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Women break the mold in state legislature

On February 17, 2014

In 1917, Rep. Jeannette Rankin of Montana became the first woman to serve in the United States Congress. According to the House of Representative Historian’s Office, a total of 298 women have served in the House and Senate since. Unfortunately, while West Virginia has had a handful of women serve in state leadership and represent us in the House of Representatives, the Mountain State has never elected a woman to the Senate. With two women, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito , leading their respective party primary fields that is clearly set to change this November.

First, let’s consider the history of women in West Virginia politics. The first time a woman ran for the U.S. Senate from this state—or any state south of the Mason-Dixon Line—came when Izetta Jewell Brown filed in 1922. Just six years later, Minnie Buckingham Harper was appointed to the West Virginia House of Delegates, making her the first black woman to serve in an American legislature. After a lengthy period of slow progress, Helen F. Holt became Secretary of State and, thus, the first female statewide officeholder in West Virginia history in 1957. The next big moment came in 1988, when Margaret Workman was elected to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, becoming the first woman to do so and still serving to this day.

The two women vying for the U.S. Senate here now, Tennant and Capito, follow in these footsteps. Tennant, currently in her second term as Secretary of State, is not far removed from the tenure of another woman in that office, Betty Ireland . No woman other than Capito, who was elected in 2000, has represented the state in the House since Rep. Elizabeth Kee became the first woman to do so in 1951.

It is also worth noting that if Capito were to be elected to the Senate, the House of Representatives would not necessarily be without a woman from West Virginia; Meshea Poore, a Democrat who currently represents Kanawha County in the House of Delegates, is seeking to fill Capito’s seat for the Second Congressional District.

All of this leaves West Virginia in a good historical position. The state is often unfairly characterized as a place of over-traditionalism. We’re called racist, sexist, hateful bigots by stereotypically radical excerpts taken and propagated by mainstream media. Admittedly, it would be foolish for me to try to say our state does not have serious steps to take in 21st century social progress, but I believe that we are ready to take this one. Sexist tradition may say women belong in the house, but, come November, we’ll put a woman in the Senate, too.

We have a significant number of women in the state legislature, two of the five seats on our highest court belong to women, Capito and Tennant have each won reelection to their respective seats, and West Virginians did not hesitate to support Hillary Clinton in her 2008 presidential bid. It’s an exciting election year for progress in the Mountain State. No matter who we send to succeed Sen. Jay Rockefeller , it will be history.

Tommy D. G. Ferrell can be contacted at t.ferrell@marshall.edu.

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