History Behind Women Running For Office In Nebraska

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November 2, 2018 - 6:45am

There has been a focus on the increased number of women running for elected office across the country this election cycle. The “Pink Wave,” as it’s been called, is undeniable – 67 percent more women are running this year compared to 2016. 

1992 was widely considered the “Year of the Woman,” when 127 women won major party nominations for races for Congress. This year more than 527 women across the country are running for Congress.

Notable Women in Nebraska who've run for office:


1920 (The first year women were eligible to run for statewide office):


Marie Weekes finished in 3rd place, with 22 percent of the vote, in the race for Nebraska's 3rd Congressional District.

Catherine McGeer lost the race to fill the 1st District seat in Nebraska's Legislature, but notched 35 percent of the vote.

Emma MeServey lost in the 28th District state house race.

Rhoda Bauer finished 5th out of 6th candidates in the race to fill the seat in Nebraska's 10th state house district.



Mabel Gillespie became the first woman elected as a legislator in Nebraska, winning a seat in the House of the state’s then-two house legislature. (District 7) Gillespie served until 1937.



Eva Bowring was Nebraska's first woman on the U.S. Senate. She was appointed by President Dwight Eisenhower to occupy an open seat left by Dwight Griswold, who died. She served eight months. Bowring once expressed hope that her Senate colleagues would “remember I’m just a girl from cow country.” A note from house.gov says: "Bowring was sworn in as the first Nebraska woman to serve in Congress on April 26, 1954, for the term that would end, according to state law, at the next general election. In November 1954 a candidate would be selected to finish out the final two months of Griswold’s term, as well as a successor to the full six-year term starting in the 84th Congress."

Hazel Abel was elected to serve the unfinished term, which lasted two months.



Virginia D. Smith becomes the first woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Nebraska.



Deb Fischer became the third woman to serve on the U.S. Senate from Nebraska and the first since 1954.


Here in Nebraska, nearly a quarter of the people on statewide ballots will be women. All of these women have different stories and different backgrounds, which led them to seek office. 14 women are running for a seat in the Nebraska Legislature. One of them is Megan Hunt, who is running for Legislative District 8 in Omaha. She thinks we would be looking at a “Pink Wave” differently had President Trump not been elected.

"I think it would be a very different conversation we're having if Hillary Clinton had won in 2016, for example," Hunt said.

Hunt said she was hoping to ride a wave of “resurgent feminine strength“ this year. 

"And instead a lot of campaigns right now are more reactionary to the extremist policies and our presidential administration rather than maybe run on a more positive motivation," Hunt said.

Hunt said when talking about women running for political office, some people think it’s like a big slumber party.

"Like, we’re braiding each others' hair," Hunt said. "We're professional candidates, we’re professional women who come from a variety of backgrounds. We try to collaborate when we can, we're trying to form relationships and stand together and stand up for each other. But at the same time, it's not like a girls vs boy thing. It's not like we're on teams."

Another woman running for the open seat in District 8 is Mina Davis. She is both black and Filipino. Being a minority and a woman, she said she has a more complex role as a candidate.

The 1924 Nebraska state candidate filing book. Mabel Gillespie was the first woman elected to the House of the Nebraska Legislature. In 1925, Nebraska had two houses in the state legislature. (All historical materials courtesy of Nebraska State Historical Society. Photo by Brandon McDermott, NET News)

She’s received racist and misogynistic private messages during the campaign and some of those messages came from people within her own party. Davis said when people talk about women running for office, people of color get even more marginalized.

"Sometimes white women are not respectful of communities color and I think, 'This...this is not a Disney story!' I don't do it," Davis said.

Davis is a data scientist working in retail to make ends meet. She said being a woman of color only adds to the challenges of running for elected office. She said with her campaign she’s focused on hard truths and that has been tough for some people – even within her own party. 

"I didn't come to play," Davis said. "I come to highlight and be honest because someone told me once ‘be more positive!’ And what, I said ‘Lie to people? Lie about what's going on?’ No, they want the truth."

Davis said having women represented in politics is important to a strong democracy.

Jody Neathery-Castro is an associate professor of political science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She said research shows women who run for office do play by a different set of rules – she said women are judged for how they look and what they wear and are often penalized for having ambition.

"It's the idea of being qualified but looking like you've got all these other kinds of interests going on and (being) more multifaceted," Neathery-Castro said.

Nancy Bocskor is currently launching the center for women in politics and public policy at Texas Woman’s University. She has worked in campaigns of more than 100 members of Congress across the country. She agreed -- women play by a different set of rules. But she also thinks women have come a long way in a short time. In Nebraska she’s worked with Republican candidates; the first was Nancy Hoch, who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 1984. Bocskor said when she arrived, Nebraska was considered a populist-Democratic state in the early 1980s.

Irene C. Buell from Ashland ran unsuccesfully for the Nebraska Legislature in 1922. (Photo by Brandon McDermott, NET News)

To her point, both of Nebraska’s U.S. senators and Governor Bob Kerrey were all Democrats. In 1986, Kerrey decided not to run for re-election. The eventual winners of the primaries the following year were Democrat Helen Boosalis and Republican Kay Orr – two women.

"It was the first time in American history that two women had been nominated by their respective parties to be governor of their state," Bocsker said.

Nebraskans elected Kay Orr, making her the state’s first female governor, and the nation’s first Republican female governor. Bocskor said that race illustrated Nebraska’s “pioneer spirit,” which she said goes back to the Homestead Acts of the 1860s. Homesteaders were given land and they were expected to care for it for seven years and by necessity that meant men and women.

"When the Homestead Act passed it was the first time in American history that gender was not mentioned in the law – it wasn’t only men, only white men can have land – anyone could homestead," Bocsker said."

Many women, like Mrs. John Harold Brunson, didn't have first names listed. (Photo by Brandon McDermott, NET News)

Bocskor also said a big part of the push for women’s suffrage happened in Midwestern states where the Homestead Acts were bringing women alongside men to farm and ranch the land. As women have gained rights in America, she said it’s easy to lose sight of what women fought for.

"Women need to sometimes step back and go, ‘O.K., yes there are problems here, but we have the ability to run for office -- and have a voice.’ Where most women – and I've worked in 28 countries, my specialty is women's civic and political engagement – where women have no rights," Bocsker said.

In some countries, Bocskor said she’s seen candidates’ husbands and other family members killed – an act of intimidation – that forces the female candidates out of the race. She said it’s important women running for office today keep in mind what all those who came before them did to make that possible.  

"I want women to reflect on what women actually went through from 1848 to 1920, a lot of women don't know all the struggles," Bocsker said.

Bocsker said the women’s march in 2017 has had a positive impact on the number of women running for office around the country and in Nebraska. She wants women running this year to carry the torch as well as remember the past.




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