Remembering Groundbreaking Women Legislators in honor of International Women's Day!
(Washington, DC) The National Foundation for Women Legislators (NFWL) partnered with the National Women's History Museum (NWHM) a few years ago to present an online exhibit, Women Wielding Power: Pioneer Female State Legislators, in honor of all of the courageous women who broke the legislative "glass ceiling" in some way.
Summary of the Exhibit:
From the first in Colorado in 1894 to the last in Louisiana in 1932, it took 38 years for every state to elect women as lawmakers. In contrast, 72 years passed between the first petition for the vote, in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848, and the 1920 adoption of the 19th Amendment. Only one of 68 people who signed the 1848 declaration lived to actually vote: Charlotte Woodward had been 19 years old then, and she cast her first ballot at age 91. The second generation of female legislators was very fast in comparison: Mississippi elected Lucy Somerville Howorth in 1932 - just ten years after her mother, Nellie Nugent Somerville, had been the first. Every barrier becomes easier to break as more women demonstrate that we can, in fact, do everything.
It is noteworthy, too, that voters elected women without great regard to their marital status: the pioneers included widows, married women, and never-married women. They ranged in age from their twenties to their seventies and were Democrats, Republicans, and independents in the same proportions as the popularity of those parties in their states. The one commonality that does stand out is the number who began their careers as teachers. In a time when few occupations were open to intelligent women, teaching offered the best opportunity to learn leadership skills.
Finally, a caution! Historians' habit of ignoring women could not be more obvious than in this kind of detailed research. Even though most of these precedents were set less than a century ago, it remains extremely hard to ferret out accurate information. Most of the names in this exhibit were unfamiliar even to experts in women's history, and much more work remains to be done.