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Saturday, March 27, 2021

Groundbreaking Gilded Age Women in Politics

The passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 gave some women the right to vote on a federal level, but certainly not all.  As two examples: Native Americans were not allowed to be citizens in 1920, so indigenous women did not gain suffrage as a result. Despite their very active role in fighting for women's suffrage, Black women's right to vote was less clearly secured by the passage of the Amendment, but that did not deter them from advocating consistently for their right and engaging in electoral politics. In some parts of the country, some women had been allowed to vote in local elections long before 1920, and many women ran for office!  Exactly 100 years after the 19th Amendment was ratified, the United States elected the first female vice-president.  Because of this groundbreaking election, and amidst the backdrop of much controversy regarding voting rights in our current day, we want to highlight other women who also achieved political firsts.

Women's Political Union Votes for Women Sash
Photo Credit: Smithsonian Institution

This essay will explore the groundbreaking political campaigns of five different women during this era.  We will explore the first female to legitimately run for president as well as first woman elected to various offices including administrator of a statewide office, mayor, state senator, and US representative.

Susanna Madora Salter (1860-1961)

Susanna Madora Salter was elected mayor of Argonia, Kansas in 1887, the year that women in Kansas gained the right to vote in local elections. She was the first woman in the United States to be elected as a mayor, and one of the first to serve in any political office.  Salter’s election and subsequent able performance in that role drew national press coverage, sparking debates about women holding positions of responsibility. The year after Salter’s precedent-setting election, more women were voted into office throughout Kansas.

An active member of the Prohibition Party, Salter supported a temperance candidate in Argonia’s 1887 mayoral election. Attempting to sabotage the prohibition candidate, the pro-liquor faction quietly submitted a prohibition slate of candidates with Susanna Salter as the candidate for mayor. They assumed that no one would support a woman candidate and that the Prohibition party would suffer a humiliating defeat.

Salter didn’t campaign for the job – she didn’t know she was on the ballot until Election Day! When early voters reported that Salter’s name was listed as a candidate for mayor, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union withdrew support from the male Prohibition Party candidate and organized a successful last-minute “get out the vote” effort for Salter.

Belva Ann Lockwood (1830-1917)

The first woman to “officially” run for president was Belva Ann Bennett Lockwood representing the Equal Rights Party in 1884. Although Victoria Woodhull did run for President in 1872, she was not actually old enough to hold the office, therefore it was not a legal candidacy. Lockwood was born in Royalton, NY and was teaching in the local school by age 14. She married Baptist Minister Ezekiel Lockwood and was encouraged by his progressive views about the roles of women in society. She studied law and was admitted to the bar in Washington D.C. where she faced many obstacles and disrespect due to her gender. Because of this she drafted an anti-discrimination bill, which was ultimately signed into law by President Rutherford B. Hayes. It allowed all qualified women to practice law in any federal court. The next year, Lockwood became the first woman to argue a case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Lockwood was active in the women’s suffrage movement and in 1884 the political party created by suffragists, the Equal Rights Party, nominated her as their candidate for president. Lockwood’s platform included temperance policies such as the criminalization of alcohol. She also wanted to change divorce and inheritance laws to give women equal rights. Lockwood campaigned across the country and gave speeches to supporters. She received approximately 4,000-6,000 votes although her supporters argued that the true count was higher and numbers of her ballots were tossed. Since women were not allowed to vote and many newspapers spoke out against her candidacy, it was an achievement that she received this many votes! Lockwood ran again in 1888, but received less support. She spent her later years speaking and writing to continue advancing the causes of women’s suffrage and world peace.

Laura J. Eisenhuth (1859-1937)

Laura J. Eisenhuth became the first woman elected administrator of a statewide office in the United States when she became the North Dakota Superintendent of Public Instruction in 1892.

She worked as a teacher in her hometown in Iowa before moving to the Dakota territory. After assuming a teaching position there, she was soon elected Superintendent of Schools of Foster County, North Dakota. The following year she was appointed the state institution coordinator, which oversaw all of the teacher training institutes in the state. 

 In 1890, Eisenhuth decided to run for North Dakota Superintendent of Public Instruction, but lost with 45% of the vote. Since women were allowed to vote on matters involving schools, and this was a school related position, Eisenhuth reasoned she was eligible to run. She ran again in 1892 and won! During her term, Eisenhuth focused on professional development for teachers and conducted many trainings herself. She ran for a second term, but was defeated by another woman! Following Eisenhuth’s election, women were elected as Superintendents of Public Instruction in Wyoming and Colorado. 

Martha Hughes Cannon (1857-1932)

Martha Hughes Cannon, the first woman to become a state senator, was elected in Utah in 1896. She was one of the few women who attended college in the 1870s. She received a degree from the University of Deseret (now the University of Utah), a medical degree from the University of Michigan, and also a pharmaceuticals degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Cannon worked as a medical doctor while becoming a politically active suffragist.

Raised as a Mormon, Cannon was in a polygamous marriage with Angus Cannon who was one of her opponents in the election! He ran as a Republican and she as a Democrat. The Democratic–leaning Salt Lake Herald endorsed Martha and not her husband stating, “she was the better man of the two.”  According to Cannon, the election did not cause a rift between her and her husband.  After winning the election, Cannon served one term, and sponsored several successful bills. In 2018, the Utah State Legislature commissioned a statue of Cannon to represent Utah in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol, where two figures of historic significance represent each state.

Jeannette Rankin (1880-1973)

Jeannette Rankin was the first women elected to Congress - in 1916! Rankin served in the US House of Representatives from Montana, just two years after the state granted women's suffrage.

An early social worker and suffrage activist during the Gilded Age, she lobbied for the right to vote in several states, including here in New York. Her political career began as a field secretary with the National American Woman Suffrage Associate, when she became the first woman to address the Montana state legislature. Five years later, her state-wide congressional campaign focused on suffrage, social welfare, and prohibition. Upon entering Congress, Rankin, declared "I may be the first woman member of Congress, but I won't be the last!" A devout pacifist, she was just one of 50 House members who opposed US intervention in WWI. During her one term, she advocated for safer work environments, an 8-hour workday, and introduced legislation that evolved into the 19th Amendment - granting women the vote. After an unsuccessful Senate run, Rankin continued her social advocacy work though several councils and lobbying campaigns for over 20 years. On the eve of the Second World War, Rankin was again elected to Congress. She was the only member of Congress to vote against the declaration of war following Pearl Harbor. 

In 1985, a statue of Rankin was dedicated in the United States' Capitol building with an inscription of her anti-war quote "I wish to stand for my country, but I cannot vote for war." One year before her death, she noted she would prefer to be remembered for her suffrage work over her pacifism.

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