Olive Rose was elected to the office of Register of Deeds in Lincoln County, Maine, in 1853. In the Annals of the town of Warren, Maine, her election rated a ceremonial mention: “On the 30th of May, the town showed its regard for female rights, in respect to holding office, by giving Miss Olive Rose 73 votes for County Register of Deeds.” (In Warren, Rose beat her male opponent by 69 votes.) All of the county’s voters who selected Olive Rose for this office were men. She did not have the right to vote for the position she held, but she won it nonetheless.
Rose may be the first member of a largely forgotten historical group: the thousands of women who ran for local, state, and national offices before the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 granted women the universal right to vote. While some ran in elections where their fellow women were allowed suffrage under the laws of the locality, many others, like Rose, faced an electorate composed of men. Jill Norgren and Wendy Chmielewski, co-founders of the site Her Hat Was in the Ring, have been searching for historical traces of these candidates for the past seven years, adding their stories into an ever-expanding database of biographies of women candidates. As the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign kicks off, this longer history shows that American women have been running for—and winning!—offices big and small for more than 150 years.
The Her Hat project challenges historians’ long-held ideas about the way women participated in political life before they won the universal right to vote. The conventional wisdom is that late 19th- and early 20th-century women, barred from full citizenship, threw themselves into informal community activism, in particular by joining reform groups and women’s clubs. As one 2009 American history textbook put it: “Blocked off from politics, women carved out a public space through voluntary associations.” If they ran for office, they did so as fringe, third-party candidates, and for offices that were related to women’s concerns, like education. At any rate, we thought, such candidates were few and far between.
Norgren, a professor emeritus who taught government and women’s studies at John Jay College and the CUNY Graduate Center, and Chmielewski, the curator of Swarthmore College’s Peace Collection, met in 2007 when Norgren visited the archive to research her biography of pioneering female presidential candidate Belva Lockwood. “As Hillary Clinton began her primary campaign that year, Wendy and I began throwing around the question: Exactly how many women besides Lockwood did run for office before universal suffrage?” Norgren told me. “In informal conversations, we were looking at each other and saying ‘What could it be? 75 people?’ That seemed like an enormous number.”
The website—designed by Kristen Gwinn-Becker, the project’s third collaborator, a Ph.D. in women’s history who runs the consulting firm History IT—now holds biographical information for 3,289 women candidates, and the researchers have as-yet-unprocessed data for about 1,800 more.* The total number of campaigns in the database is 4,480; in a startling 3,339 of those campaigns, women candidates were successful. (Female candidates lost 730 campaigns; for 411 of the contests, the outcome is unknown.) You can search the site for candidates by name, or browse by state, office, or party.
How, I wondered, did the two researchers begin to look for biographical information about women whose names were unknown to them? To start, they followed a paper trail left by activists. Suffrage campaigners and women’s rights advocates, looking to commemorate their accomplishments, were prone to keeping lists. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony’s six-volume History of Woman Suffrage, published between 1881 and 1922, held state-by-state campaign information, cataloging women in the suffrage movement who had run for office. That source, Chmielewski told me, contained around 250 names. Two articles in a social work magazine, written in the 1910s by Jane Campbell, a Philadelphia suffragist, listed a few hundred women who had run for or been appointed to state or municipal offices. A 1912 article published by the Kansas Historical Society yielded another 200 names and referred to 700 more unnamed women who had been elected as county superintendents of schools. Between big discoveries like these, the researchers have undertaken the more painstaking work of combing town and state reports for the names of female candidates.
The large number of women in the database who won local offices shows that female candidates had more motivations for running than previously thought. Showy national campaigns like Belva Lockwood’s runs for president in 1884 and 1888 were meant to shake up the status quo—to attract media attention and make an argument for women’s rights. But many of the candidates the project has newly identified had a realistic hope of winning their positions and were deadly serious about doing so. These candidates often ran on platforms addressing civic issues, with causes like municipal sanitation, temperance, or fiscal reform motivating their campaigns. In addition, the researchers told me, we shouldn’t discount a more basic motivation: financial security. “A few of these positions paid salaries,” Norgren pointed out. Whether women were widowed, single, or married but facing financial pressures, this economic incentive could contribute to their decision to run.
About half of the candidates in the database were married, Chmielewski estimated, while half were single. Marion Todd, a lawyer from California who ran for state attorney general in 1881 on the Greenback Labor Party ticket, began her campaign—which included public speeches delivered statewide—a year after her husband’s death. It might be tempting to guess that the recently widowed Todd was running because she had been liberated from a husband’s disapproval, but the website’s biographical note points out that Benjamin Todd had encouraged his wife to make a career of lecturing. (Marion Todd, who lost that election, was later a delegate to two national conventions of the Anti-Monopoly Party, a fact that supports the researchers’ argument that not all of the female candidates ran on stereotypically “domestic” issues like education and temperance.)
On the other hand, the husband of Laura Stockton Starcher, who was elected mayor in the tiny town of Umatilla, Oregon, in 1916, was surprised by his wife’s political efforts: He was the incumbent she defeated, by a vote of 26 to 8, in an election he later said he didn’t know she planned to contest. Mrs. Starcher took office along with a group of other women who won four of the six town council seats and proceeded to concentrate on the improvement of public utilities and infrastructure. In 1918, Starcher was replaced in her office by another woman, Stella Paula.
How, I asked the researchers, was it legally possible for women like Olive Rose and Marion Todd to run for offices when they didn’t have suffrage? There were a few ways this worked. In some places, women had been awarded suffrage for specific elections—in particular, for school elections. If this wasn’t the case, but an office had been created after the drafting of a state’s constitution (which often explicitly restricted jobs to men only), women might make an argument for their eligibility. And legislatures sometimes passed laws allowing women to run for particular offices that were considered appropriate for their gender, as happened in the 1870s in Massachusetts, when women successfully lobbied to be allowed to run for the Boston School Committee.
My second question was about electability: How did women persuade the men of their districts, who wouldn’t allow them the vote, to allow them to hold office? Norgren said that electing a given woman for a given job might have been less threatening to many male voters than extending suffrage to all women. “A single woman running, who was known to her community, was a known entity,” Norgren said. “She was vetted all the way along.” Despite frequent successes, however, there were still instances in which winning female candidates who had been elected by male electorates faced legal challenges from the losers; some lost their new jobs to those challengers.
The Her Hat Was in the Ring project challenges another bit of conventional wisdom, which held that women who ran for office before suffrage were single-issue and marginal candidates, only able to run on the tickets of the many third parties of the late 19th- and early 20th-century political scene. (The “Woman by Party” search function on the site reveals the names of 24 parties, from Alliance to United Labor, some of which were new to me.) But the researchers found that women made it to the Democratic and Republican tickets more often than was previously thought, especially by the early 20th century.
One example that shows the complexity of women’s party affiliation is the story of Catherine Waugh McCullough, a lawyer from Illinois, who ran for Illinois state attorney in 1888 on the Prohibition ticket. “Was she doing this because she was really a gung-ho prohibitionist?” Norgren, who has written about female lawyers of the 19th century, asked. “Perhaps, though what I know about her doesn’t suggest that she devoted her life to it as some people did. But it was probably one of the few tickets available to her.” Men, the thinking of the time went, would be more willing to support a female candidate who hitched her wagon to the temperance cause.
Apparently, they weren’t willing enough; McCullough lost that election. But 19 years later, she had married a fellow lawyer and was the mother of four children; she ran for Justice of the Peace of the town of Evanston on the Democratic ticket—and won. By that time, she was well-established in local community politics and able to draw on years of name recognition to swing a nomination from a major party.
The researchers hope that the existence of the database will lead people to do more research on many of these candidates, especially women who held local offices and who have never been written about in a comprehensive way. Because there’s so much still unknown about the lives of these women, many bigger questions about this history remain unanswered. For example, I asked Chmielewski whether the site recorded numbers or ages of children that female candidates might have had. This is one of the many categories of data that the project has been able to uncover for some candidates, but that would require a lot of digging to secure for the more obscure figures, like the many female school board members in rural New Hampshire. The answer to another of my questions—what did these women do once they were in office? What were their tenures like?—would require more research of this kind, as well as qualitative analysis to discern larger patterns. Some documents of local import, like the occasional town meeting report, are now digitized; others will need to be researched on the ground. The site suggests starting points for hundreds of local historical research projects.
Another big piece of work left to do is the job of determining who made up the electorate in each election. While it’s easy to remember the date of the advent of universal suffrage in 1920, we often forget that women gained suffrage piecemeal. In one example, in forward-thinking Kansas, women won the right to vote in school elections in 1861 and in local and state races in 1887, then gained full statewide suffrage in 1912. So some female candidates for offices in Kansas were elected by male voters, others by a mixed electorate. Nobody has written a comprehensive history of the progression of local electoral laws. The researchers are figuring these questions out as they go along.
Despite the work yet to be done, the data that Norgren and Chmielewski have collected shows that women, while certainly marginalized in the time before suffrage, affected the course of public life in hundreds of communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Chmielewski argues that the traditional characterization of the nature of American women’s citizenship before suffrage—that they were partial or incomplete citizens, obligated to their husbands and not to the state—is complicated by the thousands of counterexamples of women who served in elected office. Chmielewski also pointed out that if the researchers had included women who were appointed to office, or held civil service positions, the number of those who had served before suffrage would have been much bigger. “We would have been at about 50,000 women,” she said. That’s a lot of women making decisions before they were trusted with the vote.
Correction, April 14, 2015: This article originally misspelled Kristen Gwinn-Becker’s last name.