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Arizona's earliest female politicians: tough and independent

April 16, 2009

Though Arizona was the last state in the “lower 48” to be admitted to the union, it was one of the first to give women the vote – in 1912.

And it was one of the first states to see large numbers of women running for office – women who were not just “token” candidates filling the seats of their deceased husbands.

These were some of the surprises that Heidi Osselaer, a faculty associate in the Department of History, found as she was doing research for her newly published book, “Winning Their Place: Arizona Women in Politics, 1883-1950.” (University of Arizona Press.)

“Winning Their Place” is the first book to explore the participation of women in the state’s early politics.

The book grew out of Osselaer’s initial research for a scholarly paper, and then for her doctoral dissertation. Her adviser, Mary Rothschild, now a professor emerita of history and women and gender studies, had done some research on women in early politics in Arizona, and warned Osselaer that it would be tough going because “the material would be scarce,” Osselaer said.

Just how scarce it was Osselaer learned when she began searching for primary documents in the Arizona State Archives, which were then located in cramped quarters in the basement of the Capitol.

“I spent 30 hours a week there for six months,” she said. “Only a handful of the women left letters or papers. I had to read through every single newspaper – on microfiche. For candidates who ran below state level – at the county or local level – you had to read the local papers.”

“I felt like I was trying to put a giant puzzle together. I would find campaign ads in the old newspapers, then I had to go to the census rolls to try to find biographical information. I also looked at obituary files.”

As she gathered information, she built a database on “hundreds of women,” Osselaer said. “I learned who was running, from where.”

The names began to take on life, to yield snapshots of the intrepid female frontier politicians: Nellie Bush, who drove a Model T around the state and collected wood to make signs so people wouldn’t get lost in the desert; Rachel Berry, a Mormon woman who represented Apache County, and had to make the long and arduous journey to the capitol by buckboard; Frances Willard Munds, who led the campaign for suffrage to victory in 1912 and was elected to the state senate in 1914.

And Madge Udall, who turned heads when she rode a horse in a 1913 suffrage parade in New York City. And Anastasia Collins Frohmiller, the first woman to be elected a state auditor in the country, in 1926, who was in high school when her mother died, leaving her to take charge of her seven younger brothers and sisters.

Osselaer learned that many of the women who ran for public office in Arizona’s early days were alone. “A lot of people came to Arizona to start over,” she said. ”Women came from abusive marriages, and there were a lot of young widows here, from mining and ranching accidents.”

Most of the female candidates worked outside the home because of economic necessity, Osselaer said. “This was a very poor frontier and these women, many of them second-generation, assumed they were going to have to work their whole lives. The women here rose to fame because of their own talents.”

One of the keys to getting women elected to office in Arizona was their backing by the Arizona Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs (BPW), a group founded in 1921 to sponsor voter registration drives, develop community programs and offer scholarship funds to young women.

BPW members, as opposed to members of the older Arizona Federation of Women’s Clubs, “defined themselves not in relationship to their husbands but by their own professional accomplishments,” Osselaer wrote. “These clubs really stepped in and supported them and raised money for them.”

Now that the “puzzle” has been put together, “we finally have an image of when it meant to be a female politician in early Arizona,” Osselaer said. “These were tough, independent women, mostly raised in the West, who slowly broke down the barriers.”

Those early women, with such names as Munds, Greenway, Bush, Berry and O’Neill, paved the way for women with such names as Napolitano, Hull, Bayless, Springer and Graham-Keegan.

The latter five, of course, are the “Fab Five” –Janet, Jane, Betsy, Carol and Lisa -- who were sworn in as the top executives in Arizona on Jan. 4, 1999, the first time in U.S. history that women had been elected to the top five offices in any state.

To boot, they were sworn in by Sandra Day O’Connor – an Arizonan and the first woman to be seated on bench of the U.S. Supreme Court.

All tough, independent women, just like the women who preceded them.