Posted by: JanF | March 8, 2012

Women’s History Month – A woman’s place

The old saying from the women’s movement in the 1970s was that a woman’s place is in the House … and the Senate.

As we saw in last week’s introduction to Women’s History Month, the women’s suffrage movement, and marching to secure the right for women to vote, was one of the earliest issues for women. Without the right to vote, women were second class citizens, forced to hope that their issues and concerns would be given priority.

The 19th amendment was ratified on August 18, 1920. It is important to note that at that time Congress was worried that a women’s voting bloc would emerge and, to show their interest in women’s issues, they promptly passed the Sheppard-Towner Act which “provided for federally-financed instruction in maternal and infant health care and gave 50-50 matching funds to individual US states to build women’s health care clinics.”

There was another effect, and one that we have seen throughout history when rights are granted to an oppressed group: screams about federal interference in “state’s rights.” A court case Leser v. Garnett was filed in Maryland which challenged the law saying that since Maryland had not ratified the 19th Amendment that they were not required to let women vote in their state. Oscar Leser sued to stop two women from registering to vote in Baltimore because he was a misogynist declared that it was a state’s rights issue and that the “amendment ‘destroyed State autonomy’ because it increased Maryland’s electorate without the state’s consent.” The court rejected that and other arguments and women were allowed to vote in Maryland.

Women had been able to vote in some state elections but the first woman to vote under the full rights and protection of the U.S. Constitution was Mrs. Marie Ruoff Byrum, August 31, 1920, 7 a.m. in Hannibal MO:

On August 31, 1920, five days after the 19th amendment was signed into law, Hannibal, Missouri, held a special election to fill the seat of an alderman who had resigned.

At 7 a.m., despite pouring rain, Mrs. Marie Ruoff Byrum, wife of Morris Byrum and daughter-in-law of Democratic committeeman Lacy Byrum, cast her ballot in the first ward. She thus became the first woman to vote in the state of Missouri and the first woman to vote in the United States under the 19th, or Suffrage, Amendment.

The first woman elected to Congress was elected before the 19th amendment was ratified.

Jeannette Rankin was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives on November 7th, 1916 from Montana, a state that allowed women to vote. She ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1918 and therefore did not run for re-election for her house seat and finished her term before the 19th Amendment was ratified.

One of her first votes was to vote against World War I, starting a long tradition of women being opposed to war and making tough votes.

Ironically, Jeannette Rankin was the last woman to be elected to Congress from Montana.

The first woman elected to the Senate was a Democrat from Arkansas, Hattie Caraway. She had been appointed to fill her dead husband’s seat, a popular tradition called “widow’s succession” but was elected on her own in 1932. She bucked tradition and the establishment when she declared that she would run with these words “The time has passed when a woman should be placed in a position and kept there only while someone else is being groomed for the job.”

Wikipedia has two fascinating articles on the history and the current makeup of women in the U.S. Senate and women in the U.S. House of Representatives. I highly recommend them.

So where are we now?

The results of the election in November 2010 caused women’s representation in Congress to decrease for the first time in the past three decades and of course we lost retaining our first woman Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. Women in Congress are 25% of the Democrats and less than 10% of the Republicans so, in a “wave election” that pushed Democrats out, many of the casualties were women.

It turns out that when we elect more and better Democrats we also elect more women. And with the history of women voting to end wars and voting to expand the social safety nets for the least among us, I hope we can reverse the trend of 2010 and continue what had been a strong historical movement towards more women in the House … and the Senate.

This is the second in a series of posts celebrating Women’s History Month originally posted in 2011.

(A version of this was originally posted on 03/16/2011 at BPI Campus)