her quest, Chisholm did receive 152 delegate votes. Her autobiography is titled Unbought and Unbossed. In 2015, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously.
After graduating third in her class from Stanford Law School, future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was unable to find employment as an attorney, due to her gender. She went to work as an unpaid legal secretary in San Mateo County, California. Once she had proven her skills, she became a paid deputy county attorney. After a stint overseas, O’Connor and her husband settled in Arizona where she was able to practice as a private attorney before entering public service, first as an Assistant Attorney General, then in the Arizona Senate and then as a judge. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan nominated her as the first woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court. She was unanimously approved for that position by the U.S. Senate. O’Connor served on the Supreme Court until her retirement in 2006.
Women contribute to our lives in so many ways, including as trailblazers in politics and government. The women profiled above and many other women, almost all of them women we have not heard about and not learned about in school across all fields of endeavor, are profiled in our book, Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America. Help us by continuing to tell women’s stories and write women back into history!
Charlotte S. Waisman, Ph.D. is a national champion and advocate for women as a professor and keynote speaker. A corporate leader, executive coach, and facilitator, she conducts leadership workshops nationally.