Fill Those Empty Pedestals with Pioneering American Political Women

This summer, statues and memorials of former presidents and public leaders have toppled or been removed in a reckoning with the nation’s profound legacy of racism. As the country grapples with that legacy, the time is ripe for an examination of whom we choose to memorialize. In particular, we must look for those who have made important contributions to our nation and are often missing from the historical accounting, especially women and people of color.

Last month, the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) released our Women Elected Officials Database, a tool with the most complete collection of information anywhere in the world about women officeholders in the United States. It includes women officeholders nationwide, their officeholding history, party identification, and, when available, information about their race and ethnicity. While CAWP has long kept an officeholder database, this is the first time it is available in a searchable, online format for public access. It contains entries for more than eleven thousand women officeholders dating back to 1893 when women first served in statewide elected executive office. Open availability of these data helps all of us understand more thoroughly women’s role in our country’s political history and creates opportunities for new research and programs addressing the lack of parity in women’s representation. It is also a wonderful resource for exploring women who deserve a statue or other memorial in their honor.

When CAWP started counting women officeholders in 1971, there were only 351 women serving in state legislatures nationwide out of over 7,600 seats. To put this into perspective, if these women had met up in New Hampshire’s statehouse, they wouldn’t have filled all the seats of its 400-member House of Representatives, while the men serving would have needed a stadium.  Women held only twelve of the 535 seats in U.S. Congress in 1971. That particular class of women members of Congress would leave a big footprint on the history of women’s public leadership in numerous ways. Representatives Shirley Chisholm and Margaret Chase Smith, formidable as members of Congress, helped add cracks to the “marble ceiling” by running for the presidency during their political careers. Representative Margaret Heckler, the first woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts, later became one of the co-founders of the bipartisan Congresswoman’s Caucus (eventually the Congressional Women’s Caucus). And two of these women, Representatives Patsy Mink and Edith Green, would go on to author Title IX, which changed the landscape for generations of women students and athletes.

Some of these names are relatively well-known, but reaching further back, how many have heard the name Eva Kelly Bowring, the first woman to serve in the Senate from Nebraska? Appointed to the Senate in 1954 upon the death of her predecessor, she initially rebuffed the offer from the governor before reversing course, noting that “when a job is offered to you, take it. Men can refuse but women are increasingly important in political life.”[1] (Side fact, people in Nebraska might know her name: Bowring was an avid rancher, and after her death, her ranch was donated to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, becoming Bowring Ranch State Historical Park.) Other women who have played important roles in public life early in our nation’s history include Soledad Chacón, the first woman and first Latina to win statewide elected executive office, becoming New Mexico’s secretary of state in 1930. In her time in office, Chacón served as acting governor while the governor was out of the state, the first woman in the country’s history to assume the responsibilities of that office. Chacón also went on to serve in the New Mexico legislature.

1917 is the year the first woman served in the U.S. Congress — Jeannette Rankin, a Republican from Montana. Out of curiosity, I looked into the database to see how many women were serving in state legislatures at the time. There were twelve, and all were from five Western states — Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Utah, and Washington. Two of those women were the first women to serve in the Montana House of Representatives, Democrat Margaret Smith Hathaway and Republican Emma S. Ingalls. Both women were ardent suffragists and worked to promote women’s rights and disenfranchised groups. In what was presumably a high compliment for its time, a male legislator said of Hathaway, “She’s the biggest man in the House.”[2] Representative Rosa Jane McKay of Arizona was best known for passing a bill enacting a minimum wage for women (a law that was unfortunately struck down as unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1923).[3]

Intrigued by Montana’s early numbers, I looked into the state more deeply and discovered Dolly Cusker Akers, the first Native American to serve in its legislature and the only woman to serve during her term from 1933-34. She won election with almost 100% of the vote in a county where whites outnumbered Native Americans by 10 to 1. Throughout her career, Cusker Akers lobbied extensively on tribal issues and was most proud of her work on behalf of the 1968 Indian Civil Rights Act. [4] Other history-makers include Minnie Buckingham Harper, who was appointed to the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1928, becoming the first Black woman to serve in a state legislature. Crystal Dreda Bird Fauset, the first Black woman elected to a state legislature, served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from 1939-40. A long-time civic leader and civil rights activist, Bird Fauset also served as an advisor to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She gave over 200 lectures about race relations on behalf of the American Friends Service Committee, and her words resonate today: “The types of questions asked [me] give clear evidence that white students, both high school and college, think of the American Negro as being not quite human, think of him as being more or less of an alien, associating him with an African rather than American background, and that whatever advantages and privileges he enjoys are due solely to the magnanimity of white people. They do not seem to realize that these advantages and privileges are due him as a native-born American citizen and as a normal human being — at least as normal as the attitude of the white world permits him to be.”[5]

These are just a small handful of examples of the women who have played valuable roles in public life throughout the course of the nation’s history. By providing open, accessible data on women’s representation, it is our hope that researchers will have an easier time conducting research and analyses, that practitioners working towards parity for women will have better context and understanding about the trends in women’s representation in their states and nationwide, and that everyone will be inspired to dig more deeply into the history of women who have served in public office. Let’s start erecting monuments to and naming bridges, highways, and buildings after some of these pioneering women leaders.


[1] “Eva Kelly Bowring,” in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2006. Accessed July 9, 2020:

[2] Montana Historical Society Women’s History Matters. ”After Suffrage: Women Politicians at the Montana Capitol.” Accessed July 23, 2020:

[3] State of Arizona Research Library. “Meet Rosa McKay: Champion of Women’s Rights & Minimum Wage.” Accessed July 9, 2020:

[4] Montana Historical Society Women’s History Matters. “’I am a very necessary evil’: The Political Career of Dolly Smith Cusker Akers.” Accessed July 9, 2020:

[5]American Friends Service Committee. “Lifting the Curtain: Crystal Bird Fauset.” Accessed July 23, 2020:

The Maine Women’s Policy Center (MWPC) was founded in 1990 to improve the economic, social, and political status of women and girls in Maine through research, public policy, and leadership development. MWPC works for systemic change by organizing, training, and supporting women and girls to effectively participate in the policy-making process.

Holiday Gift Guide: Celebrating Women Who Lead

Too much to do and too little time this holiday season? To help lighten the load, here’s a handy list of gift ideas honoring women public leaders – perfect for the women (and men!) in your life who appreciate the role that women play in shaping our democracy, as well as the kids who will carry the leadership torch in years to come.

TheCOMPASSProject has designed a collection of special artisan-crafted True North bracelets, and a portion of sales supports CAWP’s Ready to Run® Network of nonpartisan campaign trainings for women.  We wear our bracelets every day as a symbol of hope that one day women in America will have the power to govern as equals. Yes, this is a shameless plug to support our work, but you’ll also help women break some marble ceilings while shopping. See, everyone wins!

Speaking of ceilings, this shattered glass ceiling necklace pays tribute to the accomplishments of empowered women everywhere. Enough said.

Every baby needs this Ruth Bader Ginsburg bib, because it’s never too early to start kids on embodying the spirit of powerful women.

We can’t all be on the Supreme Court, but we can enjoy a cup of coffee with this record-breaking, history-making squad any time we’d like.

These coasters would make a charming and empowering hostess gift. Also, I’m now obsessed with this “brilliant women” spinner.

What friend wouldn’t appreciate having Eleanor Roosevelt’s words of wisdom on their wall?  (And this card.)

Statement t-shirts are fun; why not make them empowering ones? Suffragist Alice Paul said, “There is nothing complicated about ordinary equality,” and we agree. Every woman has a mind of her own. And in case anyone needs reminding about where women belong.

What better way to spend a cold winter’s night than curled up in front of a good show? Equity is about the hard road women face making it in a man’s world.  The binge-worthy drama Borgen covers challenges faced by Denmark’s first female prime minister.

Last, but not least: books that teach kids and adults about women’s public leadership. (Note: this is by no means an exhaustive list of books on women leaders. The biggest challenge is the lack of titles on the subject of women’s political leadership. Take note, publishing houses and authors!  We need more. In the meantime, additional book suggestions are available on our Teach a Girl to Lead™ site.)

Preschool and Elementary: Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison; She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World by Chelsea Clinton and Alexandra Boiger; Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx/La juez que crecio en el Bronx by Jonah Winter; Grace for President by Kelly DiPucchio ; If I Were President by Catherine Stier; Child of the Civil Rights Movement by Paula Young Shelton and Raul Colon.  Founding Mothers: Remembering the Ladies by Cokie Roberts  and Diane Goode; Mary America: First Girl President of the United States by Carole Marsh; Hillary Rodham Clinton: Do All the Good You Can by Cynthia Levinson; A Woman for President: The Story of Victoria Woodhull by Kathleen Krull  and Jane Dyer.

Pre-Teen: Yours Truly, Lucy B. Parker: Vote for Me! by Robin Palmer; With Courage and Cloth: Winning the Fight for a Woman’s Right to Vote by Ann Bausum; Scholastic Biography: Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I A Woman by Patricia McKissack and Fredrick McKissack; President of the Whole Fifth Grade by Sherri Winston; Margaret Chase Smith: A Woman for President by Lynn Plourde.

Teen: 33 Things Every Girl Should Know About Women’s History: From Suffragettes to Skirt Lengths to the E.R.A. by Tonya Bolden (editor); Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony by Geoffrey C. Ward and‎ Kenneth Burns; Still I Rise: The Persistence of Phenomenal Women by Marlene Wagman-Geller.

Adult: Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead by Madeleine Kunin; Political Woman: The Big Little Life of Jeane Kirkpatrick by Peter Collier; Unbought and Unbossed by Shirley Chisholm; My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor; Mankiller: A Chief and Her People by Wilma Mankiller; Fighting for Common Ground: How We Can Fix the Stalemate in Congress by Olympia Snowe; The Autobiography Of Eleanor Roosevelt.

Center for Women's Leadership, Portland State University

Through dedicated outreach, education and skill training, the Center for Women’s Leadership empowers women and girls in Oregon to embrace their voice, lead confidently, and change the narrative of their leadership. The Center aims to be an advocate, an authority, and a resource that provides women with the knowledge and networks needed to take on leadership roles throughout Oregon.

Center for Women’s Leadership, Portland State University

Through dedicated outreach, education and skill training, the Center for Women’s Leadership empowers women and girls in Oregon to embrace their voice, lead confidently, and change the narrative of their leadership. The Center aims to be an advocate, an authority, and a resource that provides women with the knowledge and networks needed to take on leadership roles throughout Oregon.

How to talk to kids about this election

call-in-sick-election-fatigue-funny-ecard-ihcThese days, a lot of conversations around the office of the Center for American Women and Politics (and our larger home, the Eagleton Institute of Politics) tend to start or end with someone saying “Wow, what an interesting year to be studying politics, huh?” or “I’ve just never seen anything like it before.”  While presidential election years can be great opportunities to teach kids about democracy and elections, the heated rhetoric and tone from this election cycle have, at times, made it difficult to approach as an educational tool.  I have three young daughters, and they have repeatedly peppered me with questions over the past several months: “Why don’t people want girls to be president?”, “Why is everyone so angry about this election?”, and “Why does the sign on that guy’s house say ‘X for President, X for prison’?”  Whether I like it or not, my kids are learning about this election, and some of what they’re learning is quite disheartening. I’ll admit my instinct has sometimes been to answer quickly and then change the subject. Because, frankly, I’m not sure where to begin.

But it’s important to talk to our kids about this election in particular and about democracy in general. Civic engagement is the cornerstone of our democracy, after all. And in a year when gender plays a dramatic role, it’s more important than ever to address the subject with an eye on the messages girls and boys receive about who can be public leaders. The Washington Post spelled out why this election could have a negative impact on the girls in this country, regardless of the winner.  This line is particularly sobering: “To be sure, electing the first female president would show American girls that women truly can overcome gender bias and win elections at the highest levels. But they will also have witnessed another truth: They will pay a price for trying.”  That shook me out of my election fatigue. If my girls must learn this lesson, I also want boys to hear that girls may pay a steep price just for wanting to lead.

To get inspired, I found some resources to use for engaging young people in discussions about politics, women’s leadership and democracy:

  • IGNITE, an organization dedicated to grooming young women to become the next generation of political leaders, launched the #DeclareYourAmbition campaign earlier this week to help inspire more girls. The campaign video should be required viewing for every elementary school kid in this country.  IGNITE also has “Empower Your Daughter” discussion guides by age group to help you engage girls in election activities and politics. Watch the video below and then tell a girl to run for office!

PS I *love* the Presidential ticket that our partner organization She Should Run has created with Barbie. Snag them before they’re gone!

Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val-Kill

rrvkThe Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val-Kill (ERVK) inspires and empowers individuals and organizations to use their time, talent and resources to build a just and sustainable world, close to home and abroad. We accomplish this mission by providing cutting edge programs and experiences epitomizing Eleanor Roosevelt’s passion and commitment to human rights, principled leadership and social justice for all.

Grace for President!

The following is a guest post by North Dakota State Representative Gail Mooney.  Elected to the legislature in 2012, Rep. Mooney serves on the Government Services Committee, the Human Services Committee, and the Government and Veterans Affairs Committee. Rep. Mooney participated in our Grace for President Reading Project during Women’s History Month. 

In late March, I had the pleasure of reading Grace for President to the second graders of Hillsboro (ND) Elementary School. Mrs. Liedholm and Mrs. Ferguson were gracious enough to open up their classes for an hour of reading, visiting and LOTS of questions!

Rep. Gail Mooney reading Grace for President at her local elementary school.
Rep. Gail Mooney reading Grace for President at her local elementary school.

When I started, I asked them all….Who wants to be President of the United States??!!  Without hesitation they all raised their hands – boys and girls.  Then I told them that in the really old days, when I was in the second grade, if anyone had asked me if I’d like to be President, it would never have occurred to me to raise my hand.  They laughed and thought that was funny.

We read Grace for President, and they loved it.  They were so engaged with the story, and they all agreed Grace should be President.

Afterwards we talked about dreams.  I shared that when I was a little girl, my dream was to be an artist.  Then they shared their dreams – artists, farmers, teachers – and presidents.  🙂

Then we talked about women in history – they shared a whole litany of GREAT women in history.  I told them how impressed I was that they’d paid so much attention to all these wonderful women. But I also asked them: what about our great moms and great teachers??  Aren’t they historical in their own way??  They LOVED that!

We talked about the state legislature and what my job is all about.  When I told them part of my job is to listen to them – to their parents and friends – they loved that.  Mrs. Ferguson asked about any bills that didn’t pass that were disappointing. One that came to mind involved a requirement for seat belts in school buses.  After discussing it, we decided we’d have a classroom vote on this bill so that I could bring that back with me in the next legislative session.  They voted unanimously for safety and to have seat belts.  I told them I will bring that bill forward in the next session and be sure to share their vote with my fellow legislators!

In the Q&A one little guy asked me if I’d ever found my dream of being an artist.  So sweet that he remembered.  I told them that YES! I had! And that I then discovered another dream of being in public office.

We finished with hugs galore – and a huge THANK you for the book donation.

So – with that – thanks  so much to Teach a Girl to Lead™ for initiating this in honor of Women’s History Month.  It was a hit on every level!

(Editor’s note: Thank YOU, Rep. Mooney, for helping teach the next generation – both girls and boys – about women’s public leadership!)