The following is taken from Women of Courage, Ten North Country Pioneers in Profile, written and produced by the St. Lawrence County, NY Branch of the American Association of University Women (1989).
After the 19th Amendment was passed and women had the right to vote, the next logical step for women was to secure their place in the political process by seeking and campaigning for public office. Men were conditioned to view women in a more passive political role. Voting was one thing, but holding office was another. It took a certain type of woman to be politically motivated enough to seek a more active part in the political arena. One such woman was Rhoda Fox Graves of Gouverneur, NY.
Rhoda Fox Graves was born in Fowler in 1877. At age 2 she was adopted by the Fox family who had cared for her since birth after her mother died. She attended the District School at Fowler, the Gouverneur High School, and Wesleyan Seminary. She was a school teacher in rural and public schools in the Gouverneur area. In 1905 she married Perle Atwell Graves, a prominent Gouverneur business man. They had two sons, Mark and Paul.
Her career in politics started with her work to get women the right to vote. In 1920, with the passage of the 19th Amendment, she became active in the politics of St. Lawrence County. In this she had the support of her husband who was well liked and had many contacts in the Republican Party. In 1920 she was selected as Vice President of the St. Lawrence County Republican Committee, a job she held until 1935.
She was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1924 and served there until 1932. She was unsuccessful in her first bid to gain a seat in the New York State Senate, but won in 1934 as a "clean candidate" in the wake of a scandal about the incumbent's connection with a large power utility. She served for 14 years in the Senate, retiring in 1948. She was twice a delegate to the Republican National Convention in Kansas City and Chicago respectively.
Although she was a staunch Republican, she held fast to her right to vote not along party lines but rather as duty demanded in order to best serve her constituents. "Naturally, I am interested in anything affecting women and children, but I never forget that I also represent the men of my district," she once said. She aligned herself with the liberal and progressive wing of the party. For a long time she was seriously handicapped because legislators would not cooperate with one they considered an intruder into an all-male reserve. But her persistence, her refusal to be discouraged, her honesty and loyalty to her constituents eventually won over her colleagues, and she gradually earned their respect and support. She strongly believed that the most important thing in selecting a candidate for public office was not gender but ability.
During her tenure in Albany, Rhoda Fox Graves fostered legislation to promote dairymen's interests, especially when they became threatened by large dairy companies. She secured passage of four bills regarding an international bridge between Canada and the United States. She worked for the introduction of women jurors and for the development of the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power project. She also sponsored the junior operator license law and a provision to clear snow from state highways.
In her first campaign for a seat in the Assembly, her opponent in the primary, Frank L. Scott of Morristown is reported to have boasted that "Anybody can beat a woman." Her victory was looked upon as a triumph for women's rights, especially since St. Lawrence County was one of the last in the state to accept women's suffrage. Former Assemblyman Grant Daniels stated "...because of her conquest of the initial resistance to women in politics, the cause of women's rights had been greatly advanced."
During her long political career Rhoda Fox Graves was truly a trail blazer and she accumulated many "firsts." She was the first woman to become Vice-President of the St. Lawrence County Republican Committee. She was the first woman to be elected from a northern county to the legislature. She was the first woman to serve in the New York Sate Senate, the first woman to preside over that legislative body and head a Senate Standing Committee (Agriculture). She was one of the first women honored by St. Lawrence University for accomplishments and work on behalf of the North Country when in 1949 the North Country Citations were formally awarded. Rhoda Fox Graves retired from the New York State Senate in 1948. She died two years later in 1950.
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