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When President Joe Biden’s cabinet gathered for its first meeting at the White House, about half were women, including Janet Yellen as the first female secretary of the treasury. It was a remarkable moment for gender equality at the top of our government.
Until 1933, no woman had been called Madam Secretary. That ended when Franklin Roosevelt appointed Frances Perkins as his secretary of labor. It took another 20 years until the second woman, Oveta Culp Hobby, was appointed secretary of health, education and welfare by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1953. In more recent years, President Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama appointed more women, paving the way for Biden’s female majority.
A couple miles up Pennsylvania Avenue, the Congress also has been a men’s club for most of its history with an occasional woman, including one who served one day in the Senate before resigning. This year, the Senate convened with 24 female members of 100, and with 131 women in the House. It has been an interesting journey.
Within our lifetimes, we went from no woman ever in the Cabinet, a couple in the House, and none in the Senate. Labor leaders, all male, who had supported Roosevelt, were not happy with his choice of Perkins, angry that she had taken a man’s job. They grew more accepting when she curtly told Alfred Sloan, the head of General Motors, who was resisting negotiating with the UAW, “When you die, you will go to Hell.” Perkins was also central to the development of Social Security and established the She-She-She Corps to supplement the all-male Civilian Conservation Corps, the CCC.
She paved the way for appointments of women, although it took a while. The second female cabinet secretary was appointed 20 years later by Eisenhower.
The Senate also moved at breakneck speed. In 1948 Margaret Chase Smith was elected after serving for a decade in the House of Representatives. She served in the upper chamber for four terms until she retired. For most of those years she was the only woman in the Senate.
Her most illustrious moment came when she took on Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin, a fellow Republican, a drunken demagogue and a rabid ant-Communist who found them where they did not exist.
While all the male senators stood silent, Sen. Smith took him on. Her “Declaration of Conscience” speech, given while McCarthy was present, was the turning point in an awful time. He was later censured by the Senate. It is probable that without her courage, it would not have happened.
Our government and country would be a lot different today had it not been for two women who made the Biden cabinet possible. With luck, there will be a Frances Perkins or Margaret Chase Smith among them.
Norman Sherman of Coralville has worked extensively in politics, including as Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s press secretary, and authored a memoir “From Nowhere to Somewhere.”