By Thom Little, Ph.D.

In honor of Women’s History Month, I wanted to recognize and honor the women trailblazers, past and present, in America’s state legislatures.

While women were granted the right to vote nationally in 1920, they began serving in America’s state legislatures more than two decades earlier. In 1894, Clara Cressingham, Carrie Clyde Holly and Frances Klock became America’s first female state legislators with their election to the Colorado House of Representatives. Two years later, Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon of Utah became the first woman elected to a state senate. In 1899, Clara Campbell, Hattie Noble and Mary Wright were elected to the Idaho House of Representatives, rounding out the number of women state legislators elected in the 1800s.

Over the next three decades, the number of female state legislators increased very slowly so that by the end of the 1920s, the lower chamber of each state except for Louisiana had elected at least one female legislator. Interestingly, it took a bit longer for women to break into most state senates, with the first female senator elected after 1930 in thirty states. Voters in California, Missouri, Virginia and Alabama did not elect a woman to their state senate until the 1970s and 1980s. If you want  to see the name and year of the first female senator and house member elected in each state, check out this link.

The percentage of women state legislators nationally was just under five percent going into the 1970s. Beginning in 1973, the percentage of women legislators rose steadily into the early 2000s, where it hovered between 22 and 25 percent until 2017. The 2018 election saw a significant jump to 28.5%, starting a surge that has continued to an historic high of 32.7% in 2023 with women making up the majority in the Colorado House (55.4)%, Nevada Assembly (59.1%), the Arizona Senate (53.3%) and the Nevada Senate (61.9%).

And women have not just made strides in membership, but also in leadership. In 1895, Rep. Cressingham (noted above) was selected to serve as the Secretary of the Colorado House Republican Caucus, making her the first woman to serve in a legislative leadership position. In 1933, North Dakota’s Minnie Craig was elected as the nation’s first female state Speaker of the House by a vote of 101-11, spawning a conversation about how she should be addressed: Mr. Speaker; Mrs. Speaker; finally settling on Madam Speaker. Twenty-two years later (1955), Vermont Republican Consuelo Northrop Bailey was elected as America’s first woman Lt. Governor, making her the nation’s first female state Senate President.

By the early 1990s, the number of women in institutional positions of leadership* had increased to forty (out of 350) and by the late 2000s, it had risen to over fifty. In 2024, just under thirty percent (97/350) of all leadership positions are held by women, comparable to the percentage of women legislators. This number includes nine Speakers of the House (Hortman, MN; Jinkins, WA; Jones, MD; Krowinski, VT; Longhurst, DE; McClinton, PA; McCluskie, CO; Talbot-Ross, ME; Tilton, AK) and five Senate Presidents (Atkins, CA; Winsome-Earl, VA; Passidomo, FL; Sinclair, IA; Spilka, MA), both historic highs.

Congratulations to all female legislators and legislative leaders who laid the groundwork for the of women today and to those outstanding leaders who are paving the way for the female leaders of tomorrow. We honor your efforts and thank you for your willingness to overcome barriers and break glass ceilings to serve the people of your state!

* Speaker, Senate President, Senate President Pro Tempore, Speaker Pro Tempore, Majority Leader and Minority Leader