The following is a Woman of Courage profile produced by the St. Lawrence County, NY Branch of the American Association of University Women.
1990 is known as the Year of the Woman in New York State’s legislative bodies, the Assembly and the Senate. Twenty-seven women were newly elected to the legislature in that year. But women have been present in the legislature since 1919, the year before the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women’s suffrage was passed.
New York women like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Matilda Joslyn Gage were instrumental in leading the struggle for suffrage. Other New Yorkers, like Carrie Clyde Holly (originally from New York City) and Clara Cressingham (from Brooklyn) were among two of the first three women elected to any state legislature in the nation. They, along with Frances Klock (from Massachusetts), were elected to the Colorado legislature in 1895.
In New York State, two women were elected to the Assembly in 1919. Republican Ida Sammis, a well known suffrage leader and supporter of prohibition, ran for the Assembly seat representing Suffolk County in 1918. Her Democratic counterpart in the 1918 election was Mary Lilly from New York County. Lilly was a graduate of the New York University School of Law, the first women to win a scholarship in a competitive exam, and the first woman admitted to practice law in New York. These two women only served one term, but they began a long tradition of women legislators in the state.
While Sammis concerned herself with legislation affecting her Assembly district, Lily sponsored a number of bills regarding children. She introduced legislation to establish paternity of children born out of wedlock, to protect the rights for children, and worked to abolish the death penalty. Both women continued to be active in community organizations following their brief elected careers.
Two more women were elected in 1920. One was Marguerite Smith, a Republican from New York County, who at 25, was the youngest woman ever elected to the Assembly. Smith was an avid sportswoman who taught athletics. During her single Assembly term, she worked to provide fair rent legislation which was important to her district with a large immigrant population. She also advocated raising teachers’ salaries and was a proponent of raising minimum wages for men, women and veterans. She remained active in civic organizations following her Assembly term.
Elizabeth Gillette, elected to the Assembly in 1920 from Schenectady County, continued to practice medicine during her single term in office. She was also the first woman elected from an upstate county. A Democrat, Gillette focused on legislation of particular concern to medicine, including certification of certain drugs and medical examinations for children working in factories. She continued to practice medicine for 60 years, retiring at age 84.
The first women to be elected to both houses of New York State government and a native of St. Lawrence County, Rhoda Fox Graves, served for several terms. A Republican, 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 and served for 14 years in the Senate, retiring in 1948.
During her tenure in Albany, 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.
During her long political career Rhoda Fox Graves 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 there, and to head a Senate Standing Committee (Agriculture). She retired from the New York State Senate in 1948 and died two years later in 1950.
Several other women followed Graves in the Assembly or the Senate during the 1930s and 1940s. Doris Byrne served in the Assembly from 1934-37 from the Bronx. Jane Todd served from 1935-44 in the Assembly from Westchester County. A Steuben County Republican, Edith Cheney served as Assemblywoman from 1940-44. Mary Gillen was elected to served the remainder of her husband’s term and won re-election on her own from 1942-56 in the Assembly from Kings County. Gladys Buck served in the Assembly from 1945-50 and the NYS Senate from 1953-55 as a Republican from the Bronx. Genesta Strong served in the Assembly from 1945-59 from Nassau County. Another two house politician, Janet Hill Gordon served in the Assembly from 1947-58 and the Senate from 1959-62 from Chenego County. Elizabeth Hanniford served her Bronx district from 1947-50 in the assembly. Mildred Frick Taylor was the Wayne County Assemblywoman from 1947-60.
Since 1983 the women who serve the State of New York in the Legislaturese have worked through the bipartisan Legislative Women’s Caucus to improve the participation of women in all areas of government, support issues that affect and benefit women in NYS, and provide a network of support for the women in the state legislature.
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