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Women candidates in Virginia owe this woman
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Women candidates in Virginia owe this woman

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When Republicans meet this weekend to nominate their 2021 ticket, there’s a theoretical chance that they could do something neither party in Virginia has ever done — nominate a slate entirely composed of women.

Don’t count on that. Just based on the sheer number of candidates, it’s more likely the party will nominate an all-male ticket. Still, Republicans have a record number of women running: two of the party’s seven candidates for governor, two of the six candidates for lieutenant governor and one of the four candidates for attorney general. Those five candidates add up to one more female candidate than on the Democratic side.

Whether they realize it or not, all those candidates owe a historical debt to Hazel Barger of Roanoke.

In 1961, she was the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor. She was the first woman nominated by a major party for one of the state’s top three offices. At least three asterisks apply here. Barger wasn’t the first woman to run for statewide office. She wasn’t even the first woman nominated by a major party for statewide office. In 1921, Virginia’s first statewide election after the ratification of the 19th Amendment, there were three women on the ballot. Lillie Davis Custis of Accomac County ran for governor as a Socialist. Republicans that year shamefully purged all Black members from their ranks in a futile bid to become more appealing to white voters. Those Republicans who remained nominated Elizabeth Otey of Lynchburg for superintendent of public instruction, then a position we elected. The ousted Black Republicans nominated their own slate, which included Maggie Walker of Richmond for superintendent of public instruction. All lost, quite badly, but it was still an indication that going forward Virginians could expect to see a lot of women seek public office. Except they didn’t. For decades after 1921, not a single woman tried to seek either the Democratic or Republican nominations for statewide office. Indeed, Barger didn’t seek her nomination, either.

In 1961, Virginia Republicans were still small in number and not taken all that seriously outside the western part of the state where “mountain-valley Republicans” had long challenged the dominance of the Democratic Party, then still controlled by the segregationist machine of Harry F. Byrd Sr. The political poles were reversed then: Republicans were the moderates; the Byrd Democrats were the conservatives, although they were being challenged by upstart liberals.

The governor’s race that year was a forgettable one. The Democratic candidate was Albertis Harrison, a product of the Byrd Machine or “the organization,” as it was discreetly known then. The Republican candidate was Clyde Pearson of Roanoke County who, at 36, was the youngest candidate ever for governor. He had little money and was given no chance. Republicans held off nominating candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general until they knew the results of the Democratic primaries for those offices, which featured close contests between conservative organization candidates and liberal challengers. Frank Atkinson writes in his history of the Republican Party of Virginia, “The Dynamic Dominion,” that “if anti-organization candidates were to win either of those contests, the GOP would have a good chance of picking up organization support in the fall campaign.” Put another way: Republicans in 1961 were open to making a deal with the devil. What had been the civil rights party in Virginia was prepared to welcome segregationist voters. If that happened, Republicans thought they could attract more prominent candidates and possibly win.

The Byrd Machine candidates won, and on primary night the Republican state central committee faced a deadline to pick its own candidates. “Members traded criticisms and wrangled over their limited array of options,” Atkinson writes. They wound up nominating no one. A few days later, Pearson announced the party had found two candidates, and they were endorsed after the fact. Those candidates were Hazel Barger for lieutenant governor and Leon Owen of Russell County for attorney general.

Barger may have been an accidental candidate in that regard, but she came with a political pedigree. A registered nurse, Barger was widowed in 1951 at age 40 and took over running her late husband’s coal and fuel oil company. The next year she got involved politics, drawn by Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential campaign. Twice she ran for the House of Delegates — in 1955 and 1957. Her platform: She opposed the state’s plan to withhold funding from integrated schools, a brave position for the time.

The accounts of Barger’s political rise are cringe-worthy to read now: “She is a red-headed bundle of energy,” legendary political reporter Melville Carico once wrote. In between her two House campaigns, Barger was a member of the committee that drafted the Republican Party platform in 1956. She took classes at Roanoke College and was elected to the Republican National Committee. She was “in demand as a speaker in and outside Virginia.” She also served on the local boards of at least half a dozen organizations, from the Girl Scouts to the YWCA. “The telephone rings every day, sometimes several times,” Carico wrote. “She’s not a girl who has to eat alone.”

When Barger became the Republican nominee in 1961, “her public convictions are firm: civil rights and keeping public schools open are to be her battle cries.” She was also running against Mills Godwin, who had been a legislative champion of Massive Resistance.

She lost, of course. She took 34.3% of the vote, the standard share in those days for a Republican. She carried four localities west of the Blue Ridge, plus Charles City County, but also won in Fairfax County, which was starting to turn into a suburb politically at odds with the rest of the state. This is called foreshadowing.

Barger didn’t know it but she was about to become a minority in the party she helped build. In 1964, she backed Nelson Rockefeller for president, which incurred the wrath of the movement conservatives behind Barry Goldwater, especially when she said after his loss the party would be better off without him. Four years later, they kicked Barger off the national committee as conservative ideologues began their ascendancy. Barger passed away in 1973 from cancer — just 62. During her campaign, she said women should be more active in politics: “We’ve had the right to vote since 1920 but we’ve been too content to sit back and vote for men since then.” Wonder what she would think today?


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