Politics can be a dirty game — and if you're in it, you're much more likely to be remembered for your worst moves and what you didn't accomplish than for your better choices and your successes. And given that politics was a man's game until only very recently, it's no surprise that there are a lot of women in politics who didn't get the credit that they deserved for their work as trailblazers and fighters. If most of the names on this list are unfamiliar to you, don't be ashamed — there are a lot of history books out there that make absolutely no mention of them.
Some of the women made in-roads into various political spheres when the idea of women playing a part there was still unthinkable. Maybe they worked behind the scenes, never gaining any public recognition for their contributions. Maybe they broke down racial or gender-based barriers, paving the way for all of the women in their wake. No matter what they accomplished, they're all worth celebrating, even if it's already well after the fact. The more women are recognized for their political accomplishments, the easier it is for the next generation to work on breaking those last remaining glass ceilings.
If you're feeling like crap, look at this photo of congresswomen smiling in front of a portrait of Jeannette Rankin, first female U.S. rep. pic.twitter.com/hCzFL4hP5M— Helen Brosnan (@HelenBrosnan) June 28, 2017
Someone had to be the first woman in Congress — and that someone was Jeannette Rankin. After working hard to achieve suffrage for women in her home state of Montana in 1914, Rankin ran for Congress in 1916 — and won. In terms of her legislative positions, what she's most remembered for is voting against American entry into both world wars. Let's not forget, though, that she was also the one who started the House debate on the constitutional amendment to give women the right to vote.
We're going way back for this one, to the very second first lady, Abigail Adams. First ladies are an especially good place to look for under-appreciated women in politics, because several of them had a huge influence on their husbands, even if it generally remained secret. Adams was an early adopter of this trend, standing up for women's rights when there was no one else to do it.
Besides women's rights, she also advocated for ending slavery and education. And yet, she's still most remembered for being married to John Adams and being the mother of John Quincy Adams.
3Ella T. Grasso
I remember when Ella Grasso was elected in CT. It was a big deal. First elected without spouse coattails.— Janet K. Ainsworth (@jainsworth) July 3, 2017
For most of American history, there wasn't a single female governor of a state — but Ella T. Grasso changed that when she was elected as the governor of Connecticut in 1974. She already had a long history of working in that state's political sphere, including working in the Connecticut Democratic Party, being elected to the state's General Asssembly, and serving as the Connecticut secretary of state. She was sadly forced to resign from her post in 1980 after being diagnosed of ovarian cancer, which ultimately killed her the next year — but she had already made an indelible mark on American politics.
You don't often hear good news coming out of the Texas state legislature, but Ann Richards was an exception. Richards was the Texas governor from 1991 to 1995, as she lost her second election to someone whose name you might recognize: George W. Bush.
She managed to do a lot in her one term, however. Not only did she bring more women and minorities into state government than anyone else before her, she also fought for gun control and environmental regulations, which may have cost her a second term.
Remember the quote about how Ginger Rogers did the same thing as Fred Astaire, "only backwards and in high heels"? That's an Ann Richards quote. Richards also inspired the women in her family to fight for vulnerable Americans — Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, is her daughter.
5Cora Belle Reynolds Anderson
The first half of the 20th century wasn't a good time for Native Americans in the United States, given all of the efforts to assimilate the tribes and wipe out their millennia-old customs. While this was going on, however, Cora Belle Reynolds Anderson was getting involved in Michigan politics in a big way — by becoming the first Native American woman anywhere to serve in a state legislature. She only served for one term, from 1925 to 1926, but she managed to accomplish a lot in the realm of public health during that time.
Edith Wilson, the first lady to President Woodrow Wilson, is another in the category of first ladies who had a bigger influence than anyone realized at the time.
Wilson is an interesting case to include, however, because her legacy is highly contested and not altogether good. After Woodrow Wilson fell victim to a stroke in 1919, Edith Wilson stepped in as the president's "steward" — all the while keeping the truth of his incapacity to work entirely secret. No one knew it at the time, but she was effectively the president from then until 1921, when Woodrow Wilson's term ended. The policies and arrangements that Woodrow Wilson championed in Europe after the end of WWI were a large part of what contributed to the outbreak of WWII — but as you now know, Woodrow Wilson wasn't the only one behind the policies that are credited to him alone.
Still, Edith Wilson does deserve recognition as a woman working in a position of power, even if she wasn't technically a trailblazer and she was part of a very complicated moment in history. Men aren't the only ones with complex, contested legacies that had huge effects on world history. Need anymore proof of Edith Wilson's importance? Check out the "Drunk History" video about her.
7Patsy Takemoto Mink
Rep Patsy Takemoto Mink promoted women's rights and racial harmony and helped found the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC.) pic.twitter.com/4ayk7kaUsi— DAUK Women's Caucus (@DAUKWomenCaucus) July 1, 2017
Not only was Patsy Takemoto Mink the first Asian-American woman elected to the U.S. House — she was also the first woman of color elected to the House of Representatives, back in 1965. She was a strong voice in the civil rights movement, fighting on behalf of women, minorities, and peace, as she was one of the first congresspeople to speak out against the Vietnam War. She was also a huge reason that Title IX came into being, allowing women and girls to take part in sports and have equal access to education at schools across the country.
Shirley Chisholm was the ultimate trailblazer — the first black congresswoman, and the first woman to run for president, at a time when the men running against her thought that her run was a joke. Chisholm wasn't joking, however. She was as serious in that run for office as she was when she founded the Congressional Black Caucus. She was a regular font of wisdom, constantly speaking out for equality across her eight terms in Congress.
9Mary McLeod Bethune
Celebrating the birth month of education champion Mary Mcleod Bethune. https://t.co/it5DrpvKla— ONE Campus (@ONECampus) July 21, 2017
Well before the Civil Rights Movement even existed, Mary McLeod Bethune was hard at work fighting for civil rights, children's health, and equal access to education for African-Americans like herself. She reached her political peak during the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration, when she served as a special adviser for minority affairs.
During her spare time, though, she also managed to start the National Council of Negro Women, an early civil rights group. In 1936, Roosevelt appointed her to an official position at the National Youth Administration, as the director of the director of the Division of Negro Affairs. She stayed in politics for the rest of her life, leaving a huge mark on the country as an educator and tireless fighter for civil rights.
This list of impressive women is really only scratching the surface of women who created the world that we live in now and whose accomplishments are often left undiscussed. Thanks to their work and the work of so many others, the idea of a woman in politics is no longer something to be dismissed without a second thought. There's a lot of work left to be done, of course — but it still never hurts to go back and recognize the people who brought us to the point where we are now.