Notable Women in American Politics: Achievements, Evolution, and Impact
A history of women in American politics
- 1776: Abigail Adams wrote a letter to her husband John Adams asking that the Continental Congress “remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands.” Adams went on to become a politically active and outspoken first lady to the second president of the U.S. Even after her husband left office, Adams continued communicating with political leaders such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson and speaking out about women’s issues.
- 1848: The Seneca Falls Convention launched the women’s suffrage movement. One-third of the 300 attendees signed the Declaration of Sentiments, modeled after the Declaration of Independence, which outlined women’s demands as U.S. citizens.
- 1869: Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton founded the National Woman Suffrage Association in an effort to fight for women’s rights, including the right to vote.
- 1869: Julia C. Addington became the superintendent of schools in Mitchell County, Iowa, likely making her the first woman elected to public office in the U.S.
- 1887: Susanna Madora Salter of Argonia, Kansas, became the first woman to serve as mayor of a U.S. city. A group of men put Salter’s name on the ballot as a practical joke, assuming she would lose and put the women’s political movement to shame. Salter ended up winning more than 60% of the votes cast, and served a single term with great conviction.
- 1892: Laura Eisenhuth became the first woman elected to any statewide executive office when she won her seat as superintendent of public construction in North Dakota.
- 1916: Jeanette Rankin, a representative from Montana, became the first woman elected to Congress. She famously said, “I may be the first woman member of Congress, but I won’t be the last.”
- 1920: Passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted women the right to vote.
- 1925: Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming became the first female governor, replacing her late husband. She went on to be the vice chair of the Democratic National Committee.
- 1933: Frances Perkins became the first woman to serve in a Cabinet position, having been appointed secretary of labor by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Perkins was instrumental in writing the New Deal, which included landmark programs to restore the economy and increase jobs.
- 1981: Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to serve as a U.S. Supreme Court associate justice, a position she held for 24 years.
- 1984: Geraldine Ferraro, a representative from New York, became the first woman to be chosen as a vice presidential nominee by a major political party. She ran alongside Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale.
- 1992: Nicknamed the “Year of the Woman,” 1992 marked the first time more than two women served in the Senate simultaneously. By the end of the year, another four women had been elected.
- 1997: Madeleine Albright became the first female secretary of state, the highest ranking role for a woman in U.S. politics to that date.
- 2007: Nancy Pelosi, a representative from California, became the first female speaker of the house, a role she would retake in 2019.
- 2016: Hillary Clinton became the first woman to run for president as the nominee of a major political party.
- 2021: Kamala Harris, a senator from California, became the first woman, Indian American, and African American to serve as vice president. After winning the election in 2020, she said, “While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last,” echoing Rankin’s 1916 quote.
Resources for women’s history in American politics
- History.com, “Women in Politics”: This video highlights the groundbreaking contributions of many women in American politics, including Sandra Day O’Connor, Shirley Chisholm, and Madeleine Albright.
- History, Art & Archives United States House of Representatives, “Women on the Campaign Trail”: This is a discussion of how the cost of running for Congress has impacted women’s ability to campaign and the rise of groups such as Emily’s List to promote female candidates.
- New York Historical Society Museum & Library, “A Brief History of Women Running for Political Office”: As part of its Women at the Center program, the New York Historical Society celebrates women who ran for national office and worked to help create gender parity in the U.S. government.
- ShareAmerica, “Women in Politics: A Timeline”: This retrospective commemorates the political milestones of many U.S. women in politics.
- Time, “50 Women Who Made American Political History”: In honor of Women’s History Month, Time features 50 women who held influential roles in U.S. government.
African American women in politics
Mary Church Terrell
Patricia Roberts Harris
Carol Moseley Braun
Resources for African American women in politics
- Black Girls Vote: This nonprofit organization empowers African American girls to make their voices heard in politics, combat racial bias, and represent their communities in the voting process.
- Black Women Organized for Political Action (BWOPA): Nonprofit organization BWOPA was founded in 1968 to educate African American women about the political process and motivate them to become involved through membership and community leadership opportunities.
- Higher Heights for America PAC: This political action committee is dedicated to supporting progressive African American women who run for political office and creating a Congress with diverse representation.
- National Park Service, “Between Two Worlds: Black Women and the Fight for Voting Rights”: This is an exploration of the pivotal role African American women played in helping to pass the 15th and 19th Amendments for voting rights.
- National Women’s History Museum, National Association of Colored Women: NWHM shares the history of African American women’s participation in the women’s rights movements, including the contributions of Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman.
Other women of color in politics
- Soledad C. Chacó In 1923, Chacón was elected secretary of state of New Mexico, making her the first Latina to hold statewide elected executive office. She also filled in as acting governor of New Mexico, serving as the second female governor in U.S. history for one month in 1924 when Governor James F. Hinkle traveled to the Democratic National Convention in New York.
- Cora Reynolds Anderson. In 1925, Anderson of Michigan became the first Native American woman in a state legislature. A member of the Ojibwa tribe, she spent her political career championing public health and welfare.
- Patsy Mink. In 1964, Mink became the first Asian American woman elected to Congress, representing Hawaii for over 20 years.
- Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. In 1989, Ros-Lehtinen of Florida became the first Latina woman elected to Congress.
- Elaine Chao. In 2001, Chao became the first Asian American woman appointed to a Cabinet position when President George W. Bush invited her to be secretary of labor. Chao held the position for eight years, working for unions’ rights and workers’ safety. Chao was appointed U.S. transportation secretary by President Donald Trump in 2016; she resigned in 2021 after the riot at the Capitol, stating that she was “deeply troubled” by the conflict and Trump’s response.
- Sonia Sotomayor. In 2009, Sotomayor was appointed by President Barack Obama to become the first Latina to serve as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
- Nikki Haley. In 2017, Haley became the first Indian American to serve in a Cabinet position. President Trump appointed her U.S. ambassador to the United Nations following her role as the first female governor of South Carolina.
How women politicians continue to shape American politics
Resources for women in American politics
- Council on Foreign Relations, Women’s Power Index: The Women and Foreign Policy program created this index to rank 193 United Nations member states in their efforts toward gender parity in politics.
- National Democratic Institute, Gender, Women and Democracy: This nonprofit organization helps women overcome individual, social, and institutional barriers to participating in politics.
- Running Start: This nonpartisan nonprofit trains women to run for public office and become community leaders with over 100 programs across the country.
- ShePersisted: This global initiative battles disinformation about women in politics by providing educational resources, research, and programs for support.
- UNWomen.org: This United Nations organization is dedicated to championing women and girls worldwide and empowering them to lead in government, develop financial security and autonomy, and set new benchmarks for equality.