|Women in Nevada Politics|
By Dana R. Bennett
In 1914, Nevada's all-male electorate extended the right to vote to the female citizens of the state. This was not, however, the first year in which women were involved in Nevada politics. Although women could not vote, they were involved in a number of political activities between Nevada's obtaining statehood in 1864 and 1914. Of course, after being allowed to vote, women's political participation increased, especially as candidates for elected offices at every level of government.
EARLY POLITICAL ACTIVITIES
Many Nevada women were as politically active as they could be without voting or running for office. One political arena in which women participated was the state legislature. A famous early lobbyist was Hannah K. Clapp who successfully elicited the support of the Territorial Legislature (1861-1864) to establish the state's first private educational institution. Other women lobbied the legislature for suffrage and other issues of interest to women and children.
Occasionally these women were allowed to give speeches to the legislators while they were in session. Although they were not allowed to be elected members of the state legislature, women were involved in other official capacities, beginning when the 1877 Assembly elected Mary E. Wright of Storey County to be a copying clerk.
Women were also involved in local politics, especially school boards. In 1889, the Constitution of the State of Nevada was amended to allow women to serve as school superintendents and school trustees, which were locally elected positions at the time. The records are incomplete, but it appears that women around the state immediately ran for school office. In 1890, women were elected to superintendent positions in Elko and Humboldt counties and to trustee offices in Lander and White Pine counties.
For reasons that are unknown at this point, a few women ran for school trustee before the constitutional amendment was approved. At least two women were successful: Helen Bain was elected to Humboldt County's Gold Run District school board in 1882, and Mrs. Lewis was elected to Nye County's White River District board in 1888.
In 1899, the Nevada Legislature approved an appropriation for an important improvement to the Capitol that clearly indicates that women were actively involved in the administration of the state. The General Appropriation Act for the 1899-1901 biennium included a $300 allocation "for constructing and furnishing a ladies' toilet in the Capitol Building."
The most prominent early political arena for Nevada women was their battle to obtain the right to vote. The Nevada Legislature first addressed that issue when it approved the first step toward a constitutional amendment in 1869; however, the required second approval attempt failed in 1871. Suffrage remained a legislative issue during at least 12 of the subsequent sessions, until the voters approved the constitutional amendment in 1914. Rarely did this discussion take place without women's participation. They gave formal speeches, submitted petitions, organized rallies, and lobbied legislators.
Between legislative sessions, women were active in clubs and activities that supported suffrage and other issues of interest, such as the prohibition of alcohol. Many of these took place in the public arena.
As with any political debate, there was opposition to suffrage as well. Women were politically active on that side of the issue, too. The Nevada Association of Women Opposed to Equal Suffrage was led by Emma Adams, wife of former Governor Jewett Adams.
Despite such opposition, 60 percent of the state's voting men approved the amendment. The question was approved by the voters in 12 of the state's 16 counties; it failed in Eureka, Ormsby, Storey, and Washoe counties. As a result, Nevada women obtained the right to vote six years before the national constitution was amended, but later than the women in 8 of the 11 western states.
However, the legislature was not finished with the issue of women's enfranchisement. In 1927, a bill was approved that specifically authorized married women to register to vote under their own first names and not their husbands'. Married women were required, however, to use the designation "Mrs." Twelve years later, Assemblywoman Luella K. Drumm (D-Churchill) sponsored a successful bill to remove that requirement.
WOMEN IN ELECTED OFFICE
After obtaining the right to vote, women began to run for offices throughout Nevada.
Until 1982, Nevada's congressional representative was a statewide office. During the 40 years previous to that change, only four women attempted to win this seat. They were all unsuccessful.
Nevada's Congressional District No.2, which consists of all of the state but Las Vegas, was created after the census of 1980 showed that the population had reached a sufficient number of inhabitants. At the first election for its representative (1982), only women were candidates in the general election. Republican Barbara F. Vucanovich won that election and was re-elected at each subsequent election until her retirement in 1996. During this 16-year period, numerous other women candidates entered the primary and general elections for both congressional seats; however, only Vucanovich was successful. Vucanovich was the first woman elected to a federal office from Nevada and, with seven terms, the state's second longest-serving Congressional Representative. (Democrat Walter S. Baring served 10 terms, 1949-1953 and 1957-1973.)
Baker did not run for re-election, but she was not the last woman elected to the Board of Regents. Before the regents became district-specific positions in 1957, two other women were elected: Eunice Hood in 1918 and Anna H. Wardin in 1938 (beating incumbent George Wingfield).
After becoming district-specific offices, women candidates were more successful in obtaining regent seats: four women have represented the rural areas of the state between 1960 and 1996; and 12 have represented Clark County districts between 1962 and 1996. Only one woman, Frankie Sue Del Papa, has represented a Washoe County district. She was elected in 1980 for one six-year term.
The offices that are more commonly recognized as statewide offices are also called the constitutional officers: Governor; Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State, Treasurer, and Controller. Women have been candidates for each of these offices, and have been successful in winning four of the six seats.
The first constitutional seat to be won by a female candidate was Treasurer: Republican Patty D. Cafferata was successful in 1982. It is also an office for which eight other women have campaigned. The first woman on the general election ballot was Clara Cunningham, a Republican who sought the office in 1926, however she was killed in an automobile accident near Elko on October 17 while campaigning.
The office for which the most female candidates has filed is Governor. Between 1970 and 1994, 11 women appeared on the primary or general election ballots. The first woman to survive a primary election battle and appear on the general election ballot was Republican Shirley Crumpler in 1974. No woman has yet won this seat.
The only other statewide office that has not been held by a woman is Controller. It has had few candidates: in 1918, Grace M. Wildes lost the Democratic primary as did Mary Sanada 76 years later. Cherie Fields, a Libertarian, was the first woman to be on the general election ballot for this seat, doing so in 1978. No other women have run.
In addition, few women have sought the Attorney General position. The first woman to run in a primary was Democrat Matia Melchizedek in 1978, who lost. The first woman on the general election ballot was Democrat Frankie Sue Del Papa, who won in 1990 and 1994. The only other woman to run for Attorney General was in the 1994 Democratic primary and lost to Del Papa.
The other two offices, Lieutenant Governor and Secretary of State, are the only ones in which more than one woman has served. In 1962, Democrat Maude Frazier was appointed to Lieutenant Governor, a position she held for six months until the 1962 election (in which she did not run). In 1990, Republican Sue Wagner became the first woman elected to this post. Five other women have sought the office, the earliest in 1978.
The first woman elected to Secretary of State was Frankie Sue Del Papa, winning in 1986 and 1990. The second was Republican Cheryl Lau, elected in 1994. Between 1986 and 1994, three other women ran for the seat. The earliest candidate was Republican Louise S. Ellis who ran (and lost) in 1918.
During the first half of the twentieth century, other offices were also elected statewide, such as Superintendent of Public Instruction, Inspector of Mines, Superintendent of State Printing, and Surveyor General. By 1973, these offices had become appointive or abolished. The only one of these offices held by a woman was Superintendent of Public Instruction. In 1937, Mildred N. Bray was appointed to fill the empty office. She was re-elected in 1938, 1942, and 1946, but was defeated by Glenn A. Duncan in 1950.
Women candidates also appeared on the statewide ballot as presidential electors. Until the presidential election of 1952, voters chose presidential electors, rather than voting directly for the candidates. Beginning with the presidential election year of 1916, at least one woman was chosen as an elector from Nevada in all but one (1928) such election until 1952.
In the 65 years between 1916 to 1981, only 42 women were elected to the state legislature. In the following 13 years, however, the voters' interest in women candidates rose dramatically: beginning with the 1982 election, 39 women have been elected to legislative office. In the 1995 Session, over one- third of the legislature was female: 17 women were chosen to represent their neighbors in the Assembly; five, in the Senate.
Like their male counterparts, the women who served in the state legislature came from all parts of the state, both parties, and various occupations. Only Douglas County has not been represented by a woman. Over half of the female legislators have been Democrats. For the 1995 Session, however; there are 11 Democrat and 11 Republican women. The most common occupation listed has been businesswoman. Other well- represented occupations include teacher, rancher, and housewife. A prospector, a nurse, and an orchestra director have also served. Interestingly, unlike the male legislators, few attorneys are found in the female ranks. The first attorney in the Assembly served in 1921 (Ruth Averill, R-Nye). In the Senate, the first female attorney was elected in 1992 (Lori Lipman Brown, D-Clark).
Women have also been integral to the legislature's staff. The first woman to serve as Secretary of the Senate was Vivian Rickey, elected for the 1926 Special Session. The first female Chief Clerk was Theresa Loy, elected in 1969.
Women were not successful as early in their bids to become judges. The first woman elected District Court Judge in this state was Miriam Shearing in Clark County (1983). The first women elected as District Court Judges in Washoe County were Deborah A. Agosti and Robin A. Wright, both elected two years later. No women have been elected to judgeships of the rural districts. In 1992, Shearing became the first woman seated on the State Supreme Court.
Photo credits: All photos courtesy of the Nevada State Archives.
Based on the data available, the following tables note the first women to hold local offices. If a particular office is not listed, then no woman has ever been appointed or elected to that office in this state.
WOMEN'S INVOLVEMENT IN POLITICS
In addition to political involvement as voters and elected officials, countless women have served and continue to serve as campaign workers, officials' staff, party leaders, lobbyists, grass roots organizers, election board members, and registrars of voters-paid and unpaid contributors to Nevada's political process. Before obtaining the right to vote, women were somewhat involved in the process; currently, they are integral to Nevada politics.