Winning Their Place

Arizona Women in Politics, 1883-1950
Heidi J. Osselaer


On January 4, 1999, five women were sworn in as the top executive officers in Arizona, a first in United States history. The national media dubbed them the "Fab Five" and celebrated them as examples of the progress women were making in politics. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who already had made history as the first woman on the nation's highest court, administered the oath of office to Governor Jane Hull, Secretary of State Betsey Bayless, Attorney General Janet Napolitano, Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham-Keegan, and Treasurer Carol Springer. Most of these women, including Justice O'Connor, had started their political careers in the Arizona State Legislature, so it was appropriate that Edwynne "Polly" Rosenbaum, the longest-serving member of the legislature, was a guest of honor at the ceremony. In addition to dominating state executive office, women held 37 percent of the seats in the Arizona legislature that year, well above the 20 percent national average, and a woman, Brenda Burns, was chosen by her peers to preside over the state senate. Some observers assumed that the success of Arizona women during the election of 1998 was the result of the modern woman's movement, but others noted that the state had a long history of female political participation. The New York Times suggested that Arizona's "newness, open political system and a certain gender-blind libertarian bent among the populace" might have contributed to the unusual number of female elected officials. Indeed, decades before anyone had heard the phrase "women's liberation," Arizona voters were electing women to office in abnormally large numbers.

The first demand for female political equality in Arizona was made in 1883. Women finally won the right to vote and run for public office in 1912, when 68 percent of male voters supported a suffrage ballot initiative-the largest popular vote for a state suffrage amendment in the country. From 1914 to 1950, when women nationally occupied on average only 1 to 2 percent of all state legislative seats, Arizona women averaged between 5 and 6 percent. By the 1960s and the dawn of the modern woman's movement, women had made some progress nationwide; they held 4.5 percent of all state legislative seats and 6 percent of all state executive offices. In Arizona they averaged 10 percent of state legislative seats and 22 percent of statewide offices. Their work was well chronicled in newspapers by their contemporaries, but as historian Marshall Trimble commented in 2006, "No matter the paths they chose, pioneer women have something in common besides their gender: They got little credit for their accomplishments." This book is an attempt to document the historical contributions of Arizona women to early state electoral politics and to establish the reasons they succeeded as candidates at a time when most people felt women were unsuited for public office.

Perhaps the reason women's political roles in Arizona history are often ignored is that popular culture-particularly western movies and novels-has given us an image of a place that was distinctly masculine. Most people, when they think about Arizona history, conjure up visions of the gunfight at the OK Corral or the U.S. Cavalry tracking Geronimo. It seems incongruous that such a turbulent and dangerous environment could also be a backdrop for female politicians. To understand women's roles, we must first get past the myth that early Arizona was a wild and lawless place. Recent research on the territorial criminal justice system proves conclusively that Arizona was no more violent than most other parts of the country. Gambling, drinking, and prostitution were rampant in early mining towns, but outright lawlessness was not endemic. Anglo businessmen and political leaders were eager to establish justice systems that would provide for order in the territory and to promote businesses to boost the economy, so they worked with female reformers to ensure that community services were available to attract new settlers.

To fight alcohol abuse and vice, Arizona women joined the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in large numbers. The first local branch of the WCTU was started in Prescott in 1883, and other branches quickly followed in most major towns. Members were dedicated to lobbying their elected officials to pass laws to curb alcohol consumption, but early on Josephine Brawley Hughes, president of the Arizona WCTU, recognized that without the vote, women were powerless to influence politicians. In 1890 she founded the first territorial woman suffrage association. As its president, she lobbied the territorial legislature for woman suffrage but had little success. In the early 1900s a new generation of more ambitious women, led by Frances Willard Munds and Pauline O'Neill, turned the movement in a new direction. They resembled other suffragists in the West, whom Rebecca Mead has characterized as "innovative [and] energetic" and who "operated relatively independently of the increasingly conservative eastern leadership" of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Tired of following the national suffrage leaders' orders to appeal to the legislature, Munds and O'Neill formed an alliance with labor unions and third parties that forced Republicans and Democrats to support a suffrage amendment to the new state constitution. In 1912, eight years before the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave all women the right to vote, Arizona joined Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Idaho, Washington, California, Kansas, and Oregon as a suffrage state.

By 1914, all western states and territories with the exception of New Mexico had extended the franchise to women, but it was not until 1917 that New York became the first state east of the Mississippi River to pass a suffrage bill. The national suffrage movement was founded and headquartered in 1848 in New York, so why did the East lag behind the West? Rebecca Mead, who has documented the western suffrage movement, argues that there was no single reason the West led the nation with suffrage. Rather, a variety of local conditions influenced the decision process. Western territorial and state legislatures were smaller and easier to influence than large eastern legislatures, and as western territories aspired to become states, constitutional convention delegates were forced to debate voting rights publicly in forums where suffragists made their voices heard. Settlers in the West were more open to new ideas and experimentation than their eastern counterparts, and they often flirted with third party movements such as Populism and Progressivism that supported woman suffrage. Women's leaders used this to their advantage, throwing their support behind popular third parties and forcing Democrats and Republicans to take their demands seriously. Some businessmen and politicians saw suffrage as a way to boost publicity for their state, which they hoped would encourage new settlers. Finally, most western states had progressive constitutions containing provisions for direct democracy in the form of the initiative and the referendum. With these political tools, sympathetic voters could bypass legislatures filled with entrenched politicians who had little incentive to add women to the electorate.

If the general public in the West was more receptive to giving women the vote, it was because many voters assumed that Anglo women, not women of color, would enter the electorate to help shape the political agenda. Race played an important role in impeding suffrage in many states. In the 1890s in the South, white state officials began to amend state constitutions to severely limit the vote of African Americans. During the Jim Crow era, white northern suffragists, eager to dispel southern fears that extending the franchise to women would increase the political power of African Americans, discriminated against black women, often preventing their membership in suffrage clubs or segregating them in suffrage parades. African American women's leaders were critical of the racist stance of the national suffrage organizations, but a majority of white women's leaders remained committed to gaining the right to vote even at the expense of the rights of black women.

In the West, African Americans were few and did not pose the threat to Anglo dominance that Mexican American voters did. In Arizona, African Americans made up 3.5 percent or less of the total population before 1950, but the Mexican American population composed somewhere between 20 and 25 percent. Arizona's Anglo territorial leaders worked to neutralize the votes of those they deemed "uneducated," mostly working-class Mexican Americans who spoke little English, and in 1909 passed a literacy requirement that kept many from voting until 1972. Federal law denied citizenship to American Indians until 1924, but Arizona state law barred American Indians from voting until 1948 and denied those living on reservations the right to hold public office until 1973. Prior to statehood, whites assumed control of the economic, political, and social organizations in the territory, a control that included authorizing the segregation of public schools. They created communities "run by Anglos for Anglos." Minority populations organized in political clubs and mutual assistance leagues but remained largely segregated from Arizona's political culture until after World War II and the civil rights movement. Rebecca Mead notes that "woman suffrage was easier to accept in the West in part because it could not alter the balance of racial power in the region, where white racial hegemony was firmly established by the turn of the century." This was certainly the case in Arizona.

Although many women in the United States participated in campaigns to win the right to vote, few were interested in seeking public office once suffrage was won. The goal of the national woman suffrage movement was to create female voters who would clean up politics, not to create female politicians. When they demanded the vote, women did so as an extension of their domestic role as "social housekeepers," hoping to elevate government with their moral influence. They petitioned and lobbied legislatures to advocate temperance and on a variety of other issues of concern to women and children, but few were knowledgeable about tax codes, tariffs, banking policies, or the myriad economic issues routinely tackled by legislators, congressmen, and governors. Most felt uncomfortable seeking public office, where deals were brokered in smoke-filled hotel rooms and candidates traveled extensively to speak with voters. After women won the vote, polling booths moved from the local saloon to the neighborhood school or church to accommodate female voters, but women's groups and political parties did little to encourage potential female politicians.

Despite all the challenges, some suffragists felt compelled to run for office. These women had developed speaking and organizational skills during the suffrage battles and put them to use in their own political campaigns. Political commentators speculated that female politicians would champion laws that benefited women and children, end corruption in politics, and challenge men for control of government. A public expectation existed that these women would alter the political landscape as they won seats in Congress or became governors. But women were newcomers to politics in the 1920s, and novices rarely win high office. It takes years to develop the name recognition and financial backing to run for state or federal office, and the handful of women who won those positions usually did so because they were the widows or daughters of prominent male politicians. Women's lack of success at the national level led many historians to conclude that they could not overcome the many barriers to office holding. The political parties were too hostile to female candidacies, and women felt out of place competing with men. The assumption was that women, who had been barred from electoral politics for so long, were more comfortable in the separate female political culture of women's voluntary clubs, where they could influence government indirectly by lobbying legislatures. As a result, recent historical research has focused primarily on women's organizations and their influence on politics. The problem with this approach is that it ignores the majority of early female politicians who worked their way up the political ladder, starting in county offices or state legislatures and paying their dues on local political party committees. Their stories remain largely untold. In this book I refocus the examination of women in electoral politics to the local and state level, where female candidates did enjoy successes after winning the right to vote.

Historians note that in the western states where women won the vote early, women often had more success running for office than in the rest of the nation. Yet only a modest amount of research has been directed at uncovering the reasons for this difference. Some theorize that the experience of growing up in the West might have socialized women to participate in politics to a greater extent than women in other regions. As Rita Mae Kelly observes, "local custom and tradition in the Southwest gave women the expectation that public participation-at least in their special spheres of influence-was not only acceptable but also desirable." Paula Petrik's study of women in Helena, Montana, reveals that the generation of women born in the West to frontier mothers was more independent, more likely to work outside the home, and more likely to assume positions of leadership in the community than eastern women.

Even in the West, however, the success of female candidates was uneven. Elizabeth Cox identified the states in which few women were elected, such as California, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, and the states that consistently elected above-average numbers of women, such as Washington, Colorado, Oregon, and Arizona. Until more studies appear on office holding in other states, we really will not know why opportunities for women varied so dramatically from state to state. In the meantime, it is apparent that women in Arizona had an advantage because they played such important roles in the economic development of the state.11 Arizona remained a frontier well into the twentieth century, and its economy was among the poorest in the nation, so women's work was important to helping families make ends meet. Labor was scarce, and so many men were employed in physically demanding industries such as mining, farming, and ranching that there were shortages of workers to run businesses, teach school, and perform clerical services. Women, regardless of marital status, often took these jobs. Additionally, Arizona ranked high among states for widows. In other states single women, who traditionally held jobs only temporarily before marriage, dominated the female work force, but in Arizona working married women and widows outnumbered single women. Their contributions to the economy, according to Donna Guy, led to opportunities for Arizona women "unimagined in earlier frontier societies."

Far western states like Arizona attracted a disproportionate number of professional women who were lawyers, doctors, teachers, and businesswomen. They paid taxes and were sued in court, yet they could not serve on juries and faced discriminatory laws in the workplace. They were not paid as well as men, had fewer job opportunities, and were treated as second-class citizens. In 1920 the Arizona Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs (BPW) was organized and became an advocate for female advancement and equality in the workplace. The Arizona BPW found strong support among the state's large female, Anglo professional class and acted like a political party for women, encouraging them to run for office and admonishing members to support female candidates with their votes and campaign contributions.

The Arizona BPW filled a void for Anglo women in Arizona politics. In most states after suffrage, women's leaders were invited to serve on party committees or to run for office if Democrats or Republicans believed they could deliver female voters. The political parties in Arizona did not absorb the most talented women; they ignored them. The Democratic party, with two-thirds of the registered voters, dominated state politics until the 1950s. Without party competition, there was no need to win over female voters by running women candidates. Women's leaders were outraged by the Democrats' indifference to women and became convinced that the majority of male politicians, regardless of political stripe, could not be trusted to represent women or their interests. This conviction stimulated many women to run for office themselves.

The women elected to office before 1950 in Arizona represented the different religions found in the state-Protestant, Jewish, Catholic, and Mormon-but not the different races. Office holding is a reflection of who holds power in society, and Anglo men dominated Arizona's public offices until very recently. With the exception of a handful of Mexican American male politicians, Arizona's minority populations, male and female, were largely excluded from public office before World War II because they lacked the economic clout, educational opportunities, and sufficient numbers to overcome the pervasive discrimination they faced. Yet Arizona voters seemed comfortable offering well-educated, professional Anglo women a small degree of power-far less than Anglo men, but far more than African Americans, Mexican Americans, and American Indians-by electing them to public office.

Like their counterparts in other states, Arizona's early female politicians promised to represent the interests of women and limited themselves primarily to positions in county office and the state legislature. But a successful politician cannot appeal to only half the electorate, and female office holders quickly recognized that they were responsible for representing male interests as well as female. During the 1930s they expanded their political agenda and tackled the economic problems facing the state, emphasizing their qualifications both as mothers and as businesswomen. In the state legislature they sponsored bills to aid widows, overhauled the tax code, funded construction projects, and chaired important committees. Isabella Greenway became such a powerful force in the Democratic party through her political talents and personal connections that she became Arizona's sole representative to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1933. By 1950 women had established themselves as professional politicians and started to run for offices such as sheriff, superior court judge, and even governor. The higher the political stakes, however, the more resistance they met from male politicians and voters. Arizona's early female politicians did not overcome all biases against their gender before 1950, but they did test many traditional notions about a woman's proper role. In the process, they paved the way for future generations of women to make accelerated gains in state politics-including the five women who took the oath of office from Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and assumed control of state government in 1999.

Copyright © 2009. The Arizona Board of Regents.

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