Editorial: Don’t let historic milestone slip by unnoticed
In the current political environment, which is most charitably described as fractured, how about embracing an effort to celebrate a pending electoral centennial that, one hopes, all Virginians could rally behind?
The names of Sarah Lee Fain of Norfolk and Helen Timmons Henderson of Buchanan County may not necessarily be familiar across the commonwealth, but they hold an important place in the Old Dominion’s political history. In November 1923, Fain and Henderson became the first two women elected to the House of Delegates, a body (as its members will frequently note) that is the linear descendant of the oldest legislative panel in what was then described as the New World.
Their election came just three years after women in Virginia won the right to vote under the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (albeit an amendment that the Virginia legislature didn’t itself get around to passing until 1952). And unlike cases elsewhere, neither was the wife or widow of a prominent male political figure; each won election based on her own talents and political acumen.
Henderson, who earned the distinction of being the first woman to ever preside over the House of Delegates, died in 1925 toward the end of her first term, although her daughter later would win the seat. Fain easily won two additional two-year terms, according to Encyclopedia Virginia, then stood down. More women would follow, consistently if somewhat infrequently, in the House of Delegates, although it would not be until 1979 (!) that Virginia elected its first female state senator, when Republican Eva Scott moved up from the House of Delegates.
Today, 11 of 40 state senators and 36 of 100 delegates are female, putting Virginia in the middle of the pack nationwide in percentage terms, according to data from the Center for American Women and Politics.
We bring all this up in an effort to perhaps prod some at the state level to start the ball rolling on a celebration of Fain, Henderson and, as an adjunct, those women who followed them in the General Assembly. With the 100th anniversary of their election on the near horizon, the 2023 General Assembly should pass the necessary legislation or resolution to get things moving.
And perhaps to show that bipartisanship does still exist in the Old Dominion, why not designate Republican Winsome Sears (Virginia’s first female lieutenant governor) and Democrat Eileen Filler-Corn (first female Speaker of the House of Delegates) to collaborate on leading the effort?