A Century of Presidential Women: Part 1

Tomorrow, March 8, is International Women’s Day, and in the spirit of the day, I thought I would present the result of an alternate history challenge I did a while ago. The challenge was to create a list of presidents, where the United States had a century of exclusively female presidents. What follows is the list, extending from 1932 to 2032. The point of divergence occurs during the 1928 election campaign, where a Democrat other than Al Smith is nominated and manages to defeat Herbert Hoover in the election. With a Democrat in the White House when the Great Depression hits, the Republicans are almost guaranteed to win the 1932 election. With this opportunity, Jeannette Rankin, who was the first woman to serve in Congress and a prominent isolationist, manages to win the nomination and the presidency, becoming the first in a long line of women to hold the office of President of the United States.

Here is the full list:
Jeannette Rankin (R-MT) 1933-1941
Hattie Caraway (D-AR) 1941-1945
Minnie Fisher Cunningham (D-TX) 1945-1953
Gladys Pyle (R-SD) 1953-1961
Margaret Chase Smith (R-ME) 1961-1969
Lurleen Wallace (D-AL) 1969 [Died in office]
Maurine Neuburger (D-OR) 1969-1977
Marjorie Holt (R-MD) 1977-1985
Shirley Chisholm (D-NY) 1985-1989
Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-KS) 1989-1997
Patricia Schroeder (D-CO) 1997-2001
Elizabeth Dole (R-NC) 2001-2009
Kathleen Sebelius (D-KS) 2009-2017
Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) 2017-2025
Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) 2025-2029
Kristi Noem (R-SD) 2029-2037

I will be the first to admit that the likelihood of this list of presidents actually happening is low. In making this list, I wanted to highlight some of the prominent American women in politics over the past century. In doing so, I mostly restricted the list to women who held elected office and attempted to include some more well known figures as well as some women who are more obscure. Additionally, I attempted to include a decent mix of Democrats and Republicans, while keeping a plausible succession of parties. I’ve also decided to split this into two posts, covering the first eight presidents today and the last eight tomorrow.

First on the list is Jeannette Rankin, the first woman ever to serve in the United States Congress. Rankin began her political career as an activist in the final stages of the women’s suffrage movement. She was a lobbyist and activist for the National American Women’s Suffrage Association. In 1916, Rankin was elected to the House of Representatives from Montana’s at large seat, on a campaign largely financed by her brother Wellington Rankin. Rankin only served one term in the House – and another later in 1940 – but during her term, she was the only woman to vote on national women’s suffrage in Congress and cast one of the fifty votes in the House against American entry into World WAr I in 1917. In this history, she is elected president instead of serving another term in the House in 1940.

Hattie Carway, senator from Arkansas, is next on the list. Carway was not a suffragist during the movement, but was a devoted wife to Thaddeus Caraway, whom she met at Dickson College in Tennessee while pursuing a degree. The Caraways moved to Arkansas and Thaddeus was elected to the House in 1912. He served in the House from 1912 to 1921, and served in the Senate from 1921 until his death in 1931. By then, there had been a precedent set for widows to serve the remainder of their husbands terms in office, and the governor of Arkansas appointed Hattie to the Senate. Hattie had never taken much interest in her husband’s politics, but shocked many when she announced in 1932 that she would run for the special election as well as the general election that November. As Arkansas was a solid Democratic state at the time, Hattie handily won reelection. In our history, Hattie was a Senator until 1945 and in 1943 became the first woman to cosponsor an Equal Rights Amendment. In this timeline, Hattie Caraway would become the first Democrat woman president, and the first president from the South since the Civil War.

Hattie Carway decides not to run for reelection, and in her place the Democratic Party nominates Minnie Fisher Cunningham of Texas. With the success of the Caraway administration, Cunningham wins election in 1944 and serves two full terms as president. In our history, Minnie Fisher Cunningham never held elected office, running for Senate in 1928 but losing the Democratic primary, and coming in second in a crowded Texas gubernatorial primary in 1944. Cunningham was the first executive secretary of the League of Women Voters and was a prominent suffragist. Cunningham worked to impeach corrupt Texas governor James “Pa” Ferguson, and was a supporter of the New Deal policies during the 1930s. In this history, Minnie Fisher Cunningham would likely serve a somewhat unifying role of the two wings of the party as a Southern liberal. However, it would also possibly begin the drift of the Deep South toward the Republicans.

After twelve years of Democratic leadership, an incumbent party fatigue sets in and the Republicans nominate Gladys Pyle, the first woman elected to the Senate from South Dakota. Pyle’s career was notable as she rose to prominence through the ranks of South Dakota state politics. In 1923 Pyle became the first woman to serve in the South Dakota State House, and then served as the state’s Secretary of State from 1927 to 1931. After an unsuccessful run for governor in 1930, Pyle returned to her life insurance business, but returned to politics in 1938 when she was elected to the United States Senate. While in our history, Pyle only won a special election and served for just the session in between the 1938 elections and the start of the next Congress in January of 1939, in this history we shall say that Gladys Pyle ran and won in the regular election as well, and served two full Senate terms before being elected president.

After Pyle’s eight years, we come to the first woman to actually run for president on a major party ticket in our history. Margaret Chase Smith is one of the more well known and longest-serving politicians on this list. She first was elected to the House in 1940 when her husband Clyde Smith retired for health reasons, and continued to serve in the House, and after 1948 the Senate, until she lost the 1972 Senate election. Chase Smith was very active in her long career. In the House, she sponsored the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, and supported Truman’s foreign policy. In the Senate, she maintained an independent political spirit, leading the Republican opposition to McCarthyism, and became the first woman to chair the Senate Republican Committee. In 1952 she was heavily considered for Eisenhower’s running mate, and in 1964 launched a campaign for the Republican nomination for the presidency. She never won any primaries, but received 27 delegate votes in the 1964 convention, coming in fifth. In this timeline, the greater prominence of women leads Margaret Chase Smith to launch a campaign four years earlier and win the nomination.

As the Republicans had been winning handily through the 1950s and 1960s in this timeline, the Democratic Party reorients itself and nominates the 43 year old Lurleen Wallace, elected governor of Alabama just two years prior, as their candidate. The Democrats also nominate Maurine Neuburger of Oregon for vice president, making it the first ticket with two women on it in this history. In our history, Lurleen Wallace was also elected governor of Alabama in 1966, to succeed her more notorious husband George Wallace. Lurleen received the gubernatorial nomination as the Alabama state constitution barred him from running for consecutive terms. The election of Lurleen was openly seen as a way to keep her husband in power, but George Wallace was popular enough in Alabama that she won the 1966 gubernatorial election easily. In this history, rather than running on a third party ticket, George Wallace helps Lurleen’s campaign and she wins the presidency as the new generation of the Democratic Party. However, as in our history, here Lurleen ran while hiding a worsening case of uterine cancer. In our history, Lurleen tragically died in 1968. In this history, she hangs on until after the election and becomes president for a few months. Lurleen Wallace dies in June of 1969, elevating Maurine Neuburger to the presidency.

The accession of Maurine Neuburger to the presidency would mark a notable change in policy for the Democrats. Neuburger was a prominent consumer advocate throughout her life, and this concern for consumer protection and environmental policy would likely continue during her presidency. Neuburger was one part of one of the few earlier concurrent husband and wife political teams. In the early 1950s, both she and her husband Richard Neuburger served in the
Oregon state legislature; Richard in the Senate and Maurine in the House. After Richard was elected to the United States Senate, Maurine stepped down from her position in the state legislature, but when her husband died in 1960 she was elected in that year’s general election to take his Senate seat. Maurine served only one term in the Senate from 1961 to 1967, and pioneered consumer advocacy, including introducing legislation to put warning labels on cigarette packages and pollution control in cars. After her Senate career, she helped revive the Oregon Democratic Party at a national level and continued to be politically active in education and consumer issues. As president, she would no doubt continue this focus.

In contrast to Maurine Neuburger cementing the Democratic Party’s shift to the left in this history, Marjorie Holt would signify the Republican Party’s shift to the right. A longtime resident of Anne Arundel County, Maryland, Marjorie Holt was an early conservative Republican and was first elected to the House in 1972. She served in the House in our history until 1987, when she retired and returned to her law practice. Holt was primarily concerned with military and economic issues during her time in the House, and in 1978 she established the practice where the minority party makes a budget counteroffer instead of simply rejecting the administration’s proposed budget. While her 1978 budget amendment did not pass – it would have slashed spending by up to seven percent – the precedent set by Holt is still in common use today. FOr Marjorie Holt to be elected in 1976, she likely would have had to start her Congressional career earlier than in our history. However, she could have been elected to the Senate for Maryland in 1968, which would jump start her political career enough to make it plausible.

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3 Responses to A Century of Presidential Women: Part 1

  1. Great article!! Very interesting! I was a fan of Nancy Landon Kassebaum, so am very glad to see her in the list. And just found an interesting tidbit about her husband, Howard Baker, former senator from Tennessee who died this last June. He’d been asked by Richard Nixon to take a seat in the Supreme Court, but Baker drug his feet and lost his opportunity to William Rhenquist. Interesting.
    I’m anxious to see tomorrow’s blog!!

  2. Pingback: A Century of Presidential Women: Part 2 | The Time Stream

  3. Maurene says:

    I really appreciate this post. Women have so little visibility in history, including American political history, and yet they have contributed significantly to the conversations, the discoveries, the innovations and the process. I like the historically accurate thumbnail sketches, and that you included a woman VP. Two thumbs up!!

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