Over 500 women are running for major political office this fall, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. In the past year, revelations of widespread sexual harassment in industry and politics spawned the #MeToo movement, inspiring women to seek higher office in record numbers this fall. Political observers note that voters often turn to female candidates following scandals because they are viewed as political outsiders and, therefore, better situated to institute reform.
Pundits had previously dubbed 1992 the Year of the Woman when unprecedented numbers were elected to Congress—twenty-four to the House and four to the Senate. The wins were precipitated by the nationally televised spectacle of Anita Hill testifying before an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee that she had been sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas, a nominee for the U. S. Supreme Court.
In Arizona, women broke several glass ceilings in 1998, when voters selected women to fill all the top state executive offices—a first in United States history–after a series of political scandals involving governors Evan Mecham and Fife Symington. Governor Jane Hull, Attorney General Janet Napolitano, Secretary of State Betsey Bayless, Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham-Keegan, and Treasurer Carol Springer were dubbed the “Fab Five” by the media, sworn into office by another woman with political roots in Arizona, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. The longest-serving state legislator, Edwynne “Polly” Rosenbaum who represented Gila County from 1949 to 1994, was invited to witness the inaugural ceremony as a special guest of honor.
Since statehood, Arizona’s has ranked among the national leaders in electing women to public office. This is the first in a three-part series that explores the deep roots women have in state politics and why they experienced earlier success than women in other states.
Part 1: Winning the Vote
In 1912, Arizona’s male voters gave women the right to vote, the culmination of a campaign begun by Murat Masterson, a Latter-day Saint from Prescott, who introduced the first woman suffrage bill in the territorial legislature in 1883. At a time when most Americans believed women should be shielded from the corruption found in the workplace and politics, opponents warned voting “would degrade women from their proper sphere in the home circle.”
In Arizona territory, however, many women were forced into the gritty male realm. Rates of divorce and widowhood were high, and even married women often worked outside the home because the economy depended on cyclical industries like ranching, farming, and mining that did not provide steady incomes for workers. In 1900 in Arizona, 40 percent of married women worked outside the home, compared to 15 percent nationally.
Frances Willard Munds, who took charge of Arizona’s suffrage association in 1909, had taught school after her first child was born to help the family make ends meet, leading her to conclude, “so many noble women have been crushed beneath conventionality and, through their fear of doing some out of their sphere, have allowed a superior intellect to become dwarfed from misuse. When I think of the narrow limits of the so call ‘woman’s sphere’ my blood boils to think of the opprobrium she meets when she dares to step over the limit.”
From her suffrage campaign headquarters in Prescott, Munds took advantage of local progressive impulses as Arizona organized to become a state. Labor unions demanded the inclusion of the initiative, referendum, and recall of elected officials at the constitutional convention held in 1910 to combat the growing power of corporations in the state, especially mining companies. Munds convinced labor leaders like Joseph Cannon to expand the notion of direct democracy to include votes for women, and he spent months telling voters in mining communities like Globe, Miami, and Bisbee that woman suffrage “is not a matter of sentiment, but a necessity. Not a question of ethics but one of economics.”
Although Arizona’s male elected officials often voiced support for suffrage, they rarely voted for it. The constitutional convention was no exception. Delegates told Munds that women voting “was a dangerous and radical thing.” But, pressured by labor leaders, they did grant Arizona’s male voters the initiative in the new constitution. Frances Munds believed male voters supported woman suffrage, so in the summer of 1912 she launched a petition drive that gathered the needed signatures to put the measure on the ballot.
Munds rejoiced when 68 percent of voters supported her measure in the November election, the most resounding victory for suffrage in any state vote. The results were especially satisfying in mining communities, which returned margins of over 70 percent for suffrage. The suffrage association’s secretary, Madge Udall, was selected to be the state’s standard bearer at a parade held the following spring to honor Arizona’s admission as a suffrage state, cheered by thousands of people lining the streets of New York City.
Despite the lopsided victory, Arizona’s elected officials remained reluctant to welcome women because they feared they would be independent, rather than partisan, voters, and silently hoped they would elect the “right men” to office. After years of failing to interest politicians in suffrage, Munds knew those same men would not embrace women’s issues, so she threw her hat into the ring, winning a state senate seat in 1914. Following her lead, at least one woman would be elected to each subsequent legislative session, save one.
When Munds ran for secretary of state in 1918, she realized the limits of female candidacy. She failed to win her party’s nomination because, as former governor George Hunt told her, the office was first in line to the governor and many believed “we could not afford to have a woman in the Governor’s chair.” Despite her defeat, Frances Willard Munds had set the wheels in motion for subsequent generations of women seeking higher office in Arizona.
Part 3: Coming July 5th. Fulfilling the Promise
Historian Heidi Osselaer is the author of Winning Their Place: Arizona Women and Politics, 1883-1950 (University of Arizona Press, 2009).