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The Woman Who Became Governor 11 Years Before Women's Suffrage

August 18, 2020 in History

By Michelle T. Harris

Carrie B. Shelton had the power to veto bills as Oregon governor—but she couldn’t vote.

More than a decade before American women gained the right to vote, a 32-year-old woman stepped into the role of governor of Oregon, becoming the first woman to assume a state’s top office. While she was only governor over a weekend and her impact on the state was minimal, the fact that Carrie B. Shelton served as the state’s chief executive helped garner respect for women’s participation in politics and added to the call for women’s suffrage.

Shelton never actively sought the governorship, but rather was well-placed when circumstances left the position open. On Saturday, February 27, 1909, Governor George Chamberlain of Oregon resigned from office before boarding a train cross-country. He was headed to Washington, D.C. to be sworn in as a U.S. Senator. Though Chamberlain hadn’t yet finished his second term as governor, he needed to be in the capital by March 4 to be sworn in along with the rest of the freshman senate class. If he arrived late, every member would have seniority over him.

By Oregon law, Secretary of State Frank W. Benson would normally have assumed the role as acting governor over the weekend. However, Benson was too ill to immediately step in. This left Chamberlain’s private secretary, Shelton, the next natural successor to take the governor’s office over the next 48 hours. Meanwhile, Benson would have time to recover before being sworn in on Monday morning.

READ MORE: A Timeline of the Fight for All Women’s Right to Vote

This is how Shelton became America’s first female governor—11 years before the August 18, 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote. In her brief role as governor, Shelton had the power to veto bills and sign executive orders—all before she could legally cast a ballot.

Genealogist Anne Mitchell, a great-great-niece of Shelton, spent years collecting documents on her family history as well as many of Shelton’s surviving possessions, which she donated to the Willamette Heritage Center.

“She could run things on her own and was extremely knowledgeable,” says Mitchell about Shelton. She says unfortunately, little documentation remains about Shelton’s time in office.

The 19th Amendment (TV-PG; 4:36)

WATCH: The 19th Amendment

A Tragic Past

Born Carrie Bertha Skiff in 1876 to Willis and Mary Skiff, Shelton spent her early years in …read more

Source: HISTORY