Recognizing inspirational women leaders on Idaho Day

The 4th day of March is Idaho Day, which commemorates the establishment of Idaho Territory by President Abraham Lincoln on March 4, 1863. Former State Representative Linden Bateman proposed celebrating the birth of our great State on that anniversary and Governor Otter signed legislation to do so on March 4, 2014.

The theme of Idaho Day this year is honoring inspirational Idaho women. There have been many in the history of our State, including quite a number during my lifetime.

Gracie Pfost was elected to the U.S. House in 1952 and served five terms in Congress. She was Idaho’s first Congresswoman. Pfost became a major combatant in the fight between private and public power that raged in the 1950s. She earned the nom de guerre “Hell’s Belle” for her unremitting support of a high federal dam in Hells Canyon, instead of the three smaller dams that Idaho Power now operates in the Canyon. She lost the fight but gained a reputation as a tough, straight-talking representative of the people.

In 1962, Pfost narrowly lost her bid for the U.S. Senate seat held by Len Jordan. I voted for Jordan, who later became my boss and mentor, but I had come to admire the courage and determination of Pfost as an elected official who was willing to stand up against one of the most powerful companies in the State for what she believed was right.

When I ran for Idaho Attorney General in 1982, the smart money was on my primary opponent, who was then serving as Ada County Prosecutor. A couple of Payette County Republican women became friends who gave me their support and encouragement to prevail in the race. Mary Hartung and Donna Jones were certainly a source of inspiration in that race. Both went on to provide distinguished service in the Idaho Legislature. Mary served as the first female Director of the Idaho Department of Insurance and Donna was the first woman elected to serve as Idaho State Controller.

My dear friend Lydia Justice Edwards was not the first female State Treasurer, but she was truly a force in that office. When the State Insurance Fund refused to post a bond with her office like other workers compensation insurers, she took them to court and brought them in compliance with the law. She gained national attention by calling out pantyhose makers for taking advantage of women by making shoddy, expensive, short-lived hosiery. When Lydia set her mind to solving a problem, the best thing to do was get out of the way.

In 1984, I was looking for a candidate to replace a State Representative from my home district in Jerome County who was an impediment to resolving the Swan Falls water rights fight with Idaho Power. The first person that came to mind was Maxine Bell, who I had worked with earlier on the Jerome County Central Committee. I knew her to be a smart and pragmatic person who would do the right thing. Unfortunately, she declined, saying she was not sure she could do the job. I thought otherwise.

Four years later, Maxine ran for the position and won. She served with distinction in the Legislature for 30 years. She and State Senator Shawn Keough co-chaired the Legislature’s joint budget-writing committee, leaving their mark on the trajectory of state priorities for many years. They were the first female duo to carry that responsibility in the Legislature.

Cherie Buckner-Webb has represented my legislative district in Boise ever since 2010, first in the House and then in the Senate. She has been an inspiration, both as a legislator and as a role model of compassion and justice. Cherie is Idaho’s first African American state legislator. She is also, by far, the best vocalist, male or female, to serve in the Legislature. Cherie will retire this year and she will be missed.

Idaho has had many remarkable and inspirational women in leadership positions and I’m hoping, for the benefit of our state and nation, that their numbers grow very substantially. The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Idaho’s earlier approval of women’s suffrage may well be the salvation of our form of government.

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