Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn on Sunday deflected criticism of her party's opposition to equal pay laws by pointing to its historical support for women's suffrage. We checked, and her claims are largely true. But as with the common "Abraham Lincoln was Republican" defense used to rebut criticisms of GOP positions on racial issues, it doesn't mean a whole lot. Perhaps there should be a statute of limitations on good deeds in politics.
Blackburn appeared on Face the Nation on Sunday to discuss both the resignation of Kathleen Sebelius as Health and Human Services Secretary and Republican opposition to Obama administration policies aimed at reducing the pay gap between men and women. Host Bob Schieffer asked why Blackburn and her party opposed the measure.
BOB SCHIEFFER: There was a lot of debate on that last week. Finally, Republicans blocked it in the Senate. Are Republicans against equal pay for women? And is that going to be a good political issue in these coming midterm elections?
BLACKBURN: You know, I find this "war on women" rhetoric just almost silly. It is Republicans that have led the fight for women's equality. Go back through history and look at who was the first woman to ever vote, elected to office, go to Congress, four out of five governors—
Blackburn expanded on her response — the party saw the measure as a giveaway to trial lawyers, Obamacare does more harm to women, etc. But it's worth parsing Blackburn's argument against the "war on women," in part because she was so ready to offer it and in part because it so closely echoes the defense on racial issues. Evaluating the claims:
Republicans led the fight for women's suffrage.
"Republicans … have led the fight for women's equality" isn't a very clear claim, so, looking at Blackburn's next comments, I figured I'd focus on the right to vote. And Blackburn is correct, in that sense.
The passage of the 19th Amendment in 1919 gave women the right to vote, only 130 years or so after the Constitution was ratified. The amendment passed the Senate largely thanks to Republican support. What's more, the party continually introduced an amendment for women's suffrage over the years, as the American Spectator described in 2012. Finally, Republicans gained enough of a majority in Congress to pass the bill.
The first woman ever to vote was a Republican.
Accuracy: Sort of.
Blackburn is probably referring to Susan B. Anthony, very much a leader in the women's suffrage movement and who, in 1872, walked into a polling place and voted, in her words, "the Republican ticket—strait." Anthony's efforts to encourage women to vote — despite not being allowed to do so — helped pave the path for the 19th Amendment.
But the first woman in America to vote legally was probably a Democrat. Marie Ruoff Byrum voted at 7 a.m. on August 31, 1920, 12 days after the amendment was ratified. Byrum was apparently the daughter-in-law of a Democratic committeeman in Missouri. It is not clear the party to which Bynum belonged, but given the evidence at hand, a Democratic vote seems likely.
The first woman elected to Congress was a Republican.
Blackburn is a little vague on the significance of "elected to office, go to Congress," as demonstrations of Republican support for women's rights. But it is true that the first woman to serve in Congress — Jeanette Rankin, representing Montana in the 65th Congress — was a Republican.
Four out of five female governors are Republican.
Wikipedia has a nice graph of female governors over time.
You'll notice, though, that the first female governor was a Democrat. In fact, eight of the first ten were Democrats. So why is the first female member of Congress important, but only the most recent governors count? After all, if you look at the female membership of Congress over time, it looks like this.
That's not flattering to the Republican Party.
This is the problem with using historical analogies. First of all, it's easy to cherry-pick data to bolster your case. Second, as with the role of the Republican party in the Jim Crow South, politics shift. The Democrats that opposed desegregation largely left the Democratic Party. And third, it doesn't actually tell you anything about today.
The Republican Party has an image problem on issues related to black and female voters. Despite Blackburn's best efforts — and historical accuracy — it seems unlikely that appeals to the GOP of 1919 will convince many people.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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