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The women who paved the way for Hillary’s bid for the White House

19 September 2016

12:37 PM

19 September 2016

12:37 PM

If Hillary Clinton wins she will be the first female president of the United States, taking over from the first black president. But who were her predecessors, paving the way to women’s full participation in national politics?

Votes for American women began in the Wyoming Territory in 1869. Wyoming, amid the Rocky Mountains, is remote, cold, and high. Its population was tiny in the 1860s; men outnumbered women six to one. The advocates of female suffrage hoped they could create a little favourable publicity, encouraging more single women to head their way. When Wyoming became a state, in 1890, its women’s right to vote was written into the new state constitution.

Meanwhile, in 1872, Victoria Woodhull had become the first woman to run for president, on the Equal Rights ticket. She was 34 at the time, an advocate of free love, a spiritualist, and a pioneering female newspaper editor with a great nose for scandalous stories. Woodhull was, to put it mildly, unlikely to win—even one of her sympathetic biographers admits that her vote tally on election day was probably zero.

The first woman to become a member of the House of Representatives was very different. Jeannette Rankin of Montana (also high in the Rockies) was a hard-working progressive reformer, sober, industrious, and devoted to the idea that men were instinctively warlike whereas women were naturally peace-loving. She was elected in 1916 and took her seat in Washington the next spring, just in time to vote against American entry into the First World War.

Nationwide votes for women came with the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which passed through Congress in 1919 and won ratification from the necessary three quarters of the states the next year. Rankin herself, in 1918, opened the congressional debate on the measure.


Twenty-five years later she also voted against American entry into World War II. That took a lot of nerve because the vote was held on December 8th, 1941, just one day after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and the whole nation was in a white-hot fury, thirsting for vengeance. Hers was the only ‘no’ vote. A famous photograph shows her sheltering in a congressional telephone booth shortly after the vote, trying to get away from a mob of angry reporters and fellow congressmen.

The first woman in the United States Senate was Rebecca Felton of Georgia, who took her seat at the age of eighty-seven, in 1922. An elected senator had died and she was appointed by the state’s governor as a stop-gap until an election could be held. She served for just one day but went through the ceremony of admission, took the oath, then gave a speech thanking the Senate for its welcome.

Two years later Nellie Taylor Ross, a Democrat and ardent prohibitionist, became the first elected female state governor. Yet again Wyoming led the way. Anyone who has followed Hillary Clinton’s career will note with interest that Ross’s husband preceded her in the office. His death in October 1924 prompted the party to nominate her as his replacement. She won a special election, continued his policies, but lost her office in the next regular election, in 1926.

Since then 38 other women have served as state governors, six of whom are currently in office. Few are household names but at least one, Sarah Palin, rose to national fame (or notoriety). Elected as the Republican governor of Alaska in 2006, she became John McCain’s vice-presidential running mate in the general election of 2008, only to lose badly against Barack Obama. She’s now a star on the conservative media circuit.

The first female cabinet member was Frances Perkins, whom President Franklin Roosevelt appointed as Secretary of Labour, in 1933. They were personal friends from earlier days in New York, and she stayed in the government throughout his presidency, retiring just after his death in 1945. A sociologist and social worker, she believed in the benign power of the federal government, supported the New Deal’s interventionist economic policies, and campaigned to give trade unions improved legal protections. She also drafted the legislation that created Social Security, the United States’ version of old-age pensions. Her husband spent years in mental hospitals.

The most senior cabinet appointment is Secretary of State, the official who presides over American foreign policy. The office’s first female holder was Madeleine Albright, appointed by Bill Clinton in 1997, who served throughout his second term in the White House. George W. Bush appointed another woman, Condoleezza Rice, during his second term, and of course Hillary Clinton assumed the role during the first Obama administration. The rights and wrongs of her conduct in that office are among the issues currently roiling the presidential campaign.

Incidentally, how does this American chronology compare with that of Britain? Well, we had Queen Matilda for a few months back in 1141, and plenty of other queens before the United States even came into existence. In that sense we’re far ahead. In electoral politics too, Britain elected Margaret Thatcher as prime minister way back in 1979, when Hillary (now nearly seventy) was in her early thirties.

The first woman to sit in the House of Commons, however, was herself American. It was Nancy Astor, who had been born and raised in Virginia, settling in England only in her mid-twenties. John Singer Sargent’s gorgeous portrait of her (1909) shows a dazzling beauty. Her husband, Waldorf Astor, was another American who had settled down in England, won a seat in Parliament, but had to give it up when his father’s death conveyed him into the House of Lords. She won a by-election in 1919 and held her seat from then right through the twenties, thirties, and World War II, finally relinquishing it in 1945, when she was 66. She favoured appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s and is famous for sharp, witty exchanges with Winston Churchill, who deplored the policy.

American women, in other words, have been important to women’s participation in politics on both sides of the Atlantic. The outcome in November will show whether any office remains out of reach to female candidates.


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