It seems so long ago, but a large and unruly roster of candidates assembled themselves at the outset of this campaign, a field that included four female members of the U.S. Senate. One of them -- Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, or Kirsten Gillibrand -- could wind up as vice president: Biden has already promised that his running mate will be a woman.
Seven years ago today, when he himself was vice president, the White House was the scene of a ceremony spotlighting women in politics. Jill Biden was one of the honored guests.
“When I look around this room, it is hard to believe that 100 years ago this month, thousands of women were marching right outside this house, demanding one of our most fundamental rights: the right to vote, to have a say in our democracy,” President Obama told guests in the East Room. “And today, a century later, its rooms are full of accomplished women who have overcome discrimination, shattered glass ceilings, and become outstanding role models for all of our sons and daughters. And that means we've come a long way, and that’s thanks to the efforts of so many people like you.”
The White House reception was commemorating Women’s History Month, which began 39 years ago when Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Mikulski of Baltimore co-sponsored a joint resolution designating March 8, 1981 as the beginning of Women’s History Week.
The theme became an annual one, and because a week is an insufficient length of time in which to consider the contributions of half the human population, the resolution was expanded in 1987 so that March became Women’s History Month. By then, Barbara Mikulski was Orrin Hatch’s colleague -- the voters of Maryland having sent her to the Senate in 1986.
* * *
The path taken by women to serve in the “world’s greatest deliberative body” was winding and, at least initially, bordered on the ignominious. The very first female senator was the widow of a former Georgia congressman named William Felton. After the death of Sen. Thomas Watson, Rebecca Latimer Felton was appointed to his seat as a political ploy on the part of Georgia Gov. Thomas Hardwick. The governor wanted to run for the vacant Senate seat himself, but he had a delicate problem: He had actively opposed passage of the 19th Amendment, you see, but it was now the law of the land. How to show solicitude for the female voters he never wanted to exist in the first place?
His solution was appointing 87-year-old Rebecca Felton to the vacancy, the understanding being that with the Senate in recess until after the 1922 elections, she wouldn’t actually ever be seated. Hardwick’s gambit did not proceed according to plan.
For starters, he lost on Election Day to another Democrat, Walter George. Then, President Warren G. Harding delighted Rebecca Felton’s fans by calling for a lame duck session of Congress. So it came to be that on Nov. 21, 1922, the Senate convened. Sen.-elect George heeded the hopes of the packed Senate gallery by holding off on his claim and letting Felton to take the oath of office as the United States’ first female senator.
In most respects, time has passed her by. Georgia’s most prominent Progressive in her time, Rebecca Felton wouldn’t seem too progressive today. She agitated in favor of women’s suffrage, yes, but she was also active in the Prohibition movement and a committed segregationist whose liberal views on extending the voting franchise did not include blacks.
She served only a single day in the Senate, but on that one day she made a bold prediction that expressed the resolve of women ever since -- even those who never heard of her. More women were coming, she told her male colleagues, and the country would be better for it.
This became the unofficial rallying cry of a growing group of future female senators, whose ranks included Arkansas’s Hattie Caraway, the first woman elected in her own right (1932); the aforementioned Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, the first former congresswoman elected to the Senate (1948); Illinois’ Carol Moseley Braun, the first female African American senator (1992); New York’s Hillary Rodham Clinton, the only first lady to join the Senate (2000).
Fifty-six women followed Rebecca Felton’s trail. Twenty-six are serving there now, and if Joe Biden gets his way, next year at this time a woman will be the official president of the Senate.
“When the women of the country come in and sit with you, though there may be but very few in the next few years,” Felton told the male senators in 1922, “I pledge you that you will get ability, you will get integrity of purpose, you will get exalted patriotism, and you will get unstinted usefulness.”