A 32-year-old woman stepped into the role of governor of Oregon more than a decade before American women gained the right to vote. This means she became the first woman to assume a state’s top office. This happened over one weekend, while she served as the only governor, her impact on the state was minimal, but the fact that Carrie B. Shelton served as the state’s chief executive helped garner respect for women’s participation in politics and added to the call for women’s suffrage.
She never actively sought the governorship, but instead was just in the right place when circumstances left the position open. Governor George Chamberlain of Oregon resigned from office on Saturday, February 27, 1909, and boarded a train cross-country. He was on his way to Washington, D.C., to be sworn in as a U.S. Senator. Though he hadn’t yet finished his second term as governor, it was important that he was in the capital by March 4 to be sworn in along with the rest of the freshman senate class. If he arrived late, the other members would have seniority over him. By Oregon law, Secretary of State Frank W. Benson would typically have assumed the role of acting governor over the weekend. But Benson was too sick to step in immediately, which meant that Chamberlain’s private secretary, Shelton, was the next natural successor to take the governor’s office for the next 48 hours. Meanwhile, Benson would have time to recover before being sworn in on Monday morning. This is how Shelton became America’s first female governor—11 years before August 18, 1920, ratification of the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote. In her brief role as governor, Shelton had the power to veto bills and sign executive orders—all before she could legally cast a ballot. Genealogist Anne Mitchell, a great-great-niece of Shelton, spent years collecting documents on her family history as well as many of Shelton’s surviving possessions, which she donated to the Willamette Heritage Center. Unfortunately, little documentation remains about Shelton’s time in office. In 1913, Shelton marched in Washington, D.C. alongside fellow suffragists after women in Oregon were granted the right to vote in 1912.