The women who made up the suffrage movement a century ago were dismissed, degraded, even jailed.
Yet they persisted.
But even after women secured the right to vote (for most women – many women of color, especially Black women, notably remained disenfranchised even after ratification of the 19th Amendment), the fight to be elected to office was long and fraught.
In the century since the 19th Amendment was ratified, women have shattered glass ceilings at every level of American government with the glaring exception of president and vice president.
And in many cases, women had to beat two opponents to win office – the other candidate and sexism.
One of the first women elected in the U.S., Susanna Madora Salter of Argonia, Kansas, had her name added to the ballot by a group of men trying to discredit the local women’s temperance union, according to the University of Kansas Emily Taylor Center for Women & Gender Equity. She became the first woman elected as a U.S. mayor.
There are thousands of women worthy of being included on a list of women who have made significant contributions to U.S. politics over the past 100 years.
Here are 10 you may not know.
After helping secure the right for women to vote in her home state of Montana in 1914, social worker, pacifist and suffragette Jeannette Rankin (1880-1973) set a new goal.
Rankin, a progressive Republican who grew up on a ranch in rural Montana, became the first woman elected to Congress in 1916, four years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment and as the U.S. was debating whether to enter World War I, according to her House of Representatives biography. A staunch pacifist, Rankin opposed the war, despite the political pressures, and paid a political cost.
After losing her congressional seat because of redistricting, Rankin lost a third-party bid for a U.S. Senate seat in 1918 and decided against seeking reelection to the House in 1919.
When she returned to the House in 1941-1943, Rankin cast the only vote against U.S. involvement in World War II, making her the only representative to vote against both World War I and II.
When she died at 93 in 1973, she was weighing another congressional run — this time to oppose the Vietnam War.
In addition to her pacifism, Rankin worked to advance the rights of women and expand social programs, both in and outside of her time in public office.
“She was an ardent suffragist,” said Liette Gidlow, an associate professor of history at Wayne State University and a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. “And it’s not necessarily remembered this way these days, but Americans’ feelings about being involved in the first World War were very mixed.”
Soledad Chávez de Chacón
Two years after the ratification of the 19th Amendment, Soledad Chávez de Chacón (1890-1936) became the first Hispanic woman elected to a statewide office.
Chacón, a widely known suffragette who came from a politically connected family in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was reportedly baking a cake when she was surprised with the offer to serve as the Democratic nominee for secretary of state, said Cathleen Cahill, associate history professor at Penn State University and the author of a forthcoming book about the women of color who were part of the suffrage movement.
After securing the approval of her husband and father, Chacón accepted the nomination and was elected in a Democratic sweep in 1922 — even though New Mexico was one of the slowest state’s to embrace women’s voting rights, amending the state constitution to allow women to hold political office only the year before her victory.
“She is an important first — as a woman, as a Latina or Hispanic woman, and she’s an early woman in New Mexico who serves in public office,” Cahill said.
Chacón added another “first” to her list of achievements in 1924: After the state’s lieutenant governor died unexpectedly and the governor left for the Democratic National Convention in New York, she became the first woman in the U.S. to act as a governor.
Margaret Chase Smith
Margaret Chase Smith (1897-1995), the first woman to serve in both chambers of Congress, and won her most enduring victory in 1948 with the passage of her Women’s Armed Forces Integration Act that gave women permanent roles in the U.S. military
But perhaps her more dramatic contribution to history might have come a couple of years later, when she became one of the first Republicans to take a public stand against fellow Republican Sen. Joe McCarthy and his persecution of people and institutions he claimed were communist threats.
“The nation sorely needs a Republican victory,” the Maine Republican said in her infamous “Declaration of Conscience” speech in 1950.
“But I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear. I doubt if the Republican Party could — simply because I don’t believe the American people will uphold any political party that puts political exploitation above national interest.”
“She was tough,” said Kristi Andersen, professor emeritus of political science at Syracuse University. “She held her own, for sure — as most of these people did. Back in the day, you had to be pretty tough — and may still have to be — to get what you wanted.”
Smith served in the House of Representatives from 1940-1949, and then in the Senate from 1949-1973.
In 1964, Smith became the first woman to be considered for nomination for the presidency by a major political party in the U.S., but lost to Sen. Barry Goldwater.
Martha Wright Griffiths
Martha Wright Griffiths (1912-2003) was a Michigan Democrat who served in the House of Representatives from 1955-1975. She was known as the “Mother of the Equal Rights Amendment” and was the first woman to serve on the House’s Ways and Means committee.
“Every year since she entered the House in 1955, she had introduced ERA legislation, only to watch while the bill died in the Judiciary Committee,” said her House of Representatives’ biography.
She used a discharge petition to bring the bill out of committee and onto the floor for a debate and vote in 1970. The House passed the ERA, but a Senate amendment stopped the bill in its tracks. Griffith continued to pursue the cause and both chambers approved the ERA by 1972. The amendment did not get added to the U.S. Constitution because not enough states ratified it.
A former lawyer and judge, Griffiths worked to ensure sex discrimination was listed in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. After leaving Congress, she served two terms as Michigan lieutenant governor, but was not nominated for a third term because her running mate was concerned about her age, according to her biography.
“She was an advocate of the Equal Rights Amendment, and it was in part due to her leadership that Michigan was one of the first states to ratify the ERA,” Gidlow said.
Patsy Takemoto Mink
Patsy Takemoto Mink (1927-2002) served in Congress, representing Hawaii from 1965-1977 and again from 1989 until her death in 2002. Mink was the first woman of color elected to Congress and the first Asian American woman to serve in Congress, according to her House of Representatives biography.
A proponent of gender and racial equity, Mink was one of the authors of Title IX, the federal legislation that protects people from discrimination in education on the basis of sex.
Originally, she had wanted to study medicine, but several schools rejected her. Instead, she studied law. Mink’s experiences led her to promote bilingual education, affordable child care and even a universal health care plan.
She also opposed the Vietnam War and later advocated for the Women’s Educational Equity act. After her death, Title IX was renamed to the “Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Molly Carnes, a physician scientist and professor in University of Wisconsin’s department of medicine, credits Mink’s work for being the reason she got into medical school.
“Title IX has changed the world for women because education is power,” Carnes said. “And Patsy Mink gave women that power.”
Shirley Anita Chisholm
Shirley Anita Chisholm (1924-2005) was a Democrat who represented New York in the House of Representatives from 1969-1983. She was the first Black woman in Congress and later co-founded the National Political Congress of Black Women, according to the National Women’s History Museum.
She advocated for racial and gender equity and for people. Chisholm argued for federal funding to extend day care hours, better public schooling and the school lunch bill, according to her House of Representatives biography. She also opposed the Vietnam War.
In 1972, she ran for president but faced racism and sexism from her colleagues. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus opposed her bid. She was also blocked from televised debates and after taking legal action, was only only allowed to do one televised speech.
Nevertheless, Chisholm got her name on 12 primary ballots, earning 10% of the delegates, according to the National Women’s History Museum.
“There would be no Barack Obama without Shirley Chisholm,” Gidlow said. “There would be no Hillary Clinton without Shirley Chisholm.”
Barbara Charline Jordan
Armed with a brilliant legal mind and a teacher’s ability to make the obscure plain, Barbara Jordan (1936–1996) first stepped onto the national stage in 1972.
That year, Jordan became the first elected Black congresswoman from the South.
She got her political start in Texas, according to her House of Representatives biography. In 1966, after losing two bids to serve in the Texas House, the Houston attorney and teacher became the first Black woman to win election to the Texas Senate. She was tapped as Senate president pro tempore in 1972 in a testament to her political acumen, and in that position became the first Black woman to act as a governor in the U.S. a few months later.
In Washington, D.C., like in Texas, Jordan showed herself an astute politician. Her list of friends included a fellow Texan, President Lyndon Johnson, who helped her secure a coveted spot on the House Judiciary Committee.
That important seat became even more important in 1974, when the committee considered articles of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon in connection to the Watergate scandal.
Despite her freshman status on the committee, Jordan gave an impassioned opening speech at the hearing that thrust her into the national spotlight. The most memorable line, delivered with fiery indignation: “If the impeachment provision in the Constitution of the United States will not reach the offenses charged here, then perhaps that 18th century Constitution should be abandoned to a 20th century paper shredder.”
“She was so inspiring in the way she talked, and she gave a speech early in her career and talked about Nixon’s impeachment,” Andersen said. “That was an important, powerful speech.”
Propelled in part by that speech, she became the first woman and the first Black speaker to deliver the keynote at a Democratic National Convention in 1976, and spoke again at the convention in 1988 and 1992, despite health struggles. She died of pneumonia in Texas in 1996.
Eleanor Holmes Norton
Eleanor Holmes Norton, born in 1937, has represented the District of Columbia in Congress since 1991. Before that, she was the first woman to chair the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, according to her official biography.
She is also a Georgetown Law professor and former assistant legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union. While at the EEOC, she “issued the first set of regulations from the EEOC about sexual harassment that helped to make the argument that sexual harassment was a violation of a federal civil rights laws,” Gidlow said.
A defender of the First Amendment, Norton represented the racist National States’ Rights Party in the Supreme Court. She told the Bar Report in 1997 that “you don’t know whether the First Amendment is alive and well until it is tested by people with despicable ideas.”
Norton opposed apartheid in South Africa, advocates for D.C. statehood and supports reproductive freedom.
While she does not have voting privileges in Congress, she has worked to improve the lives of D.C. residents by increasing benefits for high school graduates and creating a homebuyer tax credit, according to her website.
Susan Low Bloch, a law professor at Georgetown and a D.C. resident, said Norton’s efforts to give the district voting rights in Congress is especially meaningful to her, personally.
“As a resident of D.C., I’m always amazed when I tell people that we can’t vote, and I see their faces look totally incredulous,” Bloch said. “I’m hoping that Eleanor’s legacy will be that we get the vote.”
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Hillary Rodham Clinton, born 1947, is a former Secretary of State, New York senator, first lady and presidential candidate.
As first lady, she worked on health care reform, children’s issues and women’s rights, according to her Senate biography. As a lawmaker, she worked to increase health care access, secure independent energy resources and improve security.
She was the first woman to be a New York senator and the first New Yorker to serve on the Senate Armed Services Committee. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she advocated for federal funding to rebuild New York.
Clinton ran for the Democratic nomination for president twice, and became in 2016 the first woman chosen to be the presidential candidate of a major party. She won the popular vote but was defeated in the Electoral College by Donald Trump.
“In some ways, her candidacy was the culmination of women struggling over generations to find a place in public life,” Gidlow said. “She’s a controversial figure today, maybe a divisive figure, but a great many women who broke barriers in politics were controversial. And, over time, their reputations have grown. So, I think we’ll need to take a long-view look on Hillary Clinton.”
Few politicians have been as revered — or as repudiated — as California’s U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who became the first woman to be elected speaker of the House in 2007.
Born in Baltimore in 1940, Pelosi was the daughter of Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., the city’s congressman and then three-term mayor, and of Italian immigrant Annunciata Lombardi D’Alesandro.
But Pelosi didn’t follow in the family tradition immediately; she had five children before starting her political ascent in California, the home state of husband Paul, eventually rising from a San Francisco public libraries commissioner to state Democratic party chair thanks in part to her knack for pulling together the various factions that make up the party. She was elected to the House in 1987.
As speaker, she was instrumental in the House’s 2010 passage of Democratic President Barack Obama’s signature health care legislation, the Affordable Care Act.
More recently, Pelosi has become a constant thorn in the side of Republican President Donald Trump, trading barbs with him in the media and contesting his agenda at every turn, making her a hero to some Democrats and a boogeyman to some Republicans.
Under her leadership, the House brought articles of impeachment against Trump in 2019 after he pressured Ukraine to investigate allegations of corruption against a political rival, former vice president and current Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
“She has been a really clever person politically,” Andersen said, referencing Pelosi’s political and policy successes during the Trump administration.
Last year, Pelosi also became the first speaker in six decades to reclaim the gavel after losing it.
In a CNN profile at the time, she issued a challenge to other women: “I take some, for want of a better term, bad-ass glee in just saying, ‘Women, you know how to get it done, know your power.’”