More than a decade before American women won the right to vote, a 32-year-old woman stepped into the role of governor of Oregon, becoming the first woman to assume high state office. While she was only housekeeper for a weekend and her impact on the state was minimal, the fact that Carrie B. Shelton served as the state’s chief executive helped to enforce attendance. women in politics and added to the call for women’s suffrage.
Shelton never actively sought out the governorship, but was rather well placed when circumstances left the post open. On Saturday February 27, 1909, Governor George Chamberlain of Oregon resigned his post before boarding a train across the country. He was traveling to Washington, DC to be sworn in as a United States Senator. Although Chamberlain has yet to complete his second term as governor, he was due to be in the capital on March 4 to be sworn in with the rest of the freshman senatorial class. If he arrived late, each member would have seniority on him.
Under Oregon law, Secretary of State Frank W. Benson would normally have assumed the role of acting governor over the weekend. However, Benson was too ill to intervene immediately. This left Chamberlain’s private secretary, Shelton, the next natural successor to take the governor’s office over the next 48 hours. Meanwhile, Benson would have time to recuperate before being sworn in on Monday morning.
READ MORE: A timeline of the fight for all women’s suffrage
This is how Shelton became the first female governor of the United States – 11 years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920, women had the right to vote. In his brief role as governor, Shelton had the power to veto bills and sign executive orders – all before he could legally vote.
Shelton’s great-great-niece genealogist Anne Mitchell has spent years collecting documents on her family history as well as many surviving Shelton possessions, which she donated to the Willamette Heritage Center.
“She could handle things on her own and was extremely knowledgeable,” Mitchell says of Shelton. She says unfortunately there is little documentation left on Shelton’s time in power.
WATCH: The 19th Amendment
A tragic past
Born Carrie Bertha Skiff in 1876 to Willis and Mary Skiff, Shelton spent her early years in Union County, Oregon. On the night of July 24, 1886, her father mysteriously disappeared while waiting to board a train to return home. Two years later, her mother passed away, leaving Carrie with her siblings Nolan and Mabel, orphans. The trio were briefly left in the care of their older brother Orrin and his wife Elizabeth. This arrangement did not work and they were then left in the custody of a local lawyer, John W. Shelton.
Carrie’s relationship with her guardian became the center of controversy when Mr. Shelton filed for divorce from his wife, who was at the time visiting family in California. After crossing the border to Weiser, Idaho, Carrie, 16, married Shelton on October 27, 1892. The marriage did not last long as her husband passed away just a month before his 18th birthday.
Shelton’s career in law and politics
In 1895 Shelton accepted a job as a stenographer at a Portland law firm. A diligent worker and a quick learner, her talents caught the attention of Chamberlain, a lawyer and politician who gave her responsibilities usually reserved for young lawyers, such as preparing legal papers.
Shelton continued to work as Chamberlain’s stenographer after being elected to the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office in 1900, then joined him in Salem after being elected Governor of Oregon in 1902.
During her tenure as governor, Chamberlain promoted her as his private secretary, a title which until then had been held by men. Shelton later discussed his experience with Oregon Sunday in 1914:
“It wasn’t the office that had grown so much, it was its legal significance. So when the senator first left after taking the oath of office as governor of Oregon, I suddenly found that I was, so to speak, in his shoes, and that I was truly ‘Madame the Governor ‘.
On March 1, 1909, Benson was sworn in as governor. Shelton then moved to Washington, DC to work as Chamberlain’s private secretary and oversee a staff of at least three clerks, according to official records at the time.
Oregon grants women the right to vote in 1912
In 1913, Shelton marched in Washington, DC alongside his fellow suffragists. After the women of Oregon gained the right to vote in 1912, The national magazine referred to his run as governor in a May 1913 issue:
“When the suffragists came to Capitol Hill on April 7 to present their petition in the Senate building, there was one among them who enjoyed the unique distinction of having been governor of a state and a Commonwealth. Although the state of Oregon recently passed “votes for women,” one of the sweetest in sex has already served as a general manager. “
Shelton continued to work as Chamberlain’s right-hand man and stayed by his side after suffering a paralytic stroke. They married on July 12, 1926, but she was once again widowed when he died two years later. Returning home to Oregon to live with her family, Carrie Bertha Chamberlain died on February 3, 1936.
“Shelton’s role in the suffrage movement gained more attention after arriving in Washington DC, resuming her post as Chamberlain’s private secretary and later appointed clerk of the Public Lands Committee,” says Kaylyn F. Mabey, research assistant at the Willamette Heritage Center.
“We glean from the newspapers about the large number of female visitors she has received and their insistence on calling her a ‘governor’ out of respect for the post she held, however briefly.
WATCH: Susan B. Anthony: Rebel for the Cause in HISTORY Vault