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Duckler: For these three women, a woman’s work was never done

  • Maude Ferguson was the first female state senator, serving in 1931 and '32 in New Hampshire. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Farnum and Doe

  • State Sen. Martha Fuller Clark stands with Secretary of State William Gardner in his office. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff


Thursday, March 02, 2017

For too long, a house downtown has sorely needed a woman’s touch.

Don’t take this the wrong way. I’m not referring to flowers or throw pillows or other items stereotypically connected to females. I’m talking about respect and historical significance. I’m talking about honoring and paying tribute, about giving credit where credit is due.

I’m talking about the portraits of three important women, all of whom belong on the walls at the State House, and might get there soon. Right beside portraits of all those men already hanging around.

Their names are Dr. Mary Farnum of Boscawen; Jessie Doe, a Rollinsford native who later lived in Concord; and E. Maude Ferguson of Bristol. The three women served in the state Legislature in the 1920s and ’30s, when women didn’t do things like that, ever.

Recently, the full Senate passed the bill on Ferguson, and a House committee voted in favor of the measure on Doe and Farnum. But until the process is done, the big house on North Main Street is devoid of some history.

“It’s not exactly varied all that much when you walk around there,” said Rep. Renny Cushing, a Democrat from Hampton. “It looks like an all-boys club for the most part.”

Cushing and Sen. Martha Fuller Clark of Portsmouth are the primary sponsors behind this ongoing legislation. By June, the votes from both chambers might be final, meaning an artist, paid by private donations, will be needed to paint the likenesses of these pioneers.

Farnum and Doe were the first females elected to the House, just months after women were granted the right to vote in 1920. Ferguson was our first female state senator, serving 11 years later.

Still, as 1980s disco group the Weather Girls once sang, it’s raining men, at least over at the State House. Down each straightaway. Around every corner. All over that hallowed place.

There are 208 paintings on the walls of leaders who have shaped the Granite State. Eight are women. Does that seem right?

“Women work hard to bring people together, and we’ve been looking to move things forward and find solutions,” Fuller Clark said by phone. “So why not celebrate those very early women who played a role legislatively? No one has paid attention to them until now. It’s long overdue.”

The current lineup of portraits features Harriet Patience Dame; Mary Baker Eddy; Hilda Brungot; Caroline Gross; Vesta Roy; Jeanne Shaheen, Donna Sytek; and Marilla Ricker.

Ricker illustrates how lip service is sometimes paid to women, minus passionate feelings to put money where mouth is.

Ricker linked arms with Susan B. Anthony in the 19th century, joining her at the first National Woman Suffrage Association convention in New York City.

It took only about 150 years to include Ricker on that Wall of Fame, and still, there were obstacles. Cushing pushed for legislation in the 1990s, when Shaheen was our first female governor. The measure passed, then collected dust on a shelf, on financial life support, before Cushing brought it back into governmental consciousness three years ago.

Then, finally, money was raised by the New Hampshire League of Women Voters and the New Hampshire Women’s Bar Association. The groups joined forces and collected about $10,000 needed for the project.

Ricker’s portrait found its home in May of last year.

“I have to give Renny Cushing credit for drafting that bill,” said Liz Tentarelli, the president of the state’s league of women voters the past six years. “He reintroduced it after nothing was done. He’s constantly bringing to our attention to some of the early women who led in government.”

Cushing is at it again. With the bicentennial of the State House two years away and the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, coming in 2020, Cushing figured it was time to infiltrate the good-ol’-boys world inside the State House.

He proposed portraits of Doe and Farnum, while Fuller Clark lobbied for Ferguson. “I thought it would be a good time to recognize these pioneering women in the state,” Cushing told me.

Their pasts deserve praise.

Doe, a Republican, and Farnum, a Democrat, were not even on the November 1920 ballot for the House. Not less than three months after passage of the 19th Amendment. At a time when voters weren’t even sure that women had the right to hold office.

When, as Cushing noted, “The only time women were allowed in the chamber was for committee clean-up after the men had met. It was stressful for them. They were from different political parties, and they found common ground and common interests, more unified by their gender experiences than by party.”

Somehow they won their write-in campaigns.

“You had to get used to the idea of women voting, and at the same time support women running for office,” Tentarelli said. “To me, that is terribly exciting, their independence of spirit, their gumption.”

In 1931, with the House trail already blazed, Ferguson became the first woman in state history to serve in the Senate. Fuller Clark led the effort to have Ferguson’s likeness included in the State House.

Finding information, however, proved difficult for the both of us, and I was saddened to break the news to her that Ferguson had shot and killed herself on June 23, 1932, preventing her from reaching her full potential as a politician.

She was found in her garden in Bristol, a revolver by her side. The Monitor reported that Ferguson “had been ill for some time and had for that reason remained away from the Republican National Convention to which she was elected as a delegate at large.”

It wasn’t clear if Ferguson’s physical condition led to her suicide at age 48. What remains clear, however, is that these three women tossed aside the societal rule book and found themselves outside the home and outside the box.

Doe died in 1943 at age 56, Farnum in 1964 at age 95. Both died in Concord. All three are looking for a new home in that very same city.

The one in need of a woman’s touch.