A Brief History
On March 4, 1917, the U.S. Congress welcomed its first female U.S. Representative (congresswoman) when Jeanette Rankin of Montana joined the exclusive group. Rankin went on to serve 2 terms in Congress, both terms being during the world wars. She had been one of only 50 to oppose U.S. entry into the First World War in 1917 and was the only representative who voted against American involvement in the Second World War in 1941.
Not surprisingly, Rankin, who was a Republican, was a pacifist and campaigned against U.S. involvement in any war. She had been an advocate for women’s suffrage and was an activist for most of her life. She had earned a Bachelors in Science (B.S.) in biology from the University of Montana and later attended the University of Washington. She died in 1973 at the age of 92.
Also on March 4, this time in 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Frances Perkins as Secretary of Labor, the first female cabinet member in U.S. history. Her tenure in the cabinet spanned the entire FDR presidency from the Great Depression through the tumultuous days of World War II. Though Labor was a vital part of American superiority, it was also a contentious and delicate matter when it came to union and racial issues. Perkins has gone down in history as the longest-serving U.S. cabinet member yet. She oversaw the implementation of the nation’s first minimum wage and overtime pay laws and fought against the drafting of women for the war effort.
Perkins was a graduate of Mount Holyoke College where she earned a B.S. degree in chemistry and physics before going on to gain her Masters Degree in political science from Columbia. Quite the academic, she also studied sociology and economics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. When she married, she had to fight in court to keep her last name (how times have changed!). Her husband suffered from depression, and Perkins was the sole support of her family which included one daughter. She also served President Truman on the Civil Service Commission and later taught at Cornell. She died in 1965 at the age of 85.
More recently on March 4, Bertha Wilson became the first female Supreme Court Justice of Canada on this date in 1982. Born in Scotland and after getting a Bachelors degree from the University of Aberdeen, she moved to Canada and furthered her education with a law degree from Dalhousie University. She practiced law in Nova Scotia, and then moved to Toronto and served on the Ontario Court of Appeal until appointed to the Supreme Court by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. She served 9 years on the Supreme Court and then 5 years on the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Wilson died in 2007 at age 83.
As often noted in the pages of History and Headlines, women continue to make history through their achievements. Question for students (and subscribers): What fields still await to be conquered? Plenty! When they finally are, you will read about it here. In the meantime, please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below this article.
For other articles concerning women in American politics, we recommend the History and Headlines articles: “November 4, 1924: Wyoming Elects First Female Governor in The United States!” and “January 3rd: An Important Date for Milestones by Female U.S. Politicians.”
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For more information, please see…
Anderson, Ellen. Judging Bertha Wilson: Law as Large as Life (Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History). University of Toronto Press, 2002.
Anderson, Kathryn and Norma Smith. Jeannette Rankin, America’s Conscience. Montana Historical Society Press, 2002.
Colman, Penny. A Woman Unafraid: The Achievements Of Frances Perkins. iUniverse, 2010.