Connect the Dates: Election Week
By: Linnea Crowther
2 years ago
There are threads that weave throughout history, connecting people, events and dates. The way those threads come together can be surprising and fascinating. In this new series, we explore historical intersections and cast a light on unlikely connections. This week, we take a moment to turn our focus away from next year's election and focus instead on election-year feats of the past.
The first week of November has held Election Day since 1845 – it falls on the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November (so Election Day can never be Nov. 1). On the many Election Days in the decades since 1845, we've elected great leaders and poor ones, started new political dynasties and said goodbye to public officials who wore out their welcome. We've also seen our government shift from a homogenous group of white men to the much more diverse body it is today.
Along the way to that diversity, there were trailblazers who went first. Many of them broke down barriers this week in history. We're remembering a few of those feats.
1868: John Willis Menard is the first African-American elected to U.S. Congress. In the Reconstruction years following the Civil War, African-American men gained the right to vote. As the government strove to enforce the freedom and equality that had been granted to former slaves, a number of African-Americans were elected to office. The first to win an election on the federal level was John Willis Menard, elected by the people of Louisiana's 2nd Congressional District to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. It was a major victory … but also a bittersweet one, as Menard never served. His opponent contested the election results and Menard's fellow congressmen called a vote. They decided that neither Menard nor his opponent should be seated. President James A. Garfield is rumored to have said that it was too early for an African-American to be elected, but just two years later, Hiram Revels would become the first to be elected as well as the first to serve.
1872: Susan B. Anthony votes for the first time. Though African-American men were able to vote as of the 1860s, that right wasn't granted to women of any race for another half-century. Many women refused to sit back and quietly accept this inequality. One of the most notable was Susan B. Anthony, who was among the suffragists who drove the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, granting women the right to vote. Her feat wasn't easy. Anthony worked for decades to get there, and she achieved it not by behaving, but by rocking the boat. Among her most prominent acts in the fight for women's rights was when she showed up at the polls in her hometown and cast her vote in the presidential election. She was arrested, charged with illegal voting, and tried in a widely publicized case. In the end, she was fined $100, or the equivalent of nearly $2,000 today. She refused to pay the fine.
1916: Jeannette Rankin is the first woman elected to U.S. Congress. Women didn't yet have the right to vote across the U.S., but in Jeannette Rankin's home state of Montana, they gained that right in 1914. Just two years later, Montana's voters elected Rankin to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. She served for a single term before mounting a failed bid for the U.S. Senate, but in 1940, she was elected to a second term in the House. Among her notable positions was a staunch anti-war stance: In 1941, she was the lone member of Congress who refused to vote in favor of going to war with Japan. That position was the nail in the coffin of any further political ambitions, and she spent the rest of her life promoting peace and equality. Upon her first election, Rankin summed up the movement toward diversity that she was a key part of, saying, "I may be the first woman member of Congress but I won't be the last."
1924: Nellie Tayloe Ross is the first woman elected governor. Nellie Tayloe Ross was the first and, to date, only woman to serve as governor of Wyoming. When she was elected in 1924, there was no precedent for a woman leading a state. Only a few had even been elected to Congress. Ross gained her seat in part thanks to her husband, William Ross, who was Wyoming's governor for just a year and a half before he died unexpectedly of complications after surgery. In a special election to replace him, Nellie ran and won in a landslide. She served a single term and lost her re-election bid, in large part because she refused to campaign. But her career in public service wasn't over: She would go on become the longtime director of the U.S. Mint, the first woman to hold that position.
1960: John F. Kennedy is the first Roman Catholic elected president. The homogeneity of government in our country's early years didn't just exclude women and ethnic minorities. Religious minorities also had to struggle to achieve equality. While some Catholics would be elected to Congress in earlier years, nearly 200 years would pass before we elected a Catholic president. There was still a distinct anti-Catholic sentiment in some areas of the country in 1960, and John F. Kennedy overcame it in part by confronting it head-on, giving a notable speech in which he called on Americans to examine their prejudices. The strategy worked, and Kennedy became the first Catholic elected president of the United States. To this day, no other Catholic has been elected president; nor have any non-Christians.
1966: Edward Brooke is the first African-American elected to U.S. Congress for multiple terms. While several African-American men were elected to Congress during the Reconstruction era, their tenures were short, with none achieving re-election. Then came the long Jim Crow era of the first half of the 20th century, and no African-American was elected to Congress, period. Decades went by with the disenfranchisement of African-Americans becoming more and more entrenched in our culture. Edward Brooke was the first to break back through that barrier successfully, winning the popular vote as he ran in 1966 to serve as a U.S. senator from Massachusetts. He was the first to take the popular vote, and he made history yet again in 1972, when he was re-elected in a landslide and served a second term.
The political achievements of women and minorities increase every year, and it was just seven years ago this week when Barack Obama became the first African-American elected to the highest office in the land. As next year's election season ramps up, we see a pre-primary group of presidential candidates that includes two women, two Latino men, an African-American man and a Jewish man. There's a long year of campaigning ahead before we find out whether any of them wins the election, but they can thank the men and women who came before them for opening the doors they're striding through.