By Breanna Fanta, Editorial Assistant
Mabel Gillespie was one of the first women elected to the Nebraska legislature, and the first to be re-elected, serving five consecutive terms from 1925 to 1935. How did she do it?
A daughter of Danish immigrants, Gillespie was born in Ord. Desiring a different career than most women, she left the Teachers College in Kearney to work for the Omaha Bee, becoming their first female reporter on a regular news beat.
Elected to the legislature in 1924, Gillespie was Nebraska’s first farmer’s wife in the legislature and one of the first three women. Of the three, Gillespie was the only Democrat. From the beginning, she thought that the state suffered from too much legislation. She later stated that “real reforms come slowly; hysterical and radical reforms are useless.”
During her second term, she was the only woman returning to the legislature. Asked if she believed that men preferred voting other men into office, she replied, “The consideration is not of sex at all, but of efficiency and honest purpose while in office.” (She had already demonstrated this in the November 1926 election when she defeated a man who had previously served in the legislature.) Gillespie said that being a good legislator requires “loving” your peers, men or women, because together you can sink or you can swim.
On another occasion, Gillespie was asked if she ever felt lonely as the legislature’s only woman. She replied that she wore the same dress to each of the three occasions “the oath of legislature had been administered.” Gillespie doubted that any male had noticed, but said that if a female had been present, she would have noticed.
In office, Gillespie was a member of the agriculture and miscellaneous committees. Most of her constituents were farmers. She boasted that “the voters of Sarpy County know that any woman who sold 42 dozen eggs to buy a new grate for her kitchen, as I did, will not introduce high tax laws.” Among her goals was to “suppress the food laws” and “vote against extravagant expenditures.” Gillespie’s farming background helped her understand voters in her district, and it was said that her 4,000 constituents voted for her out of faith in her honesty.
One of Gillespie’s early legislative bills was one to improve at least one road leading to and from each state-funded bridge. This was at a time when rural Nebraska had mostly unimproved dirt roads. After this measure, she did little in taking direct action. It was said that she seldom took the floor, “but when she [did], she [delivered] a short and snappy argument.”
Gillespie drew criticism in 1929 when she was re-elected for a third term but initially declined to accept her seat in hopes of being appointed to the state’s Board of Control (a position that would’ve paid $4,000 annually). But state law prohibited persons elected to the legislature from receiving appointments, so a week after the legislative session began, Gillespie accepted her legislative seat. Newspapers said her actions set a bad example that no one, woman or man, should follow.
This wasn’t the first time Gillespie received negative attention. In an earlier campaign, some praised Gillespie’s opponent, Millie Meredith, for her “satisfactory” answer to questions, while disapproving of Gillespie as “wet of record” (meaning that she opposed Prohibition). In 1928, the Nebraska State Journal reported that Gillespie had been “blacklisted” as a public speaker by the Daughters of the American Revolution. The DAR’s nationwide list labeled various individuals as “communist,” “feminist,” or “socialist.” Gillespie was labeled not as socialist, but as “socialistic.” Other Nebraska natives on the list included social reformer Grace Abbott (listed as an “internationalist, feminist, socialistic”) and Harvard Law School Dean Roscoe Pound (“socialist”).
In 1930 a newspaper noted that Gillespie had yet to give a speech from the floor of the legislature. The report praised her for this, saying “sessions would be shorter and accomplish more good if 99 other representatives would follow her oratorical example.”
In February 1932, Gillespie spoke up after Governor Charles Bryan mentioned holding a legislative session to address land re-evaluations. At the time, property values were assessed every four years. Land values had fallen by as much as half, but property owners were still being taxed based on the higher, pre-Great Depression value. Gillespie expressed frustration that she had earlier introduced a bill to re-assess land every two years, long before Bryan expressed interest in the matter.
Though she was not known for speeches in the legislature, in early 1935 Gillespie did a weekly series of political radio broadcasts on Omaha’s WOW station. A month later, in March 1935, before the expiration of her final term in office, she introduced a bill to pay the tuition of soldiers’ and sailors’ children provided by the Temporary School Fund.
Gillespie spent ten years in the state legislature, and in 1944 ran for the US House of Representatives in Nebraska’s Second Congressional District. She defeated Andy Jensen for the Democratic nomination, receiving 5,174 votes to his 4,983. (He requested a recount, but still lost.) Gillespie became the first Nebraska woman to win a Congressional primary. She lost the general election to Republican incumbent Howard Buffett (father of investor Warren Buffett). Her final statement on the election’s outcome was to quote former President Woodrow Wilson: “Only I have failed, my cause has not.”
As a young journalist, Mabel Gillespie had wanted “no soft-cushioned chair in the society department. She wanted nothing to do with assignments that ordinarily would appeal to a woman. She wanted newspaper work as it is done by men and she got it.” As a politician, she set out to make a difference and go beyond the norms: a lady working in a historically man’s field. Her ideas and the support of her constituents won her five consecutive terms in the state legislature, even though she remained quiet during most of her time in office. Though in her silence, she represented that actions can speak louder than words, and that sometimes, less is more.
Top: A portrait of Mable Gillespie.
Bottom: One of Gillespie’s newspaper ads for her campaign; April 6th, 1944 from The Enterprise newspaper.
legislature, women, politics