Soledad Chávez de Chacón
(La Historia del Rio Abajo is a regular column about Valencia County history, written by members of the Valencia County Historical Society.
The author of this month’s column is a past president of both the Valencia County Historical Society and the Historical Society of New Mexico. He is the author of 15 books on the history of New Mexico, including a new photographic history of New Mexico since statehood entitled, “New Mexico: A Celebration of the Land of Enchantment.”
Information for this column was drawn mainly from newspaper reports and Soledad Chávez de Chacón’s private correspondence.
Opinions expressed in this and all columns of La Historia del Rio Abajo are the author’s only and not necessarily those of the Valencia County Historical Society or any other group or individual.)
New Mexico has the distinction of being the first state to elect an Hispanic woman governor. Inaugurated in 2011, Republican Susana Martinez’s term in office will run until 2015, when she might well seek re-election.
New Mexicans in general, and Hispanic women in particular, are proud of this major achievement. But it is well to remember that long before Gov. Martinez took her oath of office, another Hispanic woman served as the governor of our state.
Soledad Chávez de Chacón served as New Mexico’s governor for two weeks in mid-1924 and, while Susana Martinez served as the first elected Hispanic female governor, the distinction of being the first Hispanic woman to serve in that prestigious office goes to Chávez de Chacón.
In fact, Chávez de Chacón also had the honor of being the first woman secretary of state in New Mexico, the second woman governor in the country and the first Hispanic woman governor in all of American history.
Ancestry and early life
Chávez de Chacón was born in old Albuquerque on Aug. 11, 1890, the daughter of Melitón Chávez and Francisca Baca Chávez. Her family had a long, distinguished history in New Mexico, with several of her ancestors dating back to the 18th century in Tomé, Valencia, Los Chavez and Albuquerque.
She counted several governors among her ancestors on both the paternal and maternal sides of her family.
Known as “Lala” at home and “Sallie” among her mostly Anglo schoolmates, Chávez de Chacón learned to play the piano and the mandolin in a secure, middle class, proudly Hispanic family. Chávez de Chacón graduated with honors from Albuquerque High School in 1908, one of the first Hispanic women to achieve this educational goal.
Two years later, she graduated as an accounting major from the Albuquerque Business College; again she was one of the first Hispanic women to accomplish this feat.
That same year, she married Ireneo Eduardo “Ed” Chacón, a direct descendant of two Spanish governors and the nephew of Rafael Chacon, the famous Civil War major. The young couple had two children, Adelina (“Lena”), born in 1911, and Santiago (“Jim”), born in 1912.
By 1922, the family enjoyed a comfortable life in a house they built at 625 N. 13th St. in Albuquerque.
Chávez de Chacón was the first woman to serve as the governor in New Mexico as the result of an unusual set of circumstances. A Democrat, she had been elected as New Mexico’s first female secretary of state in 1922, soundly defeating her Republican opponent, José A. Des Georges of Taos, 58,387 votes to 49,456.
In that same election, fellow Democrats James F. Hinkle and José A. Baca were elected governor and lieutenant governor, respectively. Unfortunately, Baca died of pneumonia at his home in Las Vegas on May 17, 1924.
As one of seven delegates from New Mexico, Gov. Hinkle attended the Democratic Party’s national convention held at New York’s Madison Square Garden in late June 1924. Normally, the lieutenant governor would serve as the governor’s temporary replacement.
But without a sitting lieutenant governor, the New Mexico State Constitution clearly stated (article V, section 7) that the job was to be passed to the secretary of state.
And so 34-year-old Soledad Chávez de Chacón assumed the role of acting governor of New Mexico when James Hinkle crossed the state border at Raton Pass on June 25, 1924.
Letters of congratulations poured in from all parts of New Mexico and across the United States. Chávez de Chacón’s picture appeared in newspapers from the Amarillo Daily Globe in Texas to the New York Times back East.
Acting governor Chávez de Chacón received a small avalanche of suggestions of both the sane and insane variety. As the strongest supporters of prohibition in the dry 1920s, Women’s Christian Temperance Union leaders wasted no time in congratulating Chávez de Chacón and suggesting that she join their organization on her first day in office.
Chávez de Chacón thanked WCTU leaders for their invitation, diplomatically promising to “write you later concerning membership in your organization.”
As a Democrat, she was far more likely to oppose prohibition and perhaps accept fellow Democrat Dennis Chavez’s personal invitation “to treat you to some pre-prohibition stuff.”
But political affiliation hardly mattered in the consumption of illegal alcohol during prohibition; Chávez de Chacón might have received invitations to drink liquor from leaders of either party in the 1920s.
According to one political observer, Republican Charles Springer “always carried pound extract bottles filled with dry martinis,” and fellow Republican Albert B. Fall could drink two of Springer’s martinis “without blinking an eye.”
As the same observer put it, “no one paid attention to Prohibition except the Prohibitionists,” of which there were few who practiced what they preached in public.
In the most unusual suggestion to cross Chávez de Chacón’s desk as governor, the “Helpless Husbands Committee” of Las Cruces sent her a telegram four days after she assumed office. According to the committee’s message, “the undersigned appeal to you to use your influence as governor of the state of New Mexico for a constitutional amendment to require all bob-haired women to raise their hats to those of their sex with long hair.”
The Helpless Husbands’ proposal to ban flappers, the often controversial, short-haired modern women of the 1920s, fell on deaf ears. Although she was never considered a flapper, Chávez de Chacón chose to wear her own hair short, a fact the Helpless Husbands probably never realized before sending their plea.
Despite these several sound and unsound suggestions, Chávez de Chacón was not expected to attempt bold or radical change while “house watching” for the elected governor of New Mexico.
As she said at the outset of her two-week “term,” she was determined to “carry out (Gov. Hinkle’s) wishes in all things,” while performing her duties in a manner that was “beyond criticism from even the most critical.”
Gov. Chávez de Chacón achieved her modest goals, limiting herself to rather mundane actions and innocuous public statements. She made a minor appointment to a state commission, approved funding for National Guard supplies, issued several notary public certificates and pardoned four prisoners, albeit ignoring a peculiar request made by an ex-convict shortly after she assumed her duties as acting governor.
The ex-con asked Chávez de Chacón to pardon the best looking woman in the women’s wing of the state penitentiary and send her to him as a bride. He also suggested pardons for some of the “old timers” at the state pen who had served many years, but were now forgotten. Chávez de Chacón prudently ignored both propositions.
Women in politics
It was not easy to be a woman in politics, either as the secretary of state or as an acting governor, in the 1920s.
According to an often repeated story, in 1922 Chávez de Chacón had been at home with her children, baking a cake, when a delegation of five male Democratic Party leaders visited to ask her to run for secretary of state. In other words, the idea of entering politics supposedly never crossed her mind without the influence of men.
Chávez de Chacón’s biographer, Dan D. Chávez, wrote that she even had to ask her husband’s and father’s permission to run for office, much as traditional Hispanic women were expected to ask their fathers’ permission in marriage or seek their husbands’ approval on major decisions in their homes.
Chávez de Chacón’s husband “enthusiastically agreed” to her running for secretary of state, although her father “needed some persuading, but gave his consent.”
Later, when she served as acting governor, a reporter asked her father if he was proud of his daughter’s accomplishment. “Yes,” he replied, “I suppose I am. But I would much rather have her home with me than see her sitting in the governor’s chair.”
Women had just won the right to vote with the 19th amendment in 1920; they had won the right to run for public office in New Mexico a year later when an amendment to the state constitution was ratified on Sept. 20, 1921.
Leaders of both political parties noted an increase in voter participation in New Mexico, largely as a result of the new women’s vote and the rapid politicization of especially Hispanic women voters.
Democrats and Republicans alike hoped to appeal to this new voting bloc by running women candidates, including Democrat Chávez de Chacón for secretary of state and Republican Nina Otero-Warren for congress, as early as 1922.
But while political leaders were willing to endorse women candidates for elected office, they carefully chose women who were not considered radical in either social values or political opinions.
Chávez de Chacón was therefore portrayed as a devoted, traditional daughter, wife and mother, who had to be recruited to run for office and then only with male permission. Aware of this perception, Chávez de Chacón insisted on being called “Mrs. Chacón” when introduced at public events.
Many socially conservative men and women nevertheless still questioned the role of women in New Mexico politics. Four of the state’s five main Hispanic counties had voted against the amendment that gave women the right to run for office in 1921.
A Spanish corrido (ballad), titled “La Votación” (The Vote), expressed remorse that:
The government of the state
worked for a new law,
so each man may be governed
by his woman.
Anglos could be equally critical. On the day after Chávez de Chacón assumed office as governor, the editor of the Alamogordo News asserted, “There are few women adapted to such a job. The gentle sex did not (evolve) to that end and were [sic] evidently not designed by the Creator as dominant …”
Did Chávez de Chacón’s service as acting governor improve the status of women in New Mexico politics and society? Yes and no.
Politically, her service may have helped other women win at least local offices in New Mexico, including 23 offices in 1926 and 19 offices in 1928.
But most of these offices were deemed “pink collar” political positions (superintendents of school and county clerks) and the trend did not continue.
Despite some gains in the 1930s, it was not until 1946 that Georgia L. Lusk became the first woman to be elected to congress from New Mexico, and then for only one term.
Socially, Chávez de Chacón’s tenure was so brief and the traditional perception of women was still so ingrained that little changed in New Mexico during or after her few days as governor. On her first days in office, for example, reporters chose to emphasize the number of flower arrangements she received, her “good-looking” appearance, her lavender summer dress and the “brilliant tea” held in her honor by the ladies of Santa Fe, rather than her political credentials and ideas.
The Santa Fe New Mexican reported that the most “puzzling question” surrounding the acting governor was who would serve as New Mexico’s first lady.
Chávez de Chacón did not suffer such indignities alone. When women at the University of New Mexico earned higher grade point averages than male students in the spring semester of 1924, a reporter explained that co-eds did better only because the men were so busy with athletics and because 14 male students had been suspended for two weeks for fighting one another, with dire consequences for their classroom averages.
And when the number of marriage licenses issued in Bernalillo County declined during the first six months of 1924, compared to the same period in 1923, a male reporter speculated that the decline could be explained by hard economic times or by the younger generation of men finally “getting some sense.”
The possibility of female academic success, no less independent decision making regarding marriage, was not considered.
Chávez de Chacón was asked to balance the Democratic Party’s ticket by running for secretary of state not only as a woman, but also as an Hispanic. Hispanics represented a huge voting bloc, ignored at one’s political peril in New Mexico.
However, to make Chávez de Chacón “acceptable” to Anglo, as well as Hispanic voters, certain of her characteristics were emphasized in an era when many Anglos still harbored prejudice against all, but pure-blooded Spanish-Americans.
Chávez de Chacón’s supporters therefore stressed her family’s long, “prominent” history in New Mexico, dating back to Spanish and Mexican times.
To add legitimacy to her political appeal and standing, the press specifically pointed out Chávez de Chacón’s ancestral ties to the first and third Mexican governors of New Mexico, Don Francisco X. Chavez (who served in 1822) and Don Bartolomé Baca (who served from 1823 to 1825).
Genealogist Francisco Sisneros reports that Chávez de Chacón was indeed related to influential ancestors, but only to one governor, Don Bartolomé Baca, and then only through very thin ties; Chávez de Chacón’s great-grandfather was Gov. Baca’s wife’s brother.
According to Sisneros, Chávez de Chacón had no familial ties to Don Francisco X. Chavez whatsoever. Chávez de Chacón’s Spanish roots cannot be denied, but her ties to early Spanish and Mexican leaders were apparently exaggerated and exploited for political gain.
Chávez de Chacón gladly relinquished her power as governor on July 5, 1924, when Gov. Hinkle returned to Santa Fe. The chief executive was, in fact, four days late because he and his fellow Democratic Party delegates had taken 103 ballots before finally agreeing on a presidential candidate, John W. Davis, for the fall election.
Chávez de Chacón stood for re-election as secretary of state that same year. While Davis lost badly to the incumbent president, Calvin Coolidge, Chávez de Chacón won easily against an Hispanic Republican male, largely based on her admirable service as New Mexico’s acting governor and her political appeal as both an Hispanic and as a woman.
After completing her second term in 1927, she did not seek political office for another seven years.
Out of public office Chávez de Chacón nevertheless remained “full of life and very active,” in the words of her daughter, Adelina. Still in the prime of her life, she raised two children, belonged to several Anglo and Hispanic community organizations and served as an alternate elector for New Mexico’s three Democratic electors in the Electoral College during the presidential contest won by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932.
The latter role led to an invitation to President Roosevelt’s inauguration in Washington, D.C., on March 4, 1933. Perhaps inspired by this event and the expansive New Deal that followed, Chávez de Chacón re-entered politics with a successful election to the New Mexico State Legislature in 1934, becoming one of only four Hispanic women and one of 25 women to be elected to the New Mexico State Legislature before World War II.
Appointed to three powerful committees in the Legislature, Chávez de Chacón was about to run for re-election in 1936 when she died of peritonitis following major surgery performed at Albuquerque’s Women’s and Children’s Hospital on Aug. 4, 1936.
In a final act of sexism, her son, Jim, listed her occupation as “housewife” rather than “state legislator” on her death certificate.
Chávez de Chacón’s early death was a tragedy, both for her family and for her state. Some historians believe that had she lived, she might well have been elected New Mexico’s first woman governor.
Soledad Chávez de Chacón’s finest hour occurred in mid-1924, less because of what she did as the governor of New Mexico than because she was the first woman governor in her state. Her brief term as governor led to many other firsts for women in New Mexico politics and, in a small way, to Susana Martinez’s election 86 years later.