Rhoda Graves was active in Republican politics in 1917 when New York passed women’s suffrage. When it became the law of the land in 1920, it made the possibility of holding elective office an attractive option for some women.
In 1921, Rhoda’s close friend, ten-year assemblyman Frank Seaker, retired from public office, and William Laidlaw, nominated to replace him, served for the next three years. It’s not clear what the machinations were behind Laidlaw’s decision not to run for another term, but there’s no doubt the big announcement that followed was the work of Rhoda, Perle (her husband), Frank Seaker, and supporters among party leaders. Seeking the GOP nomination for an Assembly position was none other than Rhoda Graves of Gouverneur — a woman!
The news sent shockwaves through the ranks of northern Republicans. Said the Gouverneur Free Press: “She claims that Congressman Snell, the Republican boss, was not consulted in the matter, and much less, he did not know anything about her candidacy.” But the paper’s coverage dismissed the notion of Graves being elected, beginning with portions of some very lengthy headlines: Mrs. Graves’ Announcement of Candidacy for Member Stirs Politicians to Action; Supervisor Frank L. Scott of Morristown, A Fine Fellow, Has His Hat in the Assembly Ring; … People Do Not Seem to Respond Eagerly to Mrs. Graves’ Candidacy, Although She is Much Esteemed; Feeling Dominant in the County is That the Time Has Not Arrived for This Great Assembly District to Be Represented by a Woman.
From the modern viewpoint of 2019, readers will find the newspaper’s next comments inappropriate and demeaning. “The Free Press has no unkind feeling toward Mrs. Graves. On the contrary, it looks upon her as a very interesting woman, but does not believe that this assembly district … is so far advanced in progressive thought as to submit at the present time to the election of a woman as its representative…. It has many diversified business interests that demand a man’s brain to handle, and such seems to be the feeling throughout the district.”
The ensuing paragraphs heaped praise upon Frank Scott as an excellent choice for the Assembly seat, suggested another male as a possible candidate, but said little else about Mrs. Graves.
The Northern Tribune of Gouverneur took a different stance, detailing her political attributes and noting that, “She was induced to enter the race only after solicitations from the various leaders throughout the district, who have assured her of their united support.”
The truth of the matter lay somewhere in the middle: while most men were mortified at the thought of female political leadership, Rhoda’s strong following among women, who were now voters and no longer sidelined, made her a viable candidate. Canton’s Commercial Advertiser jumped on board, editorializing on “her distinction as the first Northern New York woman to storm the outposts of a new field offered to women — that of lawmaking…. She is a woman of capability and discernment…. Her selection will break down a good deal of the age-old prejudice that still exists even in the North Country against women holding office.”
The same paper ran a headline that sent male party members scrambling to support an alternative candidate: Party Workers Meet at Canton; Republican Women to Become Militant Force in Party Affairs. The Hammond Advertiser greeted her announcement with an open-arms headline: Gouverneur Woman is Candidate for Assembly; Has Strong Political Backing Throughout the County; Is Well Fitted for the Office. The Watertown Standard wrote: “Her merit as a politician is appreciated at state headquarters, where she is listed as one of the best leaders in the state. Mrs. Graves is a natural leader, not only of women, but of men…. She will make a good member of Assembly and … will demonstrate that political and public ability are not monopolized by one sex. The county of St. Lawrence is to be congratulated.”
There were supportive statements from several politicians and prominent county citizens, but plenty of opposition as well, so her run for office was anything but a slam-dunk. After the party primary, she outlined for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle the sequence of events. “I was requested to take the nomination by a number of friends, and although I realized the difficulties that might confront me, I consented…. At the time there were no men in the field, no other candidates, in fact, for the Republican nomination. Up in our district, the primary’s the thing. The district is fairly safe for the Republican nominee.
“Well, shortly after I announced my candidacy, Frank Scott, a lawyer and supervisor in Morristown, came out and said that ‘Anybody could beat a woman.’ Accordingly he entered the lists, and the contest was on.
“A few days before election, after Mr. Scott had spoken throughout the district, he announced in the newspapers that he had found ‘no sentiment in favor of electing a woman to the Assembly.’” And then came her favorite part of the story. “I carried Ogdensburg and every other town in the county save my opponent’s.” She won by an almost two-to-one margin, winning 62 percent of the vote.
Months after that victory, she easily topped the Democratic nominee (by 5,000 votes) and became only the fifth New York State woman elected to the Assembly. It’s worth noting that the four females preceding her were one-termers, and none had been elected during the previous four years. When asked by the Daily Eagle if there was “something that can be done here that the men have failed to do, or that a woman can do better,” her reply, as it turned out, defined all of Rhoda’s future political actions. “No, but I believe women in the Assembly can serve just as well as men. I’m not here to represent only the women in my district. I consider that I represent the interests of both sexes.”
Her new position came with pressure, but it helped that she had spent several winters in Albany when Perle was a clerk under former Assemblyman Seaker, and had at times observed the lawmaking process. Still, as she told the Binghamton Press after a week in office, “It’s all new and strange to me, but I am rapidly getting acquainted — and educated — in legislative matters…. I won’t say anything about my plans until I become acclimated. It’s quite jolly, though, to be here.”
She certainly wasn’t shy for long about speaking out on a number of issues. As co-owner of a dairy farm in an agrarian district, she became a strong spokesperson on milk distribution, farm regulations, and the paving of rural roads (mud season each spring severely hampered the daily transportation of milk and other perishables). Well prior to being elected, she had also decried electric-rate increases by power companies, which became an important issue for her at the state level. Early in her first year of service, she moved to amend the state’s junior-driver’s license age limit of 18 down to 16, successfully argued for the path of a new road being laid in her district, fought against high monthly rates protected by the powerful telephone lobby, and entered a bill making some restricted teacher scholarships available to women as well as men. As the mother of two boys, ages 17 and 15, and a leader of the County Board on Child Welfare, she was alert to family issues impacted by state laws, and was a strong “dry” (in favor of Prohibition’s ban of alcohol).
Just before the legislative session’s closure at the end of March, she entered a memorandum on the development of hydropower on the St. Lawrence, which had been recommended by a joint international committee after several years of study. With no fears of stirring things up in the Assembly, she noted the primary stumbling block: “… the stranglehold which Buffalo has had on all lake commerce. All lake vessels are compelled to break bulk at Buffalo,” she wrote, and banks that financed those operations feared the financial effects of change.
Despite her party’s displeasure with Rhoda for speaking out against the power lobby, she cited her responsibility to district constituents who would benefit greatly by public development of water power that would bring low-cost electricity to North Country residents. Under current conditions, citizens of her district were paying twice the rates available in western New York.
Next week, part 3: coming into her own; and … moving on up?
Photos: Rhoda Fox Graves, Brooklyn Daily Eagle (1925); headlines, Gouverneur Free Press (1924); headlines, Canton Commercial Advertiser (1924); Rhoda F. Graves on left, being sworn into the Assembly, NY Times Mid-Week Pictorial (ca. 1925)