A Long Legacy of Women Have Changed Politics in Cincinnati and Ohio for the Better

Fighting battles is something every woman in politics can understand, but there is still work to do, say Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, State Rep. Jean Schmidt and former Cincinnati councilwoman Yvette Simpson

click to enlarge Potter Stewart U.S. Courthouse in Cincinnati. - Photo: public domain
Photo: public domain
Potter Stewart U.S. Courthouse in Cincinnati.

You may not recognize Florence Ellinwood Allen’s name, but you should.

In 1922 — just two years after white women were given the right to vote by the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — Allen was elected as a justice to the Supreme Court of Ohio, becoming the first woman on the highest court in any state.

Allen, who grew up in Cleveland, had been the only woman in a class of 100 men at the University of Chicago’s Law School in 1909, relocating there after Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve University) refused her admission to its law school because she was a woman.

After later finishing her legal studies at New York University’s Law School in 1913 and graduating second in her class, Allen did not receive any offers from prominent New York law firms like her male classmates did. But she returned to Cleveland and rose through the Ohio courts, due largely to her intellect and support from multitudes of friends and colleagues. 

Today, Allen’s portrait hangs in Courtroom 607 West of the Potter Stewart U.S. Courthouse in Cincinnati, her watchful eye and pinned-up hair holding court, which she did for years.

The portrait, paid for by lawyers, judges, Allen’s family members and the Ohio State Bar Association, hangs as a reminder.

Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, Ohio State Representative Jean Schmidt and former Cincinnati councilwoman Yvette Simpson have benefited from the trail Allen blazed.  

Women who serve in elected office in Ohio are indebted to Allen, whether they know it or not.

According to a June 2019 article in the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Ohio House of Representatives hit a record number of female lawmakers in 2019, with 27 of the 99 seats occupied by women. 

Schmidt is one of these women in the state’s House of Representatives, a spot she has held since last year. Schmidt, 69, represents Ohio’s 65th district, and she is the first woman to represent the Cincinnati area in the House.

Schmidt says she fell in love with politics during college, when she first became involved with the Republican Party. After graduating, she worked a number of odd jobs, but her path to elected office was not without obstacles before being elected as a Miami Township trustee in 1989.

“The Township Trustees never wanted to spend over $999 because then they have to report how they spent the money,” Schmidt says. “So I helped them get elected, and one of them died in office. I wanted the spot, but I didn't get it. The next day, I received a call and it was from the chairman who said, ‘Jean, look, I think you're more than well qualified for this. But we have union negotiations and a woman can't handle that.’”

The chairman claimed that his comments weren’t male chauvinism, but Schmidt felt otherwise.

Women in public office have long dealt with comments like that, says Simpson, former Cincinnati city councilwoman and current CEO of Democracy for America. She recalls times when her own peers, often other women, would tell her she couldn’t do something because of her gender or race.

“[It happens] all the time,” Simpson says. “Sometimes it was ‘Oh, it's not your turn.’ You know, ‘This isn’t the right time, maybe you should wait.’ And I got a lot of that from women--white women, a lot of women. I don't know how much of that was protecting me, because they knew what was coming.”

Simpson, a Black woman, grew up in a Lincoln Heights housing project and says her childhood gave her a blend of fear and motivation that drives her today.

“Some kids just live with the fear, and they can never escape it, and a sense of defeat, like it's never going to get better,” Simpson says. “And some kids have the motivation, and maybe they lose the fear over time. I have maintained a healthy balance of fear and motivation my entire life from growing up poor.”

She first knew that she wanted to be a lawyer when she was eight years old. She went to the library with a friend and found a series of books called I Want to Be. Each book featured a different career, but Simspon fixated on the I Want to Be A Lawyer edition. She saw the cover of a man in a suit standing in front of a judge, and said, “That will be me, but I’ll be wearing a skirt.”

Simpson fulfilled that goal of becoming an attorney after earning her undergraduate degree at Miami University and juris doctorate at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. While studying there, she met Verna Williams, who has been the dean of the law school since 2001. Williams was a professor when Simpson met her and became almost like a therapist to her, Simpson says.

Many women in politics have benefited from a mentor or guidance from those who came before them. Schmidt recalls a story about Lindy Boggs, former member of the U.S. House of Representatives and mother to journalist Cokie Roberts. Boggs, who served in the House from 1973 to 1991, was dismayed to realize that there were no restrooms in Congress for women, says Schmidt. All of the Congresswomen used one of the men’s restrooms. 

That didn’t cut it for Boggs. 

There was an unused room in the rotunda (formerly the Speaker’s Lounge), so Boggs went to the House Administration and asked for control of the room, Schmidt says. The committee agreed but told her she would have to clean it up. Other rooms became women’s restrooms, but Boggs and a group of women flipped the former Speaker’s lounge into what it is today: a respite from being a female Congress member.

Schmidt says that there is a section in the room to take a nap and a makeup table. All of the women who have served in Congress have their name and picture on the wall.

“Leave it to women,” Schmidt says.

Whaley, who was elected as the mayor of Dayton, Ohio, in 2013, ran unopposed for reelection in the 2017 race.

“To run unopposed as a mayor is a big deal, and it doesn’t happen very often,” Whaley says. “Everybody was like, ‘Hey, we’re good with the way the city’s going with our leadership.’ I was surprised.”

Before becoming mayor, Whaley was chosen for a commission seat for the city of Dayton in 2005 when she was 29 years old, becoming the youngest woman ever chosen for a commission seat in Dayton. Although Whaley has now been at City Hall for 16 years, she is still the youngest of any elected official at 45 years old.

Whaley hopes to become the second woman to serve as Ohio’s Governor, announcing in April her decision to run for the state’s highest elected position. The first was Nancy Hollister, who served briefly in 1998.

Simpson, who is 42, has had a similar experience of being the youngest in the room but says her race has always been a bigger factor than her age. In fact, she says any experience that Simpson has had as a woman in politics has been amplified by being a Black woman in politics.

“[Sometimes] my power as a Black woman [is] perceived as a negative,” Simpson says. “The hardest part is when it comes from other women. They think they’re helping [me], but they’re not.”

Simpson has tried to reverse this cycle, though, by “resetting” the table for the female politicians who will follow in her footsteps.

Despite the setbacks that Schmidt, Whaley and Simpson say they have faced in their paths to elected positions in Ohio, they predict that the future for women in politics is bright.

Schmidt taught at Chatfield College for many years and says that she’s seen more women become involved at the grassroots level than ever before. She adds that she wants the government to be a 50-50 split between men and women and believes that the younger generation of women are more independent than ever.

Whaley says that getting involved in politics when you’re young is one of the most important things to do for someone hoping to someday hold an elected office. “You can learn how the system works just by volunteering,” Whaley says.

Simpson says that being optimistic is key, and she encourages women in office now to inspire others to get involved.

“I think there's always this generational thing where, as you get older, you become that person that's holding the next generation,” Simpson says. “We can’t ruin it for [the next] generation. [They] will do just fine if we set the table for [them]. And we go out front. And we do the battles for you the right way. And we make space for your voice. And we allow you to do it your way and not tell you that this is the way you should have done especially if that is completely wrong.”

Fighting battles is something every woman in politics can understand, but there is still work to do. But in 1922, Florence Ellinwood Allen might not have imagined how far women would go in Ohio or national politics. Even now, with female mayors, representatives and council members finding their way into these roles, it is exciting to consider where we will be in another 100 years.

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