Women Legislators of Maryland
Dr. Edward C. Papenfuse, Jr., State Archivist
It is an honor and a pleasure for me to be with you again this morning at the request of President-elect Delegate Joan Cadden to help celebrate Women's History Month and the 25th anniversary of the Women's Caucus.
In 1979 when we published the first volume of the Biographical Dictionary of the Maryland Legislature, we pointed out that no facet of American history is more thoroughly scrutinized than the political. Studies of institutions, celebrated individuals and conspicuous events abound, but with the exception of a handful of very visible legislators, the thousands of participants who contributed to the evolution of representative government remain faceless. To understand the dynamics of our political system it is imperative to know more about each of those men and, since 1895, those women who have dedicated their public careers to making democracy work.
Time and severe fiscal restraints have prevented us from continuing the published volumes of the Legislative History beyond 1789, but this year, in recognition of such anniversaries as the one we celebrate today and because of the recent remarkable advancements in electronic communication, we have launched a new biographical initiative on the World Wide Web. Beginning today you will be able to visit the State Archives Web site and find the present membership and leadership of the Women's Caucus, the photographs you will be seeing here this morning, and the beginnings of illustrated biographical sketches of all the women who have served in the Maryland Legislature. In addition you will find supplementary material such as the history that was prepared in 1991 by Kathy Kretman and Gregory Lebel, and, copyright permitting, articles on prominent Maryland women by such writers as Ann Jensen and Lois Green Carr.
If funding can be found for continuing the research and writing of these, and the biographies of all the people who have contributed significantly to the history of government in Maryland, we will be creating a readily available electronic resource of unparalleled importance for use in the schools, the libraries, and the homes of our state, a resource that can only help to reawaken the public's interest in its democratic institutions and ensure that government of the people, by the people, and for the people truly does not perish from this earth.
In 1979 we dedicated our biographies of Maryland Legislators the memory of Mistress Margaret Brent, Spinster (ca. 1600-1670/1), landowner, businesswoman, agent and executrix of Governor Leonard Calvert, whose claim to two votes in the Maryland General Assembly was denied. As Lois Carr and Ann Jensen have pointed out, in Margaret Brent's day, the right to vote was based upon property and function. As Lord Baltimore's legal representative and in her own right as a landowner Margaret Brent argued she was entitled to two votes.
To this day, Margaret Brent remains faceless. No likeness was ever done of her. We can only imagine what she looked like. This cover of the Woman Citizen which was a favorite of Lucille Maurer and hung on her office wall depicts Margaret Brent one way, while this painting, a copy of which the Caucus and Governor Hughes placed in the Calvert Room sees her in full battle against the powers that be.
Margaret Brent's effort in 1648 to be recognized as a political equal of any man is the ongoing story of every woman in political life. With her claim to two votes, you might say that she also constituted the first Women's Caucus, not only in Maryland but anywhere.
Caucus is a uniquely American word that has gained wide currency throughout the world. That crusty curmudgeon known as the Sage of Baltimore writes of its origins in his best known work, The American Language. There H. L. Mencken explains that Caucus is an "Indian loan-word" which he traces back to Captain John Smith and an Algonquin term 'caucauasu' meaning 'one who talks with' and hence 'advises or urges'.
The first recorded caucuses occurred in New England and are attributed to the political activities of the Adams family. Because the laborers in the shipyards were among the first to hold a caucus, some people confused the origins of the word with caulkers, while others tried to link it, unsuccessfully, to the Greek word 'kaukos' signifying a drinking vessel,an allusion, perhaps, to the more social side of some of the early caucuses. Those early caucuses were instrumental in bringing about the American Revolution and contributed significantly to the effectiveness of political parties and organizations in the succeeding years.
In Maryland, the history of the Women's Caucus of the General Assembly begins 25 years ago with Senator Rosalie Abrams. In February 1972, acting on a resolution proposed by Senator Abrams, the women of the legislature agreed to "form a Women's Caucus to meet regularly" and to "push for the recognition of women and their abilities." The history of this and the subsequent work of the Women's Caucus is well documented to 1991 in Claiming A Voice: Women Legislators of Maryland, by Kathy Postel Kretman and Gregory G. Lebel, now easily accessible at the State Archives web site, but in honor of the occasion and while we are viewing some images of the caucus and of the women who first served in the Maryland Legislature, permit me to review some of the highlights of the history of the Caucus and the pre-caucus era.
In 1995, the women of Maryland and all over the United States celebrated the 100th anniversary of the first election of women to a state legislature. In 1894, three women were elected to serve in the Colorado House of Representatives and they were sworn in January 1895. The next year, the first woman in a state senate was elected to the Utah Senate.
Maryland's first woman legislator, Mary Eliza Watters Risteau, was elected in 1921 from Harford County and took office in 1922. She served for four sessions, 1922, 1924, 1931, and 1933. In 1934, she became the first woman elected to the Maryland Senate and served in the 1935 and 1937 sessions. In 1950, she was again elected to the House of Delegates and served in the 1951 session.
In 1955 Mary Nock was elected to the post of Senate President Pro Tem, a post she held until 1961.
In 1958, Verda F. Welcome and Irma George Dixon became the first African American women to be elected to the House of Delegates, and, in 1962, Verda Welcome became the first African American woman to be elected to the Maryland Senate.
In 1972 Delegate Pauline Menes was appointed to chair the "Women's Rest Room committee' by Speaker of the House Thomas Hunter Lowe, and acting on Senator Rosalie Abrams's resolution the Women's Legislative Caucus was convened by eight women delegates and three women senators, officially naming themselves The Women Legislators of Maryland. The overall mission of the group is to improve public policy that affects women's lives and to increase the number of women elected and appointed to public service in Maryland.
The years since 1972 have been active ones. The Women's Caucus has grown in membership, resources, and political strength.
Just a review of those who have presided or are about to preside over the Caucus indicates both its diversity and its strength.
One of the best ways to evoke memories of the past is through photographs and video tapes. A Special Collection at the Archives contains a good library of video tapes of the Caucus which, because of time and technology, we are not able to sample today. We encourage you to come visit and to use the collection. What we can show you are some photographs also from the collection selected by former Executive Directory Teddy Schulman.
The very nature of a caucus is one in which concensus is not reached easily. In 1996 Marina Saris, writing in the Baltimore Sun pointed out that
"For the women legislators, creating an environment in which conservatives and liberals can feel at home takes considerable effort.
Ms. Saris turned to Senator Hollinger for her reflections on the Caucus: "The two years that I chaired the caucus our major goal, really was to be able to accommodate a Pauline Menes and at the same time an Ellen Sauerbrey," said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger , a Baltimore County Democrat. Ms. Saris reminded her readers that Mrs. Menes is a liberal-to-moderate Democrat while Mrs. Sauerbrey is a conservative Republican.
Ms Saris concluded by noting that "some lawmakers of both genders believe the women's caucus is as powerful as it can be," and left the final observation to Senator Hollinger:
" I don't think any caucus should have so much strength that the work of the legislature can't go on," Ms. Hollinger said. "But I think it is a good place to formulate the issues and to advocate strongly for the ones we do agree on."
On February 21, 1997, the Women Legislators of Maryland marked the 25th anniversary of the founding of the caucus which has grown from an "informal support group" with no staff or resources to a professionally managed, fiscally strong organization. There are now 54 women serving in the Maryland General Assembly and a total of 153 women have served since 1922. Women have held and continue to hold positions of power and leadership in the General Assembly, and the Executive and Judicial branches of Maryland government. Women have, indeed, claimed their voice in Maryland.
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