A state judge and family members watched as Nellie Tayloe Ross signed the oath of office, after winning the Wyoming race for governor in 1924.

State’s women

Historically, Western states
have given women their
first opportunities to govern

By Lee Catterall

Governess? Governorine? Governette?

The New York Times, that style-conscious gray lady of American journalism, ruminated tongue-in-check about what it should call Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming and Miriam "Ma" Ferguson of Texas upon their 1924 election as the first female governors in American history. The Times settled on, simply, governor.

"And why not?" the editorial asked. "If they make good governors it will be not because they are women, but because they have sense, intelligence and character, and if they make bad ones -- but of course they will not, and to give any thought to that abhorrent contingency would be discourteously premature and worthy only of a woman-hater."

Ma Ferguson turned out to be no litmus test. She essentially was a surrogate of her husband, who had been impeached as governor of Texas; "Pa" remained in charge. However, Ross, sworn in as the nation's first female governor 15 days before Ferguson's inaugural, became an effective chief executive.

Republican governor hopeful Linda Lingle, right, and state Rep. Mindy Jaffe chatted with other Republicans in July at GOP headquarters on Kapiolani Boulevard.

Ross's husband had been governor of Wyoming and she became the Democratic nominee to finish his term following his death a month before the 1924 election. Lacking the sympathy vote two years later, Ross was narrowly defeated in her re-election bid -- not for being a woman or for her performance in office but because she was a Democrat running in a Republican state. She remained active in national politics and was appointed in 1933 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as the first female director of the U.S. Mint, a position she held for 20 years.

The recognition of Ross as a worthy executive did not open the floodgates to other female governors. Only now, more than three-quarters of a century after the Ross and Ferguson elections, is a woman poised to be governor of Hawaii.

"I think it's very exciting," Mazie Hirono said, as she entered yesterday's primary election poised to win the Democratic Party nomination and aiming to become the nation's first woman of Asian descent to be elected governor. "Hawaii will be making history. When I look at the history of our country and the fact that only 12 women have ever been elected on their own to be governors of states, it's pretty incredible. This is a new day."

Linda Lingle, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in 1998 and again this year, is less enthralled by the significance of Hawaii electing its first female governor.

"I've been through this two times before, once as the first (county) councilwoman elected outright on Maui and once as the first woman mayor elected on Maui," Lingle said. "It wasn't something

I ever thought about beforehand or while I was doing it (campaigning). I did think about it after I was elected, in making sure I did a good job, because when you're the first of anything, I think people tend to use you as an example of an entire group.

Andy Anderson joked with Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono before a Democratic candidates' debate earlier this month.

"So I do have a feeling of responsibility and obligation to do a good job," she added, "because I want there to be opportunities for women and particularly for young girls who are coming up. I know that my job performance is going to have some influence on whether people feel comfortable electing more women to office. In that sense, it's signif- icant to me personally that I do a good job."

The opportunities that exist now did not occur overnight. When Ross and Ferguson were elected chief executives of their states, one Eastern newspaper scoffed that neither had "executed anything more constructive than baking a pie or making a bed."

That skepticism continues to haunt women seeking political careers in the South, where the only female governor has been Lurleen Wallace, elected as a surrogate for husband Gov. George Wallace in 1966 because he could not run for re-election.

Western states provided the first political opportunities for women. Wyoming's territorial legislature adopted woman suffrage in 1869, and it was christened the Equality State upon attaining statehood in 1890 for being first to allow women the right to vote. Men outnumbered women in Wyoming by a ratio of six to one in 1869 so posed no political threat, while sponsors hoped the publicity would attract newcomers, especially women. Utah Territory enacted woman suffrage a year later.

"Even before women had the right to vote nationally, they were electing women to state legislatures in places like Colorado and Utah," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for the American Woman and Politics, a research and education institute at Rutgers University. "There's been much more acceptance of women in these positions."

Western states continue to be most promising for female politicians.

Walsh attributes it to "a populist notion of government" that exists even today in those states. "Even when you look now at the percentage of women serving in state legislatures, women are doing better in the Washingtons and Oregons and Arizonas and Colorados than they are even in the New England states."

Western states retain "the free openness, the free spirit, if you will, the willingness for things to change" that is conducive to women running for office, agreed Lois Duke Whitaker, a political science professor at Georgia Southern University and editor of the 1998 book, "Women in Politics: Outsiders or Insiders?"

By contrast, Duke Whitaker said, "The traditional culture of the South still remains in many aspects. The woman is not the linkage to the political world; the male is."

Not in Hawaii, said Lingle. "If anything, I think it's opposite. Maybe more so in Hawaii, people are open to the idea of women in leadership. I think part of it goes back to the history of our state, the history of the monarchy," ending with Queen Liliuokalani. "People historically have seen women as strong leaders."

Lingle pointed out that Jean King was lieutenant governor under Gov. George Ariyoshi, and at one point all three mayors of the neighbor islands, one of whom was Lingle, were women who had been elected to the posts. Hirono is completing her second four-year term as lieutenant governor.

Across the country, women have found it easier to enter politics through jobs associated with "female issues," such as education, health care and children, said Duke Whitaker. Numerous women have been elected state superintendents of education.

They also have been moderately successful in running for legislative positions, ranging from city and county councils to Congress, Walsh said. The governor's mansion remains "the last bastion of where the resistance may be for women as political leaders, to be the final voice, the place where 'the buck stops here.'"

Duke Whitaker calls it "the plum principle: the higher the level of office, the more difficult for a woman to achieve that level, and certainly a gubernatorial office is right up there."

One obstacle to women entering politics is not likely to evaporate: family obligations.

"Because of the way our society is structured, child care usually falls mostly to women," Lingle said. "For me personally, if I had children, this is not a job I would seek, or feel I could do a good job at both being a parent and being a mayor or governor." She said most women who have become mayors either have no children or have children who are adults.

"That's still the case," said Duke Whitaker, "and I don't foresee that changing. That is a big factor, because of the child care, the nurturing, the motherhood. And when women wait until the nest is empty, it's tougher for them to break into the world of politics."

Another problem has been media coverage of elections involving women, Duke Whitaker said. Journalists "tend to focus on the personal characteristics of the female candidates while citing the male candidates' issue positions and records on certain matters."

Five women now serve as governor, but three are leaving office at the end of this year. Govs. Ruth Minner of Delaware and Judy Martz of Montana are not up for re-election until 2004. Going into yesterday's voting in Hawaii, women had won primary elections in Arkansas, Michigan, Arizona, Kansas, Maryland, Alaska, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Women still are campaigning for their primaries in three states.

Only once before have both major political parties in a state nominated women to run against each other: Nebraska in 1986.

"I think it's really to the credit of Hawaii that this is happening," Duke Whitaker said as Lingle and Hirono appeared headed for a similar confrontation. "It indicates that some of the old obstacles are slowly fading and that, no matter what your gender or race or creed or whatever, voters can actually look beyond the stereotypes."

"These are important milestones for women's participation in politics," Walsh said of the Hawaii candidacies. "I know it's not the case with Mazie Hirono (a naturalized American), but for Linda Lingle I think it is: These are the positions that are often the stepping stone to the presidency. The bigger question is that as you see women moving into positions of governor and U.S. senator, they're positioning themselves for making that next run."

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