Calling the America of the early 20th century a “man’s world” is an understatement. In most of the country, women were not considered full citizens. The march toward women’s suffrage — and the rights that came with it — was slowly moving ahead. But setbacks were common. In Oregon, women found themselves once again shut out of the larger political process. In the fall of 1908, the state’s male electorate dealt the suffragists one of the most resounding blows in their long battle for voting rights. Men overwhelmingly voted against granting suffrage to women. It was the movement’s fourth defeat since 1884. Meanwhile, a young woman in the state’s capital was quietly making political history. On a Saturday morning in February 1909, Carolyn B. Shelton took a seat at the Oregon governor’s desk in Salem. She was the nation’s first female governor.
“I shall try to show that a woman can conduct the affairs of a Governor’s office as well as a man can,” the 32-year-old told The Morning Oregonian a few days earlier.
Shelton was in charge of the state three years before she earned the right to vote in its elections. It took another 11 years for women nationwide to finally earn the same right with the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
Shelton was the most powerful woman in the nation for a moment. But her time in office was short-lived, and her story remains largely unknown.