For women in politics, this month ushered in one noteworthy milestone and commemorated another. Presidential candidate Joe Biden chose Senator Kamala Harris to be his running mate on the Democratic ticket. And August 18th marked the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, which granted some, though not all, American women the right to vote.
Despite separation by nearly a century in time, taken together, these two events feel like monumental victories in the pursuit of political equality. Following the lead of Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin, Senator Harris is the third female U.S. vice presidential nominee of a major party. She is also the first African American and the first Asian American to be chosen as the running mate of a major party’s presidential candidate. Senator Ferraro pierced the political glass ceiling in 1984. And while much has changed over the last 35 years when it comes to gender and politics, it remains to be seen whether or not the nation is ready to elect a woman to the second highest office in the land.
As I reflected on these momentous achievements, my thoughts settled on the many women who have been elected from the 23rd district over the last 100 years. Without a doubt, their hard work helped shape the political landscape for those serving in office today, including Senator Christine Rolfes, Senator Emily Randall, Representative Sherry Appleton, and Representative Michelle Caldier. In fact, excluding appointees, over the last 100 years, the people of the 23rd district have elected a male candidate to the Senate for 13 terms and a female candidate to the Senate for 12 terms.
Many of these women were years ahead of their time. Lulu Haddon was a “New Deal” Democrat elected to the House of Representatives from the 23rd in 1932. In 1936, when she ran for the Washington State Senate, she won by a landslide. While in office, she prioritized funding for education and was an early advocate for junior colleges. Following a successful re-election in 1940, she resigned mid-term to serve as finance commissioner for the City of Bremerton and while serving in that position, she helped create Olympic College.
Her daughter, Frances Haddon Morgan, was the next female elected to the House of Representatives from the 23rd district in 1958, a little more than two decades after her mother entered political office. Morgan worked to help those with learning disabilities and established programs for the developmentally disabled. To this day, Haddon and Morgan remain the only mother-daughter duo to have held the same seats in both the Washington State House and Senate.
In 1976, Ellen Craswell was elected from the 23rd district to serve in the House of Representatives. According to those who knew her, she was immensely likable, had an unimpeachable character, and was incapable of becoming flustered. She advocated for full state funding of public schools and tax limitations. During her campaigns, she gave out orange sponges bearing the slogan “Let’s clean House,” in reference to her commitment to sound fiscal policies. On a personal note, my father had a drawer full of those sponges and I did not use a sponge without the name Ellen Craswell on it until I was a teenager.
Over the years, Representatives Karen Schmidt and Beverly Woods also served the 23rd district, though no column would be complete without writing about Senator Betti Sheldon, who was not only a trailblazing legislator, but also a mentor to me, and a personal friend.
I first met Betti as her time in Olympia was drawing to a close at an event where U.S. Senator Patty Murray was speaking. Senator Sheldon exuded confidence when she entered the room and my admiration for her only grew over the ensuing years. We often found ourselves attending the same events and bonded over our shared goals of prioritizing early childhood education and making higher education affordable to all.
Sheldon was strong, smart, capable, and one of the most honest people I have ever known. Yet, as a mother of five, she knew not to take herself too seriously. I would be remiss not to mention what a great sense of humor Betti Sheldon had. At some point, we carpooled to a fundraiser in Seattle together and I told her about my fathers’ Ellen Craswell sponge “collection.” Later, I found one of those sponges in a drawer at my parents’ house and gave it to her. The irony of her election win despite those sponges was not lost on either of us.
Her candidness was remarkable. When I was pregnant for the fourth time in four years, the thought of balancing being a wife to one, mother to four, and pediatrician to many seemed overwhelming. I ran into Betti somewhere and without missing a beat, she flashed her trademark smile and said she had no doubt I could pull it off. To the best of my recollection, she remarked, “having four requires a little more work than having three.”
While Senator Sheldon would likely say her largest accomplishment while in office was securing state funds for Olympic College, I believe her greatest legacy lies in inspiring the next generation of women to follow in her footsteps, breaking down barriers in politics, medicine, education, and motherhood. Senator Betti Sheldon led by quiet example, utilized steely determination to get the job done, and successfully crossed the political divide by compromising to meet the needs of her constituents.
When the first female is finally elected to the highest office in the land, it will be due in part to the work of many courageous women over the past century, including those elected from the 23rd district who continue to break barriers along the way.