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Women Are on the March

Perhaps you missed the big news: In 2023, there will be a record-breaking 12 women serving as governors around the nation. Way over the previous record of … nine.

And your reaction is:

  • Hey, that’s 24 percent — not bad.

  • That’s less than a quarter!

  • Are any of them going to run for president? And does that mean we have to discuss Kamala Harris? Because I’m really not sure. …

OK, one thing at a time, please. Just think of 2023 as the Year of Women Governors.

Even so, we’ve still got a way to go. Eighteen states have yet to select a woman governor, ever. California! Pennsylvania! And Florida — really Florida, there’s a limit to how much time we’ve got to complain about you.

New York elected a woman for the first time last month, a development that began when then-Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul was propelled into the job because of Andrew Cuomo’s sexual harassment scandal. Sorry, Andrew, but history may well recall this as your final gift to New Yorkers.

Arizona hasn’t gotten enough attention — electing Katie Hobbs as its fifth female governor kept it the national record-holder. Good work, guys! It was also one of the states with a woman-vs.-woman race, although being Arizona, it featured a crazy subplot. Kari Lake, the defeated Republican Trumpophile, is taking the whole thing to court.

It’s important to admit that while the quantity of female governors expands, the quality is … varied. Current incumbents include the newly re-elected Kristi Noem of South Dakota, whose attitude toward Covid vaccination has been, at best, deeply unenthusiastic. (Noem spent $5 million of pandemic relief funds on ads to promote tourism.)

On the other side, there’s Michigan’s current governor, Gretchen Whitmer, who led the Democrats to a monster statewide sweep last month. She went through a lot to do it — remember when a group called Wolverine Watchmen plotted to kidnap her and put her on trial for treason?

Our female governors, both incumbent and newly elected, have a wide ideological range, but it’s very possible they’ll still be more conscious of women’s issues — like child care and sexual assault — than would a group of men from similar political backgrounds.

And abortion rights — although some, like Noem, are definitely not on that boat. The Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision mobilized female voters so much in the fall that you’d think we’d be seeing more women out there carrying the flag in the governors’ races.

“It may well have come down too late to see candidacies emerge as a result,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, who’s hoping the surge will still be coming.

If so, it’ll be the next chapter in a saga that goes back a century — the first two women ever elected governor won their jobs in 1925, in Wyoming and Texas.

The Wyoming winner, Nellie Tayloe Ross, was the widow of the prior governor. When he died, his party nominated her to succeed him before she’d decided to run. She won anyhow and apparently liked the job. Ross ran for re-election and lost but went on to forge a successful career as director of the U.S. Mint. Wyoming, however, has never since chosen a woman as governor. Get a move on, Wyoming.

The other woman who became governor a century ago was a little less, um, encouraging. Texas’ Miriam “Ma” Ferguson also succeeded her husband — who was, in this case, impeached. “Ma” basically vowed to carry on her husband’s not-totally-reputable practices. Elect her, she promised voters, and get “two for the price of one.” That, you may remember, is what Bill Clinton said when he ran for president in 1992 — pick him and get Hillary as well.

It worked a lot better for the couple from Arkansas than it did for the couple in Texas. Ma Ferguson won, and voters got a governor who pardoned an average of 100 convicts a month. Most did not appear to be worthy of release on any basis other than cold cash. But hey, she was definitely carrying on a family tradition.

The first woman elected governor in her own right was Ella Grasso in Connecticut. That was in 1974 and I was in Hartford at the time, starting out my career covering the state legislature. My clients were little papers who forked over a tiny bit of money to hear what their lawmakers were up to. The regular pressroom decreed there was no room for any newcomers, and I was dispatched — along with my partner, Trish Hall — to work out of the Capitol attic.

The other facilities in said attic included a men-only bar for legislators. The 35 women in the legislature at the time didn’t seem upset about discrimination when it came to access to drinking quarters. Possibly because the facility in question, known as the Hawaiian Room, was a dark, moldy space with dusty plastic leis hanging from the ceiling.

But I did complain about having to work in the attic, and one night when I was there alone — it was really pretty late — Ella Grasso herself showed up to check the accommodations. As she was walking down the narrow room, a bat flew down from the ceiling and into her hair.

She took it very well.

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