Thursday, Apr 8, 2010
More Women Than Ever Now Serving in Arkansas Legislature
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LITTLE ROCK - More women now serve in the Arkansas legislature than ever before. There are 31 women legislators - six in the Senate and 25 in the House.
Since the first two women were elected to the legislature in 1922, a total of 98 women have served in the state legislature.
About half of them attended a celebration in the Capitol rotunda on the final day of March, which was Women's History Month. They represent both major political parties and they come from cities as well as rural areas. They are white and African-American. They put aside those differences to recognize the first women to run for elected office in Arkansas, and to encourage more women candidates to run for office.
Former Representative Charlotte Schexnayder of Dumas said women are half the population so they should hold half the elected positions in government. She was cheered warmly. Schexnayder was the first woman appointed to the state Board of Pardons and Paroles, in 1974.
In 1919 Arkansas became the 12th state in the country to allow women to vote. In 1922 the first two women elected to the legislature were Erle Chambers of Pulaski County and Frances Hunt of Jefferson County. They served in the House. Chambers, the executive director of the Arkansas Tuberculosis Association, filed legislation to create a 411-bed sanatorium for black people at Alexander.
The first female senator was Senator Dorathy Allen of Brinkley. She won a special election in 1964 to fill the unexpired term of her husband, and was re-elected in 1966 and 1970.
One of Allen's first bills set up a testing program for newborn babies to detect genetic disorders. She served through 1974.
In 1932 Arkansas made national history by electing the first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate, Hattie Caraway of Jonesboro. In 1938 Caraway was re-elected, defeating then Congressman John L. McClellan. Hers were the first statewide victories for a woman candidate in Arkansas.
The first woman elected to a state constitutional office was Nancy J. Hall. Her husband, Crip Hall, was Secretary of State from 1937 until his death in 1961 and she was appointed to serve the remainder of his term. In 1962 she ran for treasurer and won, holding the position for 18 years. In her last contested race in 1978 she got 70 percent of the vote.
Other women were appointed to the Arkansas Supreme Court before her, but former Justice Annabelle Clinton Imber was the first woman elected to the court. She served as associate justice from 1997 until her retirement earlier this year. Justices are elected to the Arkansas Supreme Court in a statewide vote.
Irma Hunter Brown of Little Rock was the first African-American woman elected to the House, in 1980, and to the Senate, in 2002.
Some of the state's most influential women were appointed rather than elected. Willie Lawson , a native of Hamburg, was appointed by the governor in 1953 to be the first woman on the Highway Commission. She served a four-year term. The Commission was then, as it is now, one of the most powerful agencies in Arkansas.
Lawson was also the first state director of Adult Education.