First of Her Kind

Amidst all the attention given to the 2016 presidential campaign, it was easy to miss an important date in the history of women in American government. One hundred years ago, on November 7, 1916, Jeannette Rankin of Montana became the first woman to be elected to federal office when she won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Jeanette Rankin became the first woman elected to Congress in 1916.
In 1916, Jeannette Rankin of Montana became the first woman elected to Congress. (Image credit: Sharon Sprung/Public Domain)

Incredibly, her achievement came several years before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, at a time when women’s suffrage in the U.S. was a patchwork of state and local laws.

As Rankin put it, she was “the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote.”

To date, 45 states have elected female representatives, 27 have elected female senators, and 24 female governors. To celebrate their accomplishments, we created a poster showing the first woman elected to serve as governor, senator, and representative from each state.

The poster is now for sale, and like all our poster projects, the proceeds will be donated to charity.

The poster includes portraits of every woman to serve as the first female governor, senator, or representative from her state.

The past century has seen 392 women serve in these positions, but we wanted to put the focus on the women who broke the initial barrier of being elected by the state communities in which they lived. This is also why we chose not to include women who were appointed to their positions—we wanted to highlight the importance of the democratic process and how it might be shaped by changing perceptions of gender. It may not even seem that surprising that women have been elected to these positions, until you’re reminded that this is just 100 years of our government’s 240-year history, and that dozens of states still haven’t had a woman serve in all three positions.

The colors used in the poster–purple, gold, and green–were inspired by the colors used by suffragists in the United States and United Kingdom. Purple represented loyalty and dedication to the cause of women’s suffrage, gold symbolized “the color of light and life,” and green stood for hope.

A "votes for women" pennant in the traditional suffragette colors. (Image credit: Wendy Kaveney/Creative Commons)
A “Votes for Women” pennant. (Image credit: Wendy Kaveney/Creative Commons)

Three women appear twice on the poster because they were both the first female representative and first female senator from their state. They are Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin.

Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California were elected on the same ballot, so they’re both included. (Feinstein began serving a few months earlier, because her seat was part of a special election.)

Illustrations from the poster of Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California.
Illustrations from the poster of Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California.

A few more things we learned along the way:

  • Nine states have elected women to all three positions: Hawaii, Kansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oregon, Texas, and Washington.
  • Mississippi is the only state to have not elected a woman to any of these positions.
  • Delaware just elected their first female representative to the House this year! Lisa Blunt Rochester will represent the state’s at-large district.

While we were compiling the lists of women to feature on the poster, we came across countless inspiring stories. Here are a few that we found particularly interesting:

Edith Nourse Rogers became the first female representative from Massachusetts in 1925, and still holds the record for the longest-serving woman in the U.S. House of Representatives. She served until 1960, and sponsored more than a thousand bills, many focusing on veterans’ issues.

Edith Nourse Rogers in the House chamber in 1926. (Image credit" U.S. House of Representatives)
Edith Nourse Rogers in the House chamber in 1926. (Image credit: U.S. House of Representatives)

After a career in filmmaking, Ruth Bryan Owen was elected in 1928 as Florida’s first female representative. She served two terms and was later appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as the ambassador to Denmark–the first woman to be appointed a United States ambassador.

Ella T. Grasso of Connecticut had a decades-long career in politics. In 1955, she became the first woman to be elected Floor Leader of the Connecticut House of Representatives. In 1974, after serving two terms in the U.S. Congress, she opted to not run for reelection and instead ran for governor of Connecticut. She won, becoming the first female governor of Connecticut and the first female governor in the country who wasn’t a wife or widow of an ex-governor.

After a storied career including fifteen years in the Hawaii House of Representatives, eight years as Hawaii’s lieutenant governor, and six years in the U.S. House of Representatives, Mazie Hirono became Hawaii’s first female senator in 2012. She is also the first Asian-American woman in the Senate. Much of Hirono’s work throughout her political career focused on advocating for pre-kindergarten education.

Mazie Hirono shakes hands with Vice President Joe Biden after being sworn in to the U.S. Senate. (Image credit: Mazie Hirono)
Mazie Hirono shakes hands with Vice President Joe Biden after being sworn in to the U.S. Senate. (Image credit: Mazie Hirono)

We hope you’ll buy a print of the poster through the Fathom print shop and help support some of the worthy causes that receive the proceeds. And we look forward to updating the poster with more firsts in the coming years.



Founded in 2010 by Ben Fry, Fathom Information Design works with clients to understand complex data through interactive tools and software for mobile devices, the web, and large format installations. Out of its studio in Boston, Fathom partners with Fortune 500s and non-profit organizations across sectors, including health care, education, financial services, media, technology, and consumer products.

How can we help? hello@fathom.info.