What Every Woman Should Know about a Woman’s Traditional Path to Power

What Every Woman Should Know is a bi-weekly column on Women’s History.

Corazon Aquino (CBS)

Corazon Aquino (CBS)

Corazon Aquino, who in 1986 became the Philippines first female head of state during waves of protest after the assassination of her husband, died Saturday. She was 76 years old. Aquino was a beloved icon to many around the world, including many feminists who saw her as a bellwether symbol of what was to come for women. However, despite her record and her global popularity, she continues to be one of a handful of anomalies with regard to female heads of state, and her time in government did not herald a great surge in the election of women to political office.  Less than 3% of nations had a female head of state in the 1980s, a number which is only up to 8% today. Nevertheless, her history offers an opportunity to explore a woman’s traditional path to power, which for many women meant following in their husband’s or father’s footsteps.

Corazon Aquino was married to popular Filipino politician Benigno Aquino, Jr., and it was her marriage to him that catapulted her to national attention when he was assassinated. Even as late as the 1980s, most of the women in politics had gotten there because of family connections, particularly that of marriage. There were very few other opportunities for women to get involved. Like many of the women before her, Aquino said she never had political ambitions, but found opportunity thrust upon her by the most unfortunate of circumstances.

What happened in the case of Aquino is a common thread running throughout women’s history. Upon her husband’s death, Corazon Aquino was convinced to run against Ferdinand Marcos in her husband’s stead. She was swept into power by a “people’s revolution” that eventually lead to a democratic Philippines and set off a wave pro-democratic sentiment in the 1980s.  Aquino came into office via what scholars refer to as “widow succession.” Widow succession happens when a woman is appointed or elected to her husband’s office upon his death. Though Mr. Aquino did not die in the office of president, he did die pursuing that office. Ms. Aquino declined to run for a second term in office and served six years, surviving no less than six assassination attempts during that time. She stepped down in 1992.

Widow succession has been and continues to be a global phenomenon. Of course, family relations in politics are nothing new, and many of the men who run for office follow in the footsteps of one or more of their male relatives. Al Gore, for example, became senator after his father served nearly 20 years in the seat. Chris Dodd and Evan Bayh, among many others, were also preceded in politics by their fathers. That women would also use family relations to get ahead in politics is unsurprising given this norm. Many of the women who have served have followed in the footsteps of men in their family, and many of them stepped in during the crisis that followed their relative’s death. Did you know, for example, that of the 37 women to have served in the Senate, seven (18%) were appointed to fill the seats of their deceased husbands? Or that 36 (15%) of the 229  women to have served in the House have been appointed via widow succession?

We have lost that history. The stories of these women are not often told, and widow succession is consequently a little-known term. Forgotten are such names as Hattie Caraway (AR), the first woman elected to and to preside over the Senate, who had been appointed to the position upon the death of her husband. Virtually unknown is Nellie Tayloe Ross, the first female governor (WY), who won her office in a special election after her husband died in office. No one remembers Miriam Ferguson (TX) either, or the exciting media coverage of her and Ross’ near simultaneous elections, and the two states’ rush to inaugurate them. Ferguson was elected after her husband was impeached from office. Winnifred Mason Huck (IL) is not a name one remembers from history class, most probably because one has never heard it in history class, but she was the third woman to serve in Congress, the first mother to serve, and followed in her deceased father’s footsteps.

Women and men today need to be aware of this history because our views of marriage and family relations have changed over the last thirty years. Not very long ago the vast majority of women did get married; their success in life may have been incumbent upon it. Today, marriage is a choice, and many women and men choose not to get married even if they do couple up. Today women are able to support themselves and make their way in the world in ways previously denied them. It is important that this younger generation understand where they come from so they don’t make judgments out of ignorance about female candidates who still fit this pattern, which happened to Hillary Clinton just last year. Every woman who is elected creates gains for women in elective representation, no matter who their spouse is or if they have one.  Perhaps if they knew this history, people would consider where a woman is coming from before they judge where she is going.

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