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Editorial: 100 years ago, women ran for office for the first time in Virginia

Editorial: 100 years ago, women ran for office for the first time in Virginia


Last year marked the centennial of women getting the right to vote, but this year marks another centennial — the first year in which women could run for office in Virginia. And some did.

They all lost, but that does not diminish the historic nature of what they did and it shines some light — not always a favorable light — on our politics today.

By the time the 19th Amendment was ratified in August 1920, the party slates for president, Senate and the House of Representatives were already set.

But 1921 was a different matter. That year, like this year, Virginia elected statewide officers and members of the House of Delegates.

One woman dared run for governor. Lillie Davis Custis of Accomack County got into the race late — she didn’t declare until October — and polled either 227 or 251 votes, 0.11% of the total (accounts vary).

Still, she goes down into Virginia history as the first woman to run for governor. She was also a Socialist.

History tells us little other than she was a farmer’s wife and she announced her candidacy via a letter to the local newspaper: “Many of us feel that the time is at hand when our conception of government functioning must be broadened to meet the crisis that changing economic conditions are precipitating. In this crisis private initiative is failing to coordinate production and distribution, industry [is] breaking down and unemployment and want [have] overtaken a large part of our population through no fault of their own. To stand pat and wait for this condition to run itself is to court revolution and disaster. Only the powers of government wisely directed in initiating and coordinating production and distributing can cure the ills which beset us, and which, after all, are only symptomatic of the changing order.”

If she were still alive and could reduce that to a tweet, Custis might still get some left-wing votes today.

Two other women ran for superintendent of public instruction, then an office we elected. Republicans — then the more progressive party — nominated Elizabeth Otey of Lynchburg, who held a doctorate in economics from the University of Berlin and once had worked for the U.S. Labor Department.

That progressivism only went so far; Virginia Republicans that year purged Black supporters from their ranks in a bid to be more appealing to white voters. The ousted Black Republicans nominated their own ticket, which included Richmond banker Maggie Walker for superintendent of public instruction. Otey took about 28% of the vote, Walker 3.3%.

For her efforts, Otey qualified as the first woman nominated for a statewide office by a major party in Virginia.

Virginia then was essentially a one-party state — Republicans did not win a statewide election until Linwood Holton was elected governor in 1969 — so those three women running for statewide office are historically noteworthy but were all doomed to defeat because they weren’t running as Democrats.

Meanwhile, at least nine women ran for the House of Delegates. We say “at least” because the records may not be complete, and that’s the language used in all the sources we consulted — the book “The Campaign for Woman Suffrage in Virginia” by Brent Tarter, Marianne Julienne and Barbara Batson, and an article that Julienne authored on the Library of Virginia website entitled “The Prospects of Election: Virginia Women Run For Office.”

For the record, the first woman in Virginia to run for the legislature was Steteria Olinda Dobyns Trader of Westmoreland County.

She announced in March 1921 for the Democratic nomination for seat representing Westmoreland and Northumberland counties on the Northern Neck.

Two months later, the attorney general ruled she was ineligible to run in the Democratic primary because she had voted for a Republican the year before. It’s unclear how this was known, but Trader was out.

Four women were nominated as Republicans and lost in the general election, as Republicans tended to do then: Mary Lockwood of Arlington, Nannie Kate Reynolds of Pittsylvania County, Ann Atkinson Chamberlayne of Charlotte County and Josephine Dickenson Buck of Russell County. Maude Mundin of Richmond ran on the Black Republican ticket.

Then there were three women besides Trader who sought the big electoral prize of the day — the Democratic nomination. They were Janet Stuart Oldershaw Durham and Mary Perkins Bell of Richmond and Eugénie Macon Yancey of Bedford County.

Once again, Attorney General John Saunders got involved. Durham campaigned under the name of Mrs. James Ware Durham — as was the custom then. He ruled that women had to campaign under their own names. All three lost in their primaries. Yancey blamed “prejudice in Virginia, to women holding office.” Durham said “there is so much prejudice to eradicate.” They weren’t wrong.

The Clinch Valley News in Tazewell County editorialized against the very idea of women running for office and didn’t sound entirely reconciled to the idea of women voting, either: “It should be enough that the women vote quietly, and exert their influence at the polls for such reforms as they believe the times demand. A wife or mother is decidedly out of her element when she enters into political contests.”

No women won in 1921 but two years later, two did. In 1923, Sarah Lee Fain of Norfolk and Hazel T. Henderson of Buchanan County became the first women elected to the House of Delegates. Four other women won in later years — Sallie Cook Booker of Martinsville in 1927, Henderson’s daughter, Helen Ruth Henderson, in 1927, Nancy Melvina “Vinnie” Caldwell of Galax in 1927, and Emma Lee Smith White of Gloucester County in 1929.

Here’s what catches our eye nearly a century later — how many of those came from rural Virginia, particularly Western Virginia. After White retired after the 1933 election, Virginia entered a gender drought. No other woman was elected to the legislature until 1954.

Today, 42 of Virginia’s 140 legislators, 30%, are women, a record high, but still lower than many states. However, Western Virginia has ceased to be much of a source of female legislators.

At the moment, there’s only one woman in the legislature from west of Charlottesville — Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford County. Republicans have nominated Marie March for a House seat in the New River Valley. If she wins, she’d be the only female legislator west of the Blue Ridge.

After she lost in 1921, Yancey wrote: “The day is not far distant when many offices in Virginia will be filled by women.” Is a century later distant enough?

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