Monday, January 21, 2008

brushing up on women's political history

On Sunday evening as I was walking with my husband, T., to the station in Philadelphia, where I would board the train back to New York, we were debating talking about what Hillary Clinton's win (?in some terms but not others?) in Nevada might mean for the Democratic party and our chances of winning the general election in November. T. was expressing, as he does, the criticisms of Clinton that come out of a position typically (though not exclusively-I have been known to say this too sometimes) articulated by lefty white men for whom economic class tends to be the salient factor in how they judge the world around them (you know, in their college-age incarnation, the guys in Che shirts?), to wit: that Clinton's running for president in the first place is a signal of egregious "decay" for the republic. That electing her and bringing about a 'Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton' presidential succession would pile on nepotism on top of disgusting nepotism, that it would bespeak a total breakdown of our supposed-to-be-meritocratic electoral system, that it would be a long-ish slide down a slippery slope into outright hereditary political dynasty like they have in England or some shit, that it would be a black mark on America's name, like we don't have enough of those already.

I was talking about a lot of things I remember from the Clinton years in this conversation (more on that later), but in arguing about the "dynasty" issue on pure historical hunch, I pointed out that in a certain sense, according to a certain narrative, we have 'always known' that the first woman president would be a former first lady, because -- though it's a sad sign of sexism in itself, not ideal, not truly equitable at all -- that's how the first women in electoral offices in this country have gotten their jobs. I argued, from somewhere in the recesses of my feminist education, that the first woman Senator and the first woman Governor were both widows who were appointed to take their husbands' jobs -- and I was right.

I give you: The Election-Year Weltschmerz primer on women in electoral office in the United States!
First woman governor - 1925 - there were practically 2 at once!
Nellie Tayloe Ross, Wyoming - (info from Wikipedia)
In 1922 William Ross was elected governor of Wyoming by appealing to progressive voters in both parties. However, after little more than a year and a half in office, he died on October 2, 1924, from complications following an appendectomy. The Democratic Party then nominated his widow to run for governor in a special election the following month to succeed him.
Nellie Tayloe Ross refused to campaign, but easily won the race on November 4, 1924. On January 5, 1925, she became the first woman governor in the history of the United States. As governor she continued her late husband's policies, which called for tax cuts, government assistance for poor farmers, banking reform, and laws protecting children, women workers, and miners. She urged Wyoming to ratify a pending federal amendment prohibiting child labor. Like her husband, she advocated the strengthening of Prohibition laws.

She ran for re-election in 1926, but was narrowly defeated. Ross blamed her loss in part on the fact that she had again refused to campaign for herself and for her support for Prohibition. Nevertheless, she remained active in the Democratic Party and campaigned for Al Smith in the 1928 presidential election. She also served as vice chairman of the Democratic Party. Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her as the first female director of the U.S. Mint on May 3, 1933

Miriam Ferguson - Texas - inaugurated 16 days after Ross, was governor twice!
(from Wikipedia) Miriam Amanda Wallace "Ma" Ferguson (June 13, 1875June 25, 1961) became the first female governor of Texas in 1925.[1] She was born in Bell County, Texas. Her husband, James Edward Ferguson, the governor from 1915 to 1917, was impeached, convicted, and removed from office during his second term. Under terms of the conviction, he was not allowed to hold state office again.[2] After her husband's impeachment and conviction, she ran as a Democrat for the office herself. During the campaign she said she would follow the advice of her husband and that Texas would get "two governors for the price of one."[3] Against what would have seemed insurmountable odds, another Ferguson was elected not only as governor, but the first woman governor of Texas.
During her first administration she averaged over 100 pardons a month, and accusations of both bribes and kickbacks overshadowed her term, resulting in unsuccessful attempts to impeach her. This led to her defeat in the primaries of both 1926 and 1930. However, she ran again in 1932. She narrowly won the Democratic nomination over incumbent Ross S. Sterling. She then defeated Republican Orville Bullington in the general election. Bullington fared stronger than most Texas Republican candidates did at that time. Her second term as governor was less controversial than her first.

First woman Senator - in 1922, Rebecca Latimer Felton served a 1 day term at the age of 87. She is the only woman Senator ever from Georgia. Her husband, who had died 13 years before, had been a US Representative. The governor of GA appointed her to fill the seat of a senator who died, until a special election, in order to win women's votes for himself in the special election. He lost the special election anyway, and the guy who beat him allowed her the honor of being sworn in. She and her husband both were huge populists, temperance, pro-state university, women's suffrage movt. social reformers. They were also deplorable, pro-lynching racists.

First woman Senator to serve a term - 1932 - (from Wikipedia)
Hattie Ophelia Wyatt Caraway (February 1, 1878December 21, 1950) was the first woman elected to serve as a United States Senator. Hattie Wyatt was born near Bakerville, Tennessee, in Humphreys County. She married Thaddeus H. Caraway and moved with him to Jonesboro, Arkansas where she cared for their children and home and her husband practiced law and started a political career. Her husband was elected to the United States House of Representatives as a Democrat in 1912 and served in that office until 1921 when he was elected to the United States Senate where he served until he died in office in 1931.
Arkansas Governor Harvey Parnell appointed Caraway to serve out the rest of her husband's unfinished term. She was sworn in to office on December 9, 1931 and was confirmed by a special election of the people on January 12, 1932 becoming the first woman elected to the United States Senate. (see also: Rebecca Latimer Felton).
Caraway made no speeches on the floor of the Senate but built a reputation as an honest and sincere Senator. She served a total of 14 years in the United States Senate, from 1931 until 1945, as a member of the Democratic Party. When she was invited by Vice President Charles Curtis to preside over the Senate she took advantage of the situation to announce that she would run for reelection. Populist Louisiana politician Huey Long travelled to Arkansas on a 9-day campaign swing to campaign for her. In 1938 she ran again for reelection against John L. McClellan and was victorious after receiving support from a successful coalition of veterans, women, and union members. She ran for a final time in 1944 and was defeated by J. William Fulbright. After leaving office she was appointed to the Federal Employees Compensation Commission and to the Employees Compensation Appeals Board .Caraway was a prohibitionist and voted against anti-lynching legislation along with many other southern Senators. She was generally a supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt's economic recovery legislation.


I think it's interesting that these scenarios always seem to carry some kind of catastrophe -- the reigning male elected official is impeached or dies, leaving the ship of state rudderless, so to speak. This seems to create the circumstances under which people will elect a woman - perhaps drawing on some old-school virtuous-'savior' mythology? And also just a sense that the world is temporarily turned upside down, so why not this, too? There definitely seems to be a precedent for women in office coming out of disorder and crisis.

The first Senator to be elected outright, not appointed first, was Gladys Pyle in 1938 from South Dakota, also the first Republican -- she was never married, either -- and she was STILL elected in a special election to fill a vacancy caused by a senator's death, though not her husband's. (She had served in the state House and run for governor previously, though; she was a huge suffragist leader).

The first Democratic woman Senator to be elected, rather than appointed, was not elected until 1987 (!!). She is also a confirmed bachelorette - Barbara Mikulski from MD, who is still in there, the longest serving woman in the Senate.

I think it's interesting that if Clinton is elected president, it will be unlike any of these "firsts" in that a woman would be elected with a spouse who is alive -- although on a narrative level, the death of Bill Clinton still kind of lingers as a presumptive condition of her being in office, in a way that would kind of creep me out if I were him. (If I thought they were CRAZY as well as power-hungry, I would worry that he was planning on spectacularly staging his own death in the run-up to the general election....!! I do not think they are crazy, though.)

It may be that the most concrete gender 'progress' that we would see with a Clinton presidency, in terms of how women attain political office in this country, is that the previously-serving husband would not, in fact, have to die -- only to serve a previous term -- for a woman to get elected.

According to the set of tropes that emerges when we look at "firsts" of women in political office, Clinton's election would indicate -- maybe not "decay" as the Che-boys, who are justifiably angry about the obscene inequalities in opportunity and privilege in this country, call it -- but a crisis-level of disorder, power vacuum, uncertainty... a real sense of the world turned upside down and all the precedents gone, which was what was required for these other women to occupy these offices. If Clinton is nominated and/or elected, might that mean that according to a certain reading of the event, the whole Bush administration was experienced as a catastrophe on the order of a president dying in office?

I would argue, as I did to my husband on Sunday, that a former first lady becoming president is in nowhere near the same ballpark of corruption or 'decay' as a father/son presidential succession like that of the Bushes, which bespeaks no such crisis or revolution, no break with the patrilineal system that has been going on since, like, forever. In fact, I find it really sketchy that a first-lady succession is being tarred with the same brush of "dynasty" as Bush I/Bush II. It's actually pretty offensive to compare these "firsts" to the whole normative history of father/son succession, all the back into ancient times. Actually, sons have always inherited fathers' power. Wives inheriting their husbands' power has been a quirk of progress-couched-in-patronizing-caution or non-progress-vaunted-as-progress or... something. But it hasn't been the business of privilege as usual.

Also, I would point out that people are not raised by their spouses -- wives are not raised by their husbands. Powerful political couples like the Clintons, like the Doles, like the Feltons and Caraways before them, etc., are individuals who each come from their own set of circumstances and help each other out as adults; no matter what you think of Clinton's dependency on President Clinton, it's not a 1-way bestowing of advantages from the cradle. To equate this with Bush I/Bush II is basically to consider a wife as tantamount to her husband's child -- it tacitly assumes that her activities and capacities and what she can and can't accomplish are utterly shaped and determined by him. It implies that any woman who was married to Bill Clinton would be the Democratic front-runner for President 8 years after he left office. That's a pretty preposterously sexist underpinning to the whole "dynasty" objection.

As I said to T. on Sunday -- no, the first-lady-successor thing is not ideal, it's never been ideal, but in American politics it does seem to be how it goes. The list of women senators, representatives, and governors serving after successful husbands -- and true, also fathers, just as sons have always done -- is huge. Part of my point is illustrated by the fact that by being elected to the Senate when her husband was never a U.S. Senator, Hillary Clinton was still a ground-breaking politician (she's also the first woman from NY). The year she was inaugurated, 2001, was the year that the historical balance tipped and for the first time more of the (only 35, ever!) women Senators to serve in the whole history of the US had been elected than appointed to their seats. 2000 was the first time a woman has ever defeated a male incumbent Senator.

What's also interesting is that every single one of these women has ended up being boldly progressive in some ways, even if controversial, and even though unconscionably conservative in other ways, in her public service career. And maybe there's something culturally specific about that - i.e. no total tool-of-the-patriarchy Margaret Thatchers for us (perhaps because our actual conservative power structure is too dependent on retrograde gender ideologies for their power to ever nominate a woman, period).

Though it is deeply upsetting that several of these "first" women are so appalling on the issue of race... it feels like a warning sign from history: white women's "firsts" have, in fact, carried out discourses of 'white feminine virtue' versus 'black male savagery'. It's not like they ever campaigned for their offices, but you can't separate the anomalous gender positions in which they found themselves from their racist language.

It's not some activist fiction that the language white women have used to assert our right to participate in politics -- and when we have attained that right, the language in which we have performed and participated in politics -- has actively oppressed and sold out black people, especially black men. It's what happened.

White women's racism -- and everyone else's racism accumulating around white women, as it has always done -- is a specter that haunts what's happening now. More on this later.

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