Women of the Commonwealth: Women of politics

Women of the Commonwealth: Women of politics
Photo/Virginia Historical Society The Equal Suffrage League of Richmond.

By Gayle Converse and Pat Miller

Countless Virginia women assumed traditional male roles during the American Civil War. Many had worked in dangerous munitions factories. Many had worked as nurses. Some had served in the military, disguised as soldiers.

Many were more than ready for the right to vote. Here is a somewhat abridged timeline of Virginia women’s fight to secure their right to vote.


Five years after the end of the Civil War, the women’s suffrage movement gained strength in Virginia.


It would take another 20 years before Southern women organized. 1909 Twenty years later, on Nov. 27, 1909, Alexandria’s Dr. Kate Waller Barrett traveled to Richmond to meet with six women to expand the suffrage movement in the Commonwealth. The result was the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia.

Barrett would later become honorary vice president of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia, a charter member of the Virginia League of Women Voters and a delegate to the 1924 Democratic National Convention in New York. Barrett received a standing ovation for her speech at the convention, and it was here that she was asked to run for governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia – an honor she declined.


Reporting a membership of 32,000, the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia had grown into one of the largest state organizations in the country.


Amid the backdrop of World War I, the flu pandemic and the fight for the vote, Virginia women again stepped up to fill traditional men’s jobs.


In an effort to gain equality at the ballot box, Virginia’s Equal Suffrage League partnered with national suffrage associations. The 19th Amendment granting American women the right to vote was ratified by the necessary 38 states in 1920. Virginia delayed its ratification of the 19th Amendment an additional 32 years, until 1952.

Equal enfranchisement did not mean that all female voters received equal treatment: Black women – thousands of whom had registered to vote in Virginia in the 1920 election – were continually banned from joining the Virginia League of Women Voters.


Sarah Lee Fain, of Norfolk, Virginia, and Helen Timmons Henderson, of Buchanan County, Virginia, became the first two women elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. Six women served by 1933. Most held backgrounds as educators, having run on platforms emphasizing public education improvements, business regulation and public health initiatives.


Two decades passed before another woman was elected to state office. Two more women were elected in 1958 and another in 1960.


Virginia elected its first transgender woman, Danica Roem, to state office. Roem became the first openly transgender person to serve in any state legislature. More than 85 women ran for a Virginia state office in 2019.


Following the 2019 election, more women won state offices than at any other moment in the 400-year history of Virginia politics. Women from both the Democratic and Republican party currently serve in the General Assembly. Since 2020, Eileen Filler-Corn, of District 41, has served as the first woman Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates. Leading up to the Nov. 2, 2021 election, women hold 41 of the 140 seats in the Virginia General Assembly.

Alexandria can celebrate its share of “first woman” political figures. A sampling includes:


Alexandria artist Marian Van Landingham served in the Virginia House of Delegates for 24 years, from 1982 to 2006.


Vola Lawson served as city manager from 1985 until 2001. Throughout her tenure, she developed the Office of Women and further empowered women by improving childcare, early childhood education, economic development and housing.


Patsy Ticer, the city’s first woman mayor, was elected in 1991. Following two terms as mayor, she became the first woman from Alexandria elected to the Virginia Senate, serving 15 years, from 1996 to 2011.


Joyce Woodson, Alexandria’s first Black woman City Council member, was elected in May 2000 and served two, three-year terms.


Charniele Herring has represented Virginia’s 46th District since 2009. She is the first Black woman from Northern Virginia ever elected to the Virginia state legislature and serves as majority leader and chair of the Democratic caucus.

Three women currently serve on Alexandria City Council. The November slate displays a majority of women candidates for city offices and various state races. Many are more than ready to hold public office.

The writers are founders of Alexandria Celebrates Women, a nonprofit that highlights influential women throughout the city’s history. Contact them at AlexandriaCelebratesWomen@gmail.com.