10 Surprising Political Events in Women’s History


In honor of Women’s History Month and in light of this political season, let’s look at ten surprising political events that mark women’s quest for equality.

1. Susan B. Anthony is the first woman who publicly asked for equal pay for equal work. Anthony began her career as a teacher. In 1848, one of her male colleagues told Anthony that he was earning $10 per month as a teacher. Anthony was only earning $2.50 per month. Equal pay for equal work is an issue that Anthony first brought up at the New York Teachers Union one hundred and seventy years ago and is one that we are still fighting for. When Anthony wanted to bring up this issue it sparked a half-hour debate as to whether it was proper for women to speak in public. Finally allowed to speak, Anthony said, “Do you not see so long that society says a woman is incompetent to be a lawyer, minister, or doctor, but has ample ability to be a teacher, that every man of you who chooses this profession tacitly acknowledges that he has no more brains than a woman?” Anthony continued to speak out for equal pay for teachers at conventions for years.

2. Women ran for president before they gained the right to vote in 1920. Victoria Woodhull ran in 1872; Belva Lockwood ran in 1884 and 1888.

3. Susan B. Anthony broke the law to vote, not to vote for Victoria Woodhull but to vote for Republican Ulysses S. Grant. In 1872, Anthony went to the polls to support Grant over her fellow reformer Victoria Woodhull, with whom she had an intense rivalry. Anthony was imprisoned for breaking the law and faced a judge. She asked the judge to keep her in jail so she could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and try to force a hearing on female suffrage. The judge disagreed, telling her that “jail is no place for ladies” and fining her ten dollars. Anthony refused to pay the fine.

4. The first woman on a presidential ticket was also on an interracial ticket. Victoria Woodhull, a candidate for the Equal Rights Party, chose Frederick Douglass as her running mate.

5. Wyoming and Utah led the way in granting women the right to vote. Wyoming enfranchised women in 1869, hoping to attract more settlers. In 1870, the territorial legislature of Utah granted the right to vote to women. The all-male legislature did this without any pressure or lobbying from women. The right to vote was revoked in 1887 but then restored in 1895. Nationally, women did not have the right to vote until 1920.

6. Susan B. Anthony referred to herself as “the Moses of my sex.” The Anthony Amendment, later known as the Nineteenth Amendment and the one that granted women the right to vote, was introduced to Congress once a year for forty years before it passed, mirroring Moses’s forty years in the desert.

7. The first female U.S. Senator was an 87-year-old former suffragist who served just 24 hours in 1922. Rebecca Latimer Felton was appointed by Georgia Governor Thomas W. Hardwick when the then-current senator, Thomas Watson, died in office. Seeking an appointee who would not be an opponent in the upcoming special election, he chose Felton. Congress was not expected to reconvene until after the election, so it was not thought that Felton would be sworn in. However, Walter George won the special election despite Hardwick’s maneuvering and allowed Felton to be sworn in. George took the office one day later.

8. The first female governor in the United States never campaigned. Nellie Davis Tayloe Ross was the wife of Wyoming governor William Ross when William died in office. The Democratic Party nominated his widow in a special election. Although Ross refused to campaign, she easily won the election and served from 1925-1927. She remains the only female governor that Wyoming has ever had. Ross went on to be the director of the U.S. Mint from 1933 to 1953.

9. The first female U.S. Representative was a pacifist, voting against U.S. entry to World War I, and the only member of Congress to vote against declaring war in Japan after Pearl Harbor in 1941. Jeannette Rankin was elected to represent Montana in 1916, which was before women could vote nationally. When she was sworn in, she said, “I may be the first member of Congress but I won’t be the last.” Voting against the U.S. entry into World War I, she lost her seat in 1918. However, she ran again in 1940 at the age of 60, defeating the incumbent. Rankin was the only member of either house on Congress to vote against declaring war on Japan after Pearl Harbor, saying, “As a women, I cannot go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.” While many were critical of her vote, the act was also acknowledged as a courageous vote.

10. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was first proposed in 1923, discussed for more than fifty years, and was defeated by a woman. The ERA, a proposed amendment to the Constitution designed to guarantee equal rights for women, was originally introduced in 1923. Congress, never quick to act on behalf of women, took fifty years to discuss it. But by 1973, thirty states had ratified it, needing only eight more ratifications for passage. And yet it only took one woman, Phyllis Schlafly, to organize a campaign and defeat the amendment. Schlafly made the case that the amendment would repeal protective laws such as alimony, exclusion of women from the draft, and that mothers would no longer receive judicial preference when it came to custody hearings. While five additional states ratified the amendment, Schlafly’s campaign was successful in the remaining states refusing to ratify it. The ERA failed.