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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

I’ve got mayors on my mind

I’ve got mayors on my mind. I didn’t intend to. As I drove home from speaking in Safety Harbor on the anniversary of women’s right to vote (August 26, 1920), I thought I’d probably write more on that. When I sat down at my desk, though, the smiling face of former Pittsburgh mayor Sophie Masloff grinned up from Sunday’s Times obituary section. My only plan was to put it in my Pennsylvania file (I keep a set of files on the fifty states), but then I read an e-mail from Alan Clendenin, vice chair of the Florida Democratic Party. He reported on the meeting of the National Democratic Party that was held in Atlanta last weekend. It featured a tight race for the head of the Women’s Caucus, which was won by Lottie Shackleford, former mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas. So I decided to write on female mayors.

That may seem old hat to those of us in Tampa, who elected Sandy Freedman in 1987 and Pam Iorio in 2003. But you’ve probably never heard of Lottie Shackleford or Sophie Masloff or know which cities were the first to elect women and which still haven’t or if there are any patterns to this -- and that is the way that women’s history gets lost. Or never gets learned in the first place.

The chapter on mayors for my Congressional Quarterly book, Women in American Politics: History and Milestones, was by far the hardest to research. It turned out that no institution – not the League of Cities or even the US Conference of Mayors – has been keeping records on this particular achievement. With two helpful people in each organization, I pieced it together myself.

I’d long known that the very first woman to be elected mayor was Susanna Salton -- and that was intended as a dirty trick. You may remember that Kansas was the first battleground of the Civil War, with many pioneers moving to this former Indian Territory to stop the expansion of slavery there. Many were the descendants of Puritans and inclined to be prohibitionists. It is municipalities that license liquor establishments, and so in 1887, these Kansas men were the first to grant women the right to vote in municipal elections. The assumption of the state’s fathers was that mothers would vote to close saloons and civilize frontier towns. In the boomtown of Aragonia, liquor proponents -- perhaps fuzzy-headed from whiskey -- decided that they would nominate a woman for mayor to illustrate what they saw as the absurdity of the situation.

Susanna Salton was married to a prohibitionist lawyer, and without notifying her, the would-be tricksters printed her name on ballots. (There were no official ballots back then, as voters simply cast a “ticket” that usually had been printed by a party – and for the convenience of illiterates, often marked by a donkey, elephant, or other symbol.) To the chagrin of the drinking guys, their strategy backfired: Instead of being embarrassed as the butt of a joke, Salton accepted the election result. International journalists soon wrote that she governed well, and the whole world seemed to rejoice when she bore her fifth child while in office. By 1900, at least two dozen Kansas towns had chosen women as mayors.

* * *

Alcohol also was involved in the first big-city election in Seattle, Washington, in 1926. Again, for context, we’ll go backwards: The legislature of the Washington Territory enfranchised women in 1883, but in 1887, the courts ruled that the legislature couldn’t do that – even though the Wyoming Territory had done so in 1869, and Wyoming women never lost their rights. Yes, the story of the vote is huge and full of complexities and contradictions.

Washington women regained their rights in 1910, when Bertha Landes had lived there about fifteen years. A high-school history teacher, she went west from Massachusetts with her husband, a recent Harvard graduate and new professor at the University of Washington. She bore three children, worked for civic causes, including the League of Women Voters, and by 1921, was president of the Seattle Federation of Women’s Clubs. The mayor was so impressed with the job she did that he appointed her an important commission, and she won a seat on city council in 1922. Four years later, she ran for mayor, and with the endorsement of the city’s newspapers and labor unions, won an unprecedented majority of the vote.

But this, you may recall, was the Roaring Twenties, with its federally mandated prohibition of alcohol. Although Landes won the election on a platform of cleaning up corruption and enforcing the law, it turned out that voters expected this to be rhetoric, not reality. Her administration set new standards for honesty and efficiency, but voters did not truly want a moralist as mayor. Moreover, she was a Republican, and that party was beginning to lose support as the Great Depression loomed around the corner. She lost her 1928 reelection and never ran for office again.

The second city to elect a woman as mayor was Portland, Oregon, in 1948. Its problems were similar, as this West Coast shipping town suffered from corruption and unemployment after World War II. Dorothy MacCullough Lee was unusual in that she did not enter politics through the League of Women Voters or other civic involvement: Instead, she was akin to male politicians who map out that goal early in life. She became a lawyer when few women were in that profession and continued to practice after marriage. Just 27 when elected to the Oregon House, she went on to be the only female state senator in 1932 and was reelected until she became mayor in 1948. When Lee lost her 1952 reelection – again because voters did not truly want her “tough on crime” approach – President Eisenhower appointed her to federal positions.

Two decades passed between Landes’ loss in Seattle and Lee’s victory in Portland, and more time would pass until the next victory – in the capital of the Old South, Virginia’s Richmond. Indeed, Southerners have been much better at electing women than some would predict. Without detailing how I arrived at the definition of “big city” and with arbitrarily cutting off the chart at Mayor Sandy’s election, here’s the deal:

1926 Seattle

1948 Portland

1962 Richmond

1967 Hartford

1971 Oklahoma City

1975 Cincinnati

1975 Lincoln, NB

1975 San Antonio

1975 Phoenix

1975 San Jose

1976 Austin

1977 Raleigh

1978 San Francisco

1979 Chicago

1980 Honolulu

1983 Toledo

1985 San Diego

1987 Dallas

1987 Little Rock

1987 Tampa

You may have noticed that Little Rock (in alpha order) is just above Tampa, and Lottie Shackleford, to whom I referred above, was elected in 1987 like Sandy Freedman. Shackleford is African American, as was Carrie Saxon Perry, who was elected mayor of Hartford, Connecticut, the same year -- thus making Hartford the first city to twice elect a woman. Little Rock’s system, however, rotated between city council members, and Shackleford’s tenure thus was brief. She moved on to positions with Arkansan Bill Clinton and, as you saw earlier, just won election as head of the Democratic Party’s Women’s Caucus.

Okay, I’m adding the year after our big Tampa milestone because in 1988, Sophie Friedman Masloff, the other woman mentioned above, became mayor of Pittsburgh. Like Mayor Sandy, Masloff was Jewish, but she was much older than our mayor. Born in 1917, she never was able to go to college and instead worked her way up in city government. After retirement, she ran for city council and was council president when the mayor died in 1988, leaving her as mayor. Pittsburgh voters were so pleased with her that no one ran against her: At age 72, she won 100% of the vote in the 1989 election. Knowing the Rust Belt city well, she reduced expenditures while also leading capital improvements, including new sports and entertainment venues. And became known for malapropos. When Bruce Springsteen came to town, she called him “Bedspring;” she referred to “The Who” as “The How;” and instead of “The Grateful Dead” said “The Dreadful Dead.” Their fans were “Deadenders.” Pittsburgh people laughed and elected her again; she served until 1994, when she was 77.

Yet I need the smile she gave me because we women definitely are not making progress at the rate that we did a couple of decades ago. It’s easy to look at a list of winners and think that all is well, but those hard-to-spot omissions tell the real story.

The nation’s biggest city, New York, never has come close to having a woman as mayor, and the same is true of the megalopolis of Los Angeles. Chicago’s sole woman won in 1979, and I only dimly remember how happy I was… Philadelphia, the city of liberty, never has chosen a woman, nor has proud Boston. Nor Denver nor Indianapolis nor Louisville nor Cleveland nor Milwaukee nor Memphis nor Nashville nor Detroit, which really could use a woman with a broom. In fact, there’s a definite correlation between declining cities and those that have failed to consider the female half of their population for the top job.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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