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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Researching Carolyn B Shelton, Oregon's Acting Governor in 1909: "a woman can conduct the affairs of a Governor's office as well as a man can."

A number of sources (Portland State's Center for Women, Politics and Policy's page of Oregon women's "firsts" and most thoroughly Finn J.D. John on his "Offbeat Oregon" site) credit Oregon with having the first female governor in the nation in 1909, three years before women in the state achieved the right to vote.

Carolyn B. Shelton served as "acting governor" for one weekend in her capacity as secretary to outgoing Governor George Chamberlain. Chamberlain had been elected to the US Senate from Oregon, and needed to travel to Washington, D.C., the weekend of Friday, February 26 to be sworn in on time on Monday, March 1. Because Oregon has no lieutenant governor traditional practice was for the governor's private secretary to act as "acting governor" when the governor was absent. But this 1909 situation created notice because it was the first time that the secretary was a woman. And as Finn J.D. John points out, Shelton went to Washington, D.C. to serve as secretary to Chamberlain as senator, and then married him in 1926.

I decided to try to trace more of this history and to see how the press represented Shelton as a woman, a worker, and a temporary office holder and what happened in her life thereafter. Thanks to the fabulous Oregon Digital Newspaper program and other great sources, I'll be sharing the very interesting results across the next several posts.

"Mrs Shelton Will Act as Governor," Oregonian, February 12, 1909, 1.
The first coverage came on February 12, 1909 in the Oregonian. As you can see, this Republican paper reported favorably on this Democratic governor's actions and on Shelton herself. The Oregonian reported that Shelton, the senator's stenographer, would become private secretary "when the present private secretary becomes Circuit Judge in Multnomah Court." Noting the practice of having the private secretary "conduct the work of the office in the Governor's name," the report confirmed that "the precedent will be followed even though a woman holds the position of private secretary." Shelton, the paper noted, had been stenographer for Chamberlain for many years "and is very competent in a position of that kind. The Governor will have no hesitancy is leaving her in charge of the office during his trip to the National Capital."

The next day the Oregonian featured a picture and an interview with Shelton and with Governor Chamberlain.

Oregonian, February 13, 1909, 7.

"Knows Her Duties," Oregonian, February 13, 1909, 7.

Shelton announced that her policy would be "to treat everyone with the same courtesy that has been accorded visitors to the executive office in the past" and promised to "perform all the duties that usually fall to the Governor" and that she did not "intend to issue any pardons." She used the interview to affirm that this was an opportunity to demonstrate gender equality. "I shall try to show that a woman can conduct the affairs of a Governor's office as well as a man can."

Chamberlain noted that he had worked with Shelton for some time, first when she served as stenographer for his law firm Chamberlain & Thomas beginning in 1895 and then as she transferred to the governor's office as stenographer in 1902. Chamberlain praised her abilities and the range of her skills. "In the law office she was as useful as a young lawyer would have been in preparing papers and looking after office business," he noted. "Since coming to Salem she has not only performed a large part of the stenographic work, but has ably assisted the private secretary in his work." And she was shrewd and diplomatic. "She has been not only a faithful woman in her work, but has been tactful in her intercourse with persons who have business in the executive office."

More on the unfolding story in the next post.

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