RICHMOND — A singer crooned “La Paloma” as a Norfolk crowd showered two “legislative debutantes” with flowers and sent them off to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1924.
Sarah Lee Fain and Helen T. Henderson were the first women elected to the General Assembly. To celebrate, the Democratic Women’s Club organized a bon voyage party at Roane’s Old Colonial Tea Room in Norfolk.
Virginians can now explore the history of who has served in the House, which is marking its 400th anniversary as America’s first law-making body. The House Clerk’s Office has launched an online database dubbed DOME (Database of House Members), chronicling the people elected to the House of Delegates or its predecessor, the House of Burgesses, over the past four centuries.
Set against today’s national conversation over gender equality, the database shows a stark disparity: It contains more than 9,000 men — but just 91 women.
Database reflects state’s political players
The ambitious, years-long project offers biographical and legislative information on every delegate as well as information on House speakers, clerks, legislative sessions and Capitol locations.
From 1619, when the House of Burgesses met in Jamestown, until 1923, the legislative body was all-male. Since Fain and Henderson joined the House in 1924, the number of female delegates didn’t crack double digits until 1983, when there were 11 women in the House. The number stayed in the teens through 2017.
But that year, a record number of women were elected to the General Assembly, taking 11 seats formerly held by men. As a result, 28 women currently serve in the 100-member House.
Glass ceilings, then color barriers
Sixty years after Henderson and Fain shattered the glass ceiling, Yvonne Miller of Norfolk broke the color barrier. She became the first African-American woman elected to the House in 1984 and the first elected to the Senate four years later. Miller died in office in July 2012.
In an interview with the Library of Virginia, Miller said other legislators initially thought she was a maid and told her as much. She said she realized those delegates who offended her were “operating on their history.” Miller said she had to figure out how to interact with those who did not respect her simply because of her race.
Miller called her time in the General Assembly exciting and said she thoroughly enjoyed politics. “I have enough wins to keep it interesting,” she said. “I have a lot of losses to keep me humble.”
‘Long overdue’ project may inspire more research
Laura van Assendelft, a professor of political science at Mary Baldwin University in Staunton, Virginia, called the DOME project “long overdue.”
“The typically limited and inconsistent availability of data at the state and local levels is such a source of frustration for scholars in the state and local subfield,” she said. Van Assendelft said she believes the database will inspire more research into the history of women in Virginia’s government.
Brian Daugherity, a U.S. history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said that when completed, DOME will help citizens “see the ways in which participation in the state’s decision-making processes has expanded over time — a reminder of the importance of ensuring access for all.”
G. Paul Nardo, the clerk of the Virginia House of Delegates, said he welcomes contributions from the public to help write the “ongoing history of the House of Delegates and those who have been elected to serve in it.” He said the database will be officially released this spring.
More women and more diversity in the House
The history of women in Virginia politics is still being written.
“But if I do anything worthwhile in the General Assembly,” Fain declared in 1924, “to the women will belong the credit.”
In 2017, the House of Delegates saw an increase not only in the number of women but also in other diversity.
Danica Roem of Prince William County became Virginia’s first transgender legislator. Hala Ayala and Elizabeth Guzman also won House seats in Prince William County, becoming the first Latinas elected to the House.
Kathy Tran’s win in Fairfax County made her the first Asian-American woman to serve in the Virginia General Assembly. And Dawn Adams of Richmond was elected as the first openly lesbian legislator.
By Rosemarie O’Connor