Forgotten Legislative Pioneers, Part II of II

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Rhoda Fox Graves
Rhoda Fox Graves

In January 1919, the first two women ever elected to the New York State Legislature took office in the State Assembly. At the time, women in this state couldn’t serve on juries. Married women could only in very limited circumstances file a lawsuit in their own name. Just showing up took some guts.
Both women, Democrat Mary M. Lilly representing Manhattan and Republican Ida Sammis, representing western Suffolk County, were consigned by their parties to standing committees strongly associated with women and children and of low priority to the legislative powers.

This was 45 years before the State Constitution was amended to give “Home Rule” powers to all local governments, and towns in particular constantly needed special state laws passed to do anything out of the ordinary. Sammis, part of the majority party, was allowed to pass 10 uncontroversial “local bills” aiding the four towns in her district, the first state laws ever sponsored by a woman in New York.

The 1919 legislative session was dominated by Prohibition, including if and how New York should ratify the proposed 18th Amendment. The temperance issue had bitterly divided New Yorkers for decades, especially along religious and ethnic lines. Everyone understood what Ida Sammis meant when she testified at a Judiciary Committee hearing and admonished opponents of Prohibition as “disloyal and un-American,” opposed to American values of family, home and democracy. These were the politics of her time and place.

Ida Sammis was unhappy during her year in the Assembly, complaining later that “neither party stands for anything except the spoils” and that the men expected her to follow their lead in all matters. That fall, Sammis and Lilly were both defeated in the November 1919 election, Sammis by a Democrat who had served in a tank unit in France.
Sammis remained active for more than a decade trying to elect temperance candidates, though controversial marriages to elderly widowers became something of a local scandal. In 1933 and 1934, two of her husbands and Prohibition died. She wrote a for a statewide policy magazine calling for a political party just for women, who “might as well take their dishes and go home” when they tried to be taken seriously by men in the existing political structure.
Two more women were elected to the Assembly in 1920, both one-termers. No women could win legislative seats in 1920, 1921, 1922 and 1923. Then came Rhoda.

Rhoda Fox Graves of St. Lawrence County, another suffrage veteran (and a Dry), was the only one of 20 female Assembly and Senate candidates to win in November 1924. For eight years, she was the only woman in the state legislature. Building her own local political operation, she was never seriously challenged in a primary or general election. In 1934, she became the first woman elected to the State Senate. She stayed for 14 years, always the lone woman Senator.

Graves was the first woman whose election to the legislature wasn’t seen as some fluke or aberration, becoming the first woman to chair a standing committee in both the Assembly and the Senate. Graves was a loyal Republican, but earned the credibility to step away from the party line on issues that were important to her North Country constituents. She never backed down in the long fight to keep the electric power potential of the St. Lawrence and Niagara waterways out of the hands of private corporations and she was the leading advocate of the interests of dairy farmers in the legislature.

After a few near misses and some derisive newspaper editorials, Graves pushed through a law creating a Bureau of State Publicity, signed by Governor Roosevelt in April 1929. The bureau created the first state advertising campaigns to attract tourists and manufacturers. We take this kind of thing for granted, but it’s a legacy from Rhoda.

Michael Miller (mmillercolumn@gmail.com) has worked in state and local government. He lives in New Hyde Park.

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