On Their Backs

Women in Politics

Posted May 18, 2014

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

This week, Hillary Clinton made news. Every week, Hillary Clinton makes news. Some people seem to think she’s missed the boat. That it may be too late to become president.

Other people think not. A “Ready for Hillary” PAC has been set up: T-Shirts, water bottles, mugs and totes are available in the online shop; donations are being accepted, and volunteers are encouraged to sign up. At least 7 other pro-Clinton super-PACS have been registered with the Federal Election Commission; dozens of senators and representatives have endorsed her. And her new memoir, Hard Choices, is due out in June.  

That puts her in an unprecedented spot, in some respects.  In other respects, not so much.

In the 225 years since the US congress first sat, few women have filled seats. There have been 44 women in the senate, 20 of them current; and there have been 254 women in the house, 79 of them in office now. No woman has ever become vice president of the United States; and no woman has become president, of course. Before 1917, there were no women in the US congress at all. And over the long run of history, only a handful of women have run governments in their own right.

Some came to power the old fashioned way. They inherited it.

Kansas senator Nancy Landon Kassebaum was the daughter of Kansas governor and US presidential candidate, Alf Landon. Connecticut representative Clare Boothe Luce—whose husband, Henry Luce, published magazines—was the stepdaughter of Connecticut representative Albert E Austin. Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski is the daughter of Alaska senator Frank Murkowski. And California representative Nancy Pelosi is the daughter of Maryland representative Tom D’Alesandro.

There are global precedents for that.

Think Cleopatra—who succeeded her father, Ptolemy XII, in Egypt. Think Mary Queen of Scots—who succeeded her father, James V, at the age of 6 days. Think Henry VIII—who divorced 2 wives and sent another 2 to the block, but in the end left his kingdom to a couple of daughters: bloody Mary, whose mother was Catharine of Aragon, then Anne Boleyn’s magnificent daughter, Elizabeth I. Or think Elizabeth II—who inherited the throne from her dad, George VI, and has ruled England gloriously for more than 61 years.

Other women got power in the other old fashioned way. On their backs.

All of 47 US congresswomen have been elected or appointed to fill vacancies by widow’s mandate, after their husbands’ deaths. 8 ended up in the senate, 39 in the house. Other husbands have given their wives a leg up before they died. Dixie Bibb Graves became an Alabama senator after her husband, Alabama governor David Bibb Graves, appointed her to an empty seat. “She has as good a heart as anybody,” he told the press. Texas senator Kay Hutchinson got props from her husband and ex-Texas Republican Party Chairman, Ray. North Carolina senator Elizabeth Hanford Dole got help from ex-Kansas senator and presidential candidate, Bob. And New York senator Hillary Clinton was promoted by ex-Arkansas governor and president, Bill.

There are more global precedents for that.

Take Semiramis—the semi-mythical Near Eastern queen who got abducted by king Ninus, and widowed in short order. A beautiful woman who dressed like a man, she led armies, founded Babylon, built palaces and encouraged merchants. 

Or take Catherine the Great—who ruled Russia for 3 decades at the end of the 18th century. Born into a poor German family, she married a duke who became tsar Peter III, and succeeded 6 months later, when her husband was strangled by his guards. Catherine would go on to colonize Alaska, promote a free Russian nobility, correspond with Enlightenment Europe, and write her own Memoirs. “When I have promised myself something I cannot recall ever having failed to do it,” she wrote.

Over just the last century, a very small handful of women--without political fathers, without political husbands--have come to power on their own.  Think Angela Merkel; think Theresa May.

I admire them for that.


Williams, George and Williams, Doris.  1957.  Natural selection of individually harmful social adaptations among sibs with special reference to social insects.  Evolution, 17:249-253.

Hamilton, William D.  1964.  The genetical evolution of social behaviour.  Journal of Theoretical Biology, 7:1-52.