August 2015

But Why Not Then?

Author: Courtney Hampson

In June, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley addressed the nation following the Emmanuel AME Church shooting in Charleston. She was visibly shaken and fought tears as she began her remarks. I was moved to see such emotion—and zero hesitation—from a politician. But at the same time, I was holding my breath, anticipating the pundits, who lay in waiting to comment on a female leader crying at a press conference.

They never came.

So, maybe it is time.

I was asked to consider (and write about) why now is the right time for a woman president. But I have procrastinated more than usual on this one. Honestly, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the assignment, because I kept returning to one point: Why are we asking this question now, when we should really be asking, why not then?

George Washington was elected President in 1789. It would be nearly six decades before women really even started making the history books in terms of politics. It was 1849 when Harriet Tubman began to slowly, one group at a time, free her enslaved relatives. Tubman worked as a scout and a spy for the Union Army when the Civil War began and became the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war.

Why not then?
It was 1869 when Arabella Mansfield was granted admission to practice law in Iowa, making her the first woman lawyer. And, just three years later, in 1872, Victoria Claflin Woodhull became the first woman presidential candidate in the United States, nominated by the National Radical Reformers.

Why not then?
In 1885, apartment-living visionary Sarah E. Goode became the first African-American woman to receive a patent, for a bed that folded up into a cabinet. Goode, who owned a furniture store in Chicago, intended the bed to be used in apartments, thus launching a movement for apartment dwellers who had to make the most of their sparse square footage. Today, HGTV is making a fortune off of ideas like this.

Why not then?
It was 1887 when Susanna Medora Salter was the first woman elected mayor of an American town, in Argonia, Kansas and the first woman elected to any political office in the United States. She was paid a whopping one dollar for her year-long term, but she was onto something. In 1916, Jeannette Rankin, of Montana, became the first woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Upon her election she said, “I may be the first woman member of Congress, but I won’t be the last.” She was re-elected again in 1940, and interestingly was the only member of Congress to vote against declaring war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Nellie Tayloe Ross became the first woman governor to serve the state of Wyoming, in 1925, succeeding her deceased husband, William Bradford Ross. But, her aspirations didn’t stop there. In 1933, she became director of the United States Mint, a position she held for two decades.

Why not then?
In 1932, Hattie Wyatt Caraway of Arkansas became the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate, and a year later, Frances Perkins was appointed Secretary of Labor by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, making her the first woman member of a presidential cabinet.

Why not then?
Jerrie Cobb became the first woman in the U.S. to undergo astronaut testing, in 1953. NASA, however, canceled the women’s space program in 1963 (surely a man’s decision), and it would be another 20 years before Sally Ride took the ride of her lifetime and went into space.

In 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, after the white section was filled. Parks was not the first person—or even the first female—to resist bus segregation, but her act of defiance and the Montgomery Bus Boycott became important symbols of the modern Civil Rights Movement. But, her service didn’t end there. Beginning in 1965, she served for 23 years as secretary and receptionist to U.S. Representative John Conyers.

Fast forward to the 1960s. The women’s liberation movement is en fuego. We’re burning bras, and now women are really moving and shaking. Literally. Because their bras are burnt to a crisp. (I’m sorry. Sometimes I just can’t resist the obvious joke.) Oveta Culp Hobby became the first woman to serve as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. She was also the first director of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), and the first woman to receive the U.S. Army Distinguished Service Medal. (Kind of a big deal.)
In 1964, Margaret Chase Smith, of Maine, became the first woman nominated for President of the United States by a major political party, at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco.

Five years later, Shirley Chisholm, of New York, became the first African-American woman in Congress and the first female black U.S. Representative. Her motto: “Unbought and unbossed.” She served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 14 years.

Why not then?
Juanita Kreps became the first woman director of the New York Stock Exchange in 1972, and later served as the United States Secretary of Commerce under President Jimmy Carter. She was the first woman to hold that position, and the fourth woman to hold any Cabinet position.

In 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed by President Reagan to the Supreme Court, making her its first woman justice.

In 1984, former vice president and presidential candidate Walter Mondale, seen as an underdog, selected Geraldine Ferraro to be his running mate in the upcoming election. Ferraro became the first woman to be a major-party national nominee.

Why not then?
Grunge, hip hop, and this thing called the World Wide Web marked the 1990s. So did the swearing in of Dr. Antonia Novello as U.S. Surgeon General, becoming the first woman (and first Hispanic) to hold that job.

Shiela Widnall became the first secretary of a branch of the U.S. military when she was appointed to head the Air Force.

Janet Reno became the first woman U.S. attorney general in 1993; and in 1997 Madeleine Albright was sworn in as U.S. Secretary of State, becoming the first woman in this position as well as the highest-ranking woman in the United States government.

In the 21st century, women have completed countless remarkable tasks. Kathleen A. McGrath became the first woman to command a U.S. Navy warship at sea. Stephanie Ready was the first female coach of a men’s professional league team. Danica Patrick was the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500. Nancy Pelosi was the first female Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. Ann Elizabeth Dunwoody was the first woman in U.S. military and uniformed service history to achieve a four-star officer rank. Shannon Eastin was the first woman to officiate a National Football League game. General Motors named Mary Barra as its first female CEO and the first female CEO of a major automaker.

Megan Smith was named as the first female Chief Technology Officer of the United States (Fun fact: I heard her speak at the annual SXSW conference in Austin this spring, and she kicks major ass). Fifty-six million children were born. I’m presuming that was all the work of women.

Forty-one countries have had female presidents or heads of state, dating back to 1940. Yet we call ourselves the most advanced country in the world. I’d say we’re about 75 years behind in that argument.

Why not now?

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