Men Ruled the U.S. Senate for Centuries. Here’s why Gavin Newsom Should Appoint a Woman

BY THE SACRAMENTO BEE EDITORIAL BOARD DECEMBER 04, 2020 – Nearly 2,000 Americans have served as United States Senators. As of today, 1,928 of them have been men. Only 57 of them have been women.

This striking disparity provides a clear mandate for Gov. Gavin Newsom as he considers a replacement for Sen. Kamala D. Harris, who will become vice president of the United States in January.

Without question, Newsom should appoint a woman to Harris’ seat. To do otherwise would be to perpetuate the historic injustices that have deprived women of their equal rights throughout history — and to rob the nation of women’s leadership at a time when we need it most.

Our nation was founded 244 years ago, but women did not win the right to vote until 100 years ago. Two years after Congress ratified the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, 87-year-old Rebecca Latimer Felton of Georgia became the first woman to be sworn in as a U.S. Senator.

She served for 24 hours in November 1922. That’s because her appointment was merely a gimmick by Georgia Gov. Thomas Hardwick to curry favor with women voters and bolster his own chance of winning the seat, which had become vacant after Sen. Thomas Watson died suddenly.

It didn’t work out as Hardwick planned.

“On election day, despite his political calculations, Hardwick lost to Democrat Walter George,” according to the Senate Historical Office.

But George gamely allowed Felton to be sworn in for one day, after which she stepped aside. It’s important to note that Felton was a notorious white supremacist who vigorously advocated for the lynching of Black men. She was also the last slave owner to serve in Congress, reports historian John McKay.

Ten years later, in 1932, Hattie Carraway of Arkansas became the first woman to get elected to the Senate. Carraway, a Southern Democrat who supported the New Deal but opposed anti-lynching legislation, served until 1945.

Between 1922 and 1990, only 14 women served as senators. Then came 1992 and the “year of the woman,” which saw California elect its first two women senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. Forty-one women have become senators in the past 28 years alone. This is progress, but there’s still a long way to go.

Women’s leadership in the Senate is especially crucial at a time when equality and reproductive rights are under assault from a Republican Party determined to undo many of the gains of the 20th century. It’s also worth noting that countries led by women have fared much better during the COVID-19 pandemic than have countries led by men. The world needs more women in leadership positions.

The Senate also needs a woman who can continue Harris’ work to highlight long-neglected issues, such as bias against Black women in the healthcare system. Last year, Harris introduced the Maternal Care Access and Reducing Emergencies Act legislation to “address persistent biases and shortcomings in our nation’s medical system that have contributed to the ongoing crisis in Black maternal mortality.”

Who will carry on this work?

Today, only 25 of the nation’s 100 senators are women. This number includes Harris, who made history in 2018 as the first woman of color to win a U.S. Senate race in California. Gov. Newsom should feel the weight of history on his shoulders as he contemplates her replacement. When Harris becomes vice president in January, there will be no Black women in the U.S. Senate.

Some argue, convincingly, that Newsom must replace Harris with a Black woman.

“There’s no way that Gavin Newsom should allow anyone other than a Black woman to fill the seat of Harris, who’s only the second Black woman in the history of the U.S. Senate,” former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown told Politico’s Carla Marinucci. “There should be no contest.”

“To demonstrate their stated commitment to Black women, the Democratic Party and Gov. Gavin Newsom should appoint a Black woman to fill Harris’ Senate seat,” wrote Dr. Chaya Crowder in The Sacramento Bee. “During this presidential election, Black women played pivotal roles in key states like Georgia where Black women, including Stacey Abrams, Helen Butler, Deborah Scott, Tamieka Atkins and Nse Ufot, registered 800,000 new Georgia voters.”

Crowder named several women who could fill the slot, including Rep. Barbara Lee and Rep. Karen Bass.

Newsom is also under intense pressure to make history by appointing California’s first Latino or Latina senator. In a Bee editorial urging Newsom to pick a Latino or Latina, Luis Alejo and Richard Polanco listed many women, including State Senator Maria Elena Durazo and former U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.

California is long overdue for a senator who reflects nearly 40% of the state’s population, but it’s important to remember that California voters elected a woman of Black and Indian heritage to the seat.

We don’t envy Newsom’s dilemma in having to choose between appointing the second Black woman senator or appointing the first Latina senator in California history. One part of his equation, however, seems simple enough. Roughly 97% of American senators have been men. Since 1850, 93% of California’s senators have been men. These numbers represent a shameful legacy of discrimination.

“If people knew that Cuba, China, Iraq and Afghanistan have more women in government than the United States of America, that would get some people upset,” Newsom said during an interview in “Miss Representation,” a 2011 documentary directed by his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom.

In 2020, Gov. Newsom must turn his words into action by appointing a woman to replace Kamala Harris in the Senate.

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