When she began her run up the political ladder with a quest – initially unsuccessful – for local office, “being a woman didn’t really enter into my thinking.”
After all, said Mary Margaret Whipple, women had comprised a healthy percentage of the membership of the Arlington County Board over the years. (Including the very first County Board, elected in 1932, which included among its members Elizabeth Magruder.)
But when, some years later, Whipple made a quest for Virginia’s General Assembly, that was a different ballgame. And the experience she had gained toiling at the local level paid dividends.
“You definitely had to be somebody who had a demonstrated background and experience,” Whipple said. “You couldn’t just pop up and say ‘I want to run for Senate of Virginia.’”
Her remarks came at the Aug. 3 meeting of the Arlington County Democratic Committee, helping to kick off Women’s Equality Month.
Whipple in the 1970s was tapped for an appointed School Board post, and in 1979 unsuccessfully sought a County Board slot on a Democratic ticket with Charles Rinker. They were defeated by Republican incumbents Dorothy Grotos and Walter Frankland Jr.
Whipple rebounded in 1982, winning a County Board seat, and in 1995 was elected to the upper chamber of the state legislature upon the retirement of Ed Holland. She was among three incoming women (including Patsy Ticer of Alexandria) who upped total female membership to seven in the 40-member state Senate.
Eventually, Whipple would rise to chair the Senate Democratic Caucus, making her the first woman to hold a leadership position in a legislative body that traces its roots back to 1619.
“Mary Margaret set an example” in the legislature, longtime Del. Ken Plum (D-Reston) said at an event last year. “She knew how to bring people together, how to put forward the best arguments.”
Whipple’s remarks at the Aug. 3 event were part history lesson, part battle cry for the future.
While Democrats have sewn up the Arlington political landscape, Virginia once again has become a battleground. In her remarks, Whipple praised the Arlington County Democratic Committee’s “Beyond Arlington” initiative, which uses local party members and resources to try and support candidates in swing districts.
The initiative is “exactly what we need to do … to make the right things happen,” she said.
In terms of women in state government, there have been some improvements since Whipple’s first arrival in Richmond, but it has been limited.
Eleven of 40 state senators and 36 of 100 delegates are female, putting Virginia in the middle of the pack in terms of gender equality, according to data from the Center for American Women and Politics.
Nationally in 2022, the organization notes, 28 percent of members of the upper bodies in state legislatures are female. In the lower houses, it isn’t much better – about 32 percent of seats are occupied by women.
Nevada in 2019 became the first state to have a majority of its legislative seats filled by women, and remains the only one. On the flip side of the coin, only 13 percent of state legislators in West Virginia are female.
It would not be until 1979 that Virginians elected their first female state senator (Eva Mae Scott, a Republican who had previously spent nearly a decade in the House of Delegates). Yet the Old Dominion is soon set to mark the 100th anniversary of its first female legislators in the lower (or “people’s” as some call it) house.
Democrats Sarah Lee Fain of Norfolk and Helen Timmons Henderson of Buchanan County in November 1923 were elected to the House of Delegates, taking their seats in January 1924. That was just three years after women in Virginia won the right to vote under the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (an amendment that the Virginia legislature didn’t get around to passing until 1952).
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 would later win the seat. Fain easily won two additional two-year terms, according to Encyclopedia Virginia, then stood down and ultimately served in a number of positions in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal agencies.
Whipple retired from the Senate after the 2011 election (as did Ticer, who died in 2017). But she has remained active, and last year Whipple and her husband Tom were inducted into the local Democratic Committee’s “Distinguished Democrats” pantheon.
The duo has been married since 1960 and Arlington residents since 1965. They were instrumental in helping Democrats ascend to dominance in Arlington politics; as late as the early 1980s, Republicans were at parity with the party at the local level (Ronald Reagan won the Arlington vote in 1980, the last Republican to do so).