Abigail Adams was an outspoken women's advocate and the country's second First Lady. Adams played a double role as John Adams' wife and political adviser; Adams supported her husband in his career but never failed to express her convictions that women should have the same rights as men.
Many of her ideas were ahead of her time: she opposed slavery, stressed the importance of education regardless of gender, and believed it the responsibility of the rich to support the poor. Her appeals for gender equality are recognized as some of the first demands for women’s equal rights.
The Seneca Falls Convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. Elizabeth Cady Stanton (pictured above) and Lucretia Mott organized the meeting, which was the first women's convention to discuss the oppression of women in sociopolitical, economic, and religious life.
Convinced that women had to help themselves and take responsibility for improving their situation, they prepared the Declaration of Sentiments, which included twelve resolutions. The participants passed eleven resolutions, failing to pass a resolution for women’s suffrage. Decades later, the Declaration of Sentiments was used as a foundational document for the women’s suffrage movement.
In 1872, Victoria Woodhull, a women’s rights and suffrage activist, became the first woman to run for president. She was the nominee of the Equal Rights Party.
Woodhull, a resident of New York, was unable to vote for herself on Election Day, as at that time the state restricted voting to men. However, as she had been jailed a few days prior to Election Day for a story she had published in her newspaper Woodhull & Chaflin’s Weekly, her inability to vote was of little consequence.
The State of Colorado pioneered women’s participation in politics. Though the first attempts to establish women’s suffrage failed in 1877, Colorado became the second state to give women the right to vote in 1893.
Clara Cressingham, Frances Klock, and Carrie C. Holly (pictured above) of Colorado were the first women elected to a state legislature, the Colorado House of Representatives. These women focused on social welfare, championing reforms for child labor laws, relief subsidies, and the eight-hour workday.
In 1916, Jeannette Rankin was the first woman to be elected to the House of Representatives. She was a Republican from Montana, who served from 1917-1919, and again from 1941-1943. Rankin was a supporter of women's suffrage who lobbied Congress for the National American Woman Suffrage Association. As a progressive congresswoman, Rankin advocated a constitutional women's suffrage amendment and focused on social welfare issues.
On August 26, 1920, the women's suffrage movement came to a head with the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in all 50 states.
Some of the movement's major drivers included: the National Women's Party, which sought a constitutional amendment for women's suffrage; the National Woman Suffrage Association, and the American Woman Suffrage Association, which advocated women's suffrage at the national and state levels, respectively, and eventually merged. Women's participation in the First World War gave further impetus to the cause.
On November 21, 1922, Rebecca Latimer Felton was sworn in as a Senator from Georgia. The 87-year-old Felton was appointed in a symbolic gesture to fill a vacancy, after the death of Senator Thomas E. Watson. She only served one day in the Senate.
In July 1924, Soledad C. Chacón was appointed acting Governor of New Mexico for two weeks when Governor James F. Hinkle left the state to attend the Democratic National Convention. Chacón also served as the New Mexico Secretary of State for two terms from 1922-1926. She would go on to be elected to the New Mexico House of Representatives in 1934.
In 1924, women’s involvement in American politics took a leap forward when Wyoming and Texas elected female governors. Nellie Tayloe Ross (pictured above) and Miriam A. “Ma” Ferguson, both Democrats, succeeded their husbands in office.
Ross became the governor of Wyoming in a special election after her husband died. She had not been involved in politics before but wanted to continue her husband’s work. Miriam Ferguson succeeded her husband James Ferguson after he was impeached. Much of her work as governor was influenced by her husband.
In 1931, Hattie Wyatt Caraway was the first woman to serve as a U.S. Senator for more than a day. She was appointed after the death of her husband Thaddeus H. Caraway, an Arkansas Senator. Though she made few public appearances during her husband’s term, Caraway stayed involved in politics behind the scenes.
After finishing her husband's term, Caraway was re-elected and served in the Senate until 1945. Her major policy focuses were farm relief and flood control. She was also wary of America's involvement in World War II and the influence of lobbyists.
Frances Perkins was a well-educated and engaging woman, who graduated from Columbia University and Wharton College with a focus on economics and sociology. She worked as a factory inspector and on the Factory Investigation Commission in New York City. Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her as Commissioner of Labor when he was Governor of New York.
Impressed by her work, Roosevelt appointed Perkins as Secretary of Labor in 1932. She was the first female cabinet member, serving 12 years during the Great Depression. Serving in what was a particularly difficult position during that time period, Perkins labored to create back-to-work programs for the struggling workforce.
Margaret Chase Smith’s political career started in 1940 when she succeeded her husband as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Maine. She served four terms in the House before being elected to the Senate in 1948, where she stayed for another 24 years.
Smith engaged in foreign policy and military affairs while serving as a member of the Armed Services Committee. She was the first woman to serve in both the House and Senate.