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This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first women elected to the General Assembly: Sarah Fain of Norfolk and Helen Henderson of Buchanan County, or Mrs. Walter C. Fain and Mrs. Robert Anderson Henderson, as they were sometimes referred to in news stories.
Through the 1920s, the first decade in which women could vote in Virginia, more would follow: Sallie Cook Booker of Martinsville was elected to the House of Delegates in 1927; Henderson’s daughter, Helen Ruth Henderson, also of Buchanan County, in 1927; Nancy Melvina “Vinnie” Caldwell of Galax in 1927; and Emma Lee Smith White of Gloucester County in 1929.
Notice how many of those came from the western side of the state. I can only speculate that this reflects a more egalitarian political culture at the time, one less influenced by the Byrd Machine, which held less sway the farther west one went in Virginia. That’s not to say everyone in western Virginia was open to the idea of electing women to office because some clearly weren’t reconciled to the notion of them voting in the first place. “It should be enough that the women vote quietly, and exert their influence at the polls for such reforms as they believe the times demand,” The Clinch Valley Times editorialized. “A wife or mother is decidedly out of her element when she enters into political contests.”
Nonetheless, the fact remains that the long push for political equality for women in Virginia came more from the west than from the east.
The initial epicenter of the women’s suffrage movement in Virginia was in Lynchburg, led first by Orra Langhorne in 1880s and 1890s, then later by her niece, Elizabeth Otey. When Congress passed the 19th Amendment, which would give women the right to vote, and sent it to the states for ratification, every member of the Virginia delegation was opposed except for one: Rep. Bascom Slemp, R-Lee County.
That amendment was ratified in 1920, just in time for women to vote in that year’s presidential campaign. That meant 1921 was the first year in which women in Virginia could run for office in Virginia — and a disproportionate number of those who did were from Southwest and Southside. All lost (including Otey, who was the Republican candidate for superintendent of public instruction), but that’s beside the point. In 1923, the breakthroughs finally came in Norfolk and Buchanan County, with Martinsville, Buchanan County and Galax later sending their own women to Richmond. Four of the first five women to sit in the General Assembly came from west of the Blue Ridge or nearly so.
Then came a long drought, for women across the state. From 1933 to 1953 not a single woman was elected to the General Assembly. This year’s General Assembly began with 47 of 140 legislators being women — 33.6%, which is about average for state legislatures across the county, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. (The national average is 32.7%. Nevada has the most women: 60.3% of its legislature. Colorado has perfect gender parity at 50%, with Arizona just behind at 47.8%. Six of the 10 states with the highest percentage of female members are in the West; eight of the 10 states with the fewest women in their state legislature are in or near the South, with West Virginia in last place at 11.9%.)
The part of Virginia that once led the way with electing women to Richmond has long since fallen behind. Only three of those 47 women in Richmond in the past session were from the western part of the state: Kathy Byron, R-Bedford County; Ellen Campbell, R-Rockbridge County; and Marie March, R-Floyd County. Four if you count Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, but Charlottesville isn’t part of our coverage area, the other communities are. That’s three out of 29 legislators who are women — about 10%, putting us at West Virginia levels. Actually, slightly worse.
One of those women won’t be back — Byron is retiring.
March doesn’t have a guaranteed path back to Richmond; she’s been drawn into a new district and will face Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick County, in a contentious June 20 primary.
Campbell faces a Democratic opponent in November but also has the advantage of running in a district that voted 63.5% Republican in the 2021 governor’s race, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
It’s entirely possible that Campbell, who succeeded her late husband in a special election in January, will be the only woman from this part of Virginia sitting in the General Assembly next year.
How did western Virginia go from being the state’s leader in terms of electing women to Richmond to being its laggard? Feel free to speculate.
Now, for the rest of the story: We have what may be a record number of women running for legislative seats in this part of the state. Many are in what are likely unwinnable districts — Democrats running in strongly Republican districts. Some, though, aren’t.
Here’s a rundown, with all the partisan ratings computed by the Virginia Public Access Project based on how the precincts in that district voted in the last governor’s race.
HOUSE OF DELEGATES
Staunton, Waynesboro, part of Augusta County, part of Rockbridge County
Del. Ellen Campbell, R-Rockbridge County, will face Democrat Randall Wolf in a district that’s rated as 63.5% Republican.
Part of Montgomery County, part of Roanoke County
Lily Franklin of Blacksburg is the Democratic candidate. She will face the winner of the May 4 Republican convention that will choose between Chris Obenshain and Lowell Bowman. This is one of the few districts in this part of the state that’s considered competitive. It voted 55% for Glenn Youngkin in 2021 but has been closer in other elections.
Carroll County, Patrick County, Floyd County, Galax, part of Henry County
As noted, March and Williams are squaring off in a June 20 primary for the Republican nomination — although considering the assault charges that March filed against Williams (of which Williams was found not guilty), maybe I shouldn’t use such a pugilistic verb.
The winner will face Democrat Patty Quesenberry, so if March wins the Republican primary, this would be a district where two women run against one another. This is one of the most Republican districts in the state — 78.67%. That would normally make the Republican nomination tantamount to election and that may still be the case. However, given March’s record of clashing with her own party — earlier this year she said the party was out to humiliate her — and other controversies, I have to wonder if a March victory in the Republican primary might make this district a squib more competitive in the fall.
Part of Bedford County, Amherst County, part of Nelson County
Sarah Mays and Tim Griffith are both seeking the Republican nomination in an open seat district. The winner faces Democrat Sam Soghor in a district that voted 73.35% Republican in 2021.
Appomattox County, Buckingham County, Cumberland County and parts of Fluvanna County, Goochland County, Prince Edward County and Louisa County
Jennie Wood, Kevin Bailey and Tom Garrett are competing in a three-way contest for the Republican nomination in an open seat district. This nomination will be decided in a convention on March 20. That could be the election right there; so far there’s no Democratic candidate in a district that voted 64.9% Republican in 2021.
So far, this contest has been notable because of a) Garrett attempting a political comeback after leaving the U.S. House of Representatives to battle alcoholism and b) a controversy over delegate allocation from Appomattox County, with Bailey claiming 90% of the delegates from his home county. Wood has generated the least attention, and raised the least amount of money. She’s also from the eastern edge of the district. Her official bio lists multiple examples of civic involvement in Richmond. How that Richmond orientation plays in a district that’s weighted in the other direction geographically, we’ll see, although sometimes interesting things happen in three-way races, particularly ones where the other two candidates are going head to head.
Craig County, part of Roanoke County, Botetourt County, Alleghany County, Covington, Rockbridge County, Lexington, Buena Vista, part of Augusta County, Staunton and Waynesboro — plus two voters in Bedford County
Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt County, is the Republican nominee. He will face Democrat Jade Harris in a district that voted 68% Republican in 2021.
Roanoke, part of Roanoke County, Salem, part of Montgomery County
Two Roanoke city council members —Trish White-Boyd and Luke Priddy — along with DeAnthony “DA” Pierce are seeking the Democratic nomination following the retirement of John Edwards, D-Roanoke. The winner of the June 20 primary will face state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, in a district that voted 54.7% Republican in 2021.
Franklin County, Henry County, Martinsville, Patrick County, Carroll County, Galax, Floyd County, Grayson County and part of Wythe County
Deborah “Renie” Gates is the Democratic nominee against state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, in a district that voted 74.9% Republican in 2021. Of note: Gates is the daughter of Quesenberry, the Democratic candidate in the House district to oppose either March or Williams.
Pittsylvania County, Danville, Halifax County, Mecklenburg County, Nottoway County, Charlotte County, Lunenburg County and part of Prince Edward County
Trudy Berry is the Democratic candidate against state Sen. Frank Ruff, R-Mecklenburg County, in a district that voted 65.29% Republican in 2021.
Part of Hanover County, Powhatan County, part of Louisa County, Goochland County, Fluvanna County, Appomattox County, Buckingham County, Amelia County, Cumberland County, part of Prince Edward County and part of Henrico County
This feels like a district in the Richmond exurbs but it does extend as far west as Appomattox County so about a quarter of it is in the traditional bounds of Southside. Four candidates are seeking the Republican nomination in a May 6 convention: Duane Adams, Sandy Brindley, Del. John McGuire and Jack Dyer. I noted above that anything can happen in a three-way convention battle, so a four-way convention battle is even more unpredictable, although Brindley has raised considerably less money than any of the other candidates. The winner will face Democrat Jacob Boykin in a district that voted 67.75% Republican in 2021.
Albemarle County, Charlottesville, Nelson County, Amherst County and part of Louisa County
Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, and state Sen. Creigh Deeds, formerly D-Bath County but now D-Charlottesville, face off in a June 20 primary. This will be one of the most closely watched primaries in the state because one way or another, an incumbent will lose. The winner will face Republican Philip Hamilton and independent J’riah Guerrero in a district that voted 58.5% Democratic in 2021.
Suffolk, Isle of Wight County, part of Portsmouth, Southampton County, Brunswick County, Greensville County, Emporia, Franklin city, part of Dinwiddie County, part of Chesapeake
While this district is far from my central premise about the western part of the state, I’m including it anyway because we’ve been covering it — partly because of the legal fight over the method of nomination. Cardinal’s Markus Schmidt covered the court case that resulted in a judge ruling in favor of a primary to pick the Republican nominee. That will pit Del. Emily Brewer of Suffolk against Hermie Sadler of Emporia; the winner will face Del. Clint Jenkins, D-Suffolk.
That’s 13 women running in our coverage area, which is more than I can ever remember and my memory goes back further than I wish. How many of them will still be in the running once nominations are set? And how many will win in November? And how many will wind up like Helen Henderson, who now has a section of highway in Buchanan County named in her honor?