First Women in Legislature
On 30 January 1924 the first two women elected to the General Assembly
had been seated for three weeks. Sarah Lee Fain, of Norfolk, and Helen Timmons Henderson, representing
Buchanan and Russell counties, had both won election to the House of Delegates as Democrats.
Following the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote, Congress sent it to the states
for ratification. Despite the fact that Virginia and most other southern states failed to ratify the amendment, women
got the vote in 1920 and immediately began joining political parties and running for public office. One of the first
women in Virginia to respond was Sarah Lee Fain (1888–1962). A native of Norfolk, Fain taught school until
her marriage, after which she joined her husband's construction company. She was active in local civic affairs
and volunteered for Senator Claude Swanson's 1922 reelection campaign. When Norfolk gained two
additional seats through reapportionment, local supporters persuaded Fain to throw her hat into the ring,
and she was elected to the House of Delegates on 6 November 1923.
Fain shared the distinction of being the first woman to serve in the General Assembly with Helen Timmons
Henderson (1877–1925). With her husband, R. A. Henderson, she headed the Buchanan Mission School
in Council, Virginia. In 1923 the Democratic Party selected her to run for the House of Delegates, making
her the first woman ever to be nominated. She became an effective advocate for southwestern Virginia
and worked tirelessly for better schools and roads. She was renominated to serve another term but
died before the election. Her legacy continued when her daughter, Helen Ruth Henderson, was
elected to the seat for the 1928 term.
Sarah Lee Fain and Helen Timmons Henderson paved the way for the 61 other women who have followed
their path to the Virginia General Assembly since 1924.
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