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Women's History - A brief history of female governors

Women's History - A brief history of female governors

Taking a break from data reviews of Virginia House of Delegates Districts to honor Women's History Month by taking a look at the History of Women in politics. This week, the history of women governors.

While we often talk about the cultural divide and gender politics driving much of the growing chasm in America today, it is worth stepping back and looking at the history of political leadership of women in our country. This post is focused on the brief history of female governor's.

The Very First

Carolyn Shelton served as the first woman governor in US History. From Wikipedia:

Shelton briefly served as acting governor of Oregon in 1909, making her the first woman to serve as governor in the United States.[6] Shelton was still serving as Chamberlain's personal secretary when he was elected to the United States Senate in 1908. He was to be sworn in as Senator on March 4, 1909 in Washington D.C.. Chamberlain left Oregon on February 27, 1909 even though his term was not slated to end until March 1, 1909, so that he could make the cross-country trip to Washington, D.C. and arrive on time to be sworn in with the rest of the incoming class of Senators. The governor-elect was sick in bed and unable to assume the office early, so Chamberlain left Shelton, his private secretary, to serve as governor over the weekend. It had been custom for governors to leave their private secretaries in charge when out of state for travel or otherwise unable to perform their duties, although prior to Shelton private secretaries to the governor had been men.[2]

Shelton performed the routine duties of the governor, including requisitions and extradition matters.[4] Shelton resolved not to grant any pardons because of her view that pardons should rarely be granted.[5]No major activities were recorded during her short tenure as acting governor. She held this distinction 3 years before women in Oregon were given the right to vote.[2] Some Oregonians referred to her as "Madam Governor" even after her brief tenure in office ended.[4][7]

The First Woman to Win Election as Governor

Nellie Tayloe Ross became the first woman to win election as a governor in US history. She won special election in Wyoming in 1925 to replace her husband after he died from complications from appendicitis. From WyoHistory.org:

 If she ran, she could say truthfully that she was running out of an unselfish wish to finish the work her husband had been elected for, but it wasn’t quite proper in 1924 for a woman to admit the other truth. She simply wanted the job. She knew politics and wanted to see what she could do. “No one ever wanted it more,” George wrote to his wife. On Monday morning, Oct. 13, still not knowing what Nellie would decide, George boarded a train for home.

The next day, Republicans nominated Eugene J. Sullivan, a Casper lawyer. The Democrats nominated Nellie. Afterward, some delegates came to the governor’s mansion with the news. Finally, 45 minutes before the deadline, Nellie accepted.

Sullivan campaigned hard. Nellie, still deep in her grief, did not, but her backers spoke widely and took out ads on her behalf. U.S. Senator John B. Kendrick, a Democrat, noted “how fitting it was that the Equality State be the first to elect a woman governor.”

In 1869, Wyoming Territory had been the first government in the world to grant women permanently the right to vote. In 1894, Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Estelle Reel was the first woman ever elected to statewide office. In 1920, women won the vote nationwide. Now, just four years later, Nellie Tayloe Ross was elected the first woman governor in the nation.

She won easily, as it turned out, by 8,000 votes out of 79,000 cast—a much bigger victory than her husband’s was two years earlier. 

The First Woman Governor in her Own Right

Ella T Grasso was the first woman to win the governorship of a state that was not married to a former governor that passed or was removed from office by other means. She won election in Connecticut in 1974. From Connecticut Women's Hall of Fame:

In 1974, Grasso re-entered state politics and, after a hard-fought campaign, was elected governor, defeating Republican Congressman Robert Steele by a margin of more than 200,000 votes. She was re-elected in 1978. In her first inaugural address, she promised a government that would be more responsive to the people, but would keep within the fiscal limits demanded by the times. Looking for ways to economize, she began with herself, returning to the state treasury a $7,000 raise she could not legally refuse. Over the course of her tenure as governor, Grasso’s leadership was tested in the face of fiscal problems, state layoffs and budget shortfalls. She endeared herself to her constituents when, during the great Blizzard of 1978, she stayed at the State Armory around the clock, directing emergency operations and making frequent television appearances. Her bold move of closing all roads and businesses in the state by official proclamation allowed emergency workers to perform essential services without worrying about stranded motorists, automobile accidents and other issues and allowed the state to get back up and running again in a few days time.

4 of 50 current governors are women

You read that right, 4 of 50. 2 Democrats and 2 Republicans. As bad as that sounds, when you consider there have only been 37 female governors in the entire history of the United States, the challenge is starkly laid before us.

Governor Kate Brown (D) Oregon

Governor Susana Martinez (R) New Mexico

Governor Mary Fallin (R) Oklahoma

Governor Gina Raimondo (D) Rhode Island

We must do better

As with many issues in our lives, we know there is a problem. When you look at the numbers the reality is even more sobering than you might think. We need to identify,recruit, cultivate and support women entering the political arena.

Here is the Wikipedia link to a list of all the women who have served as Governor of a US state throughout our history.

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