Soledad Chávez Chacón.
Soledad Chávez Chacón
1892 - 1936
Santa Fe County
Two years after women gained the right to vote, she was elected Secretary of State, the first Hispanic woman to hold statewide office in New Mexico and the country. In 1921–only three years earlier–New Mexico had become one of the last states to allow women in public office. Her achievements opened doors.
In 1922, two years after women gained the right to vote, Soledad Chavez Chacon was elected Secretary of State, the first Hispanic woman to hold statewide office in New Mexico and the country. She descended from a family of territorial governors and office holders, and “the hand of destiny” provided another historic opportunity in 1924: Lt. Governor José Baca passed away while Governor James Hinkle was out of state, leaving Secretary Chacόn to assume the duties of the governor, becoming the first female Hispanic in the nation to govern a state. New Mexico was one of the last states in 1921 to allow women in public office, and Soledad’s achievements opened doors.
Born in Albuquerque on August 11, 1892 to Melitón Chávez and Francisca Baca, she graduated from Albuquerque High School in 1908, and earned a degree in accounting from Albuquerque Business College. Nicknamed Lala, she does not appear to have pursued accounting professionally. In 1910, she married Ireneo Eduardo Chacón and was raising two children, a daughter and a son, with him.
In 1922, shortly after the passage of the 19th amendment to the Constitution granted women the right to vote, Democrats in New Mexico floated the possibility of running a woman on their ticket to help secure votes of women. Republicans were doing likewise. After discussion at the Democratic State Convention in Albuquerque, five powerful leaders of the party—Felipe Chacón (her brother-in-law), Dennis Chaves (her cousin, and future U.S. Senator of New Mexico), Thomas Mabry, John Miles, and Stephen Rael—arrived one afternoon at the home of Soledad Chávez Chacón and asked the 32-year-old to accept the nomination of the party for the office of New Mexico secretary of state.
The request appears to have come as a surprise to Chacón. As her daughter later told reporter Melissa Howard, “My mother did not solicit the nomination. She was in the kitchen baking a cake, and I saw the car pull up outside.” Nonetheless, it proved to be a realistic suggestion. Although Chacón lacked experience in public office, she was related to two of the men who asked her to run for office, Felipe Chacón (her brother-in-law) and Dennis Chaves (her cousin, and future U.S. Senator of New Mexico), she was civic-minded and active in the community, and she was a member of a longtime political New Mexico family. The Albuquerque Morning Journal for June 22 noted that she was “the daughter of a line of governors reaching back into the days when New Mexico was under Mexican rule.”
Chacón won the election, and in so doing, became the first Hispanic woman elected to a statewide office in New Mexico. Another woman, Isabel Eckles also won that year on the Democratic ticket for the position of superintendent of public instruction, another statewide position—making Chacón one of the first two women to be elected to statewide office in New Mexico.
According to research from the Center for American Women and Politics, Chacón was the first Hispanic woman elected to statewide office in the country. More broadly, the election was something of a bellwether for the increasing presence of women in public service in New Mexico. As outlined by Andrés in Latinas in the United States: A Historical Encyclopedia: “The 1922 election was a pivotal moment in New Mexico history. The state was one of the most conservative in the American West in terms of granting women political power. From 1869, when Wyoming became the first state to allow women the right to vote, to 1920, almost every state in the West extended voting to women. New Mexico was one of the exceptions. In 1921, an amendment to the New Mexico Constitution was ratified that granted women the right to hold public office. New Mexican women moved swiftly into public service. From 1922 to 1934 seventeen women were elected to the New Mexico legislature.”
A contemporary account by Coan written in 1925 describes Chacón’s suitability for the position and gives insights into her personality: “Mrs. Chacon possesses an unusual fitness for public office, being painstaking and careful, prompt and courteous and inspired with the best traditions of the great Southwest with which she and her family have been identified for many generations. As secretary of state she equipped her office with a force of subordinates ready for the service of the public, and put the office on a basis of self-acting efficiency so as to run without friction and without jar.”
In June of 1924, New Mexico Governor James Hinkle planned to attend the Democratic National Convention in New York. In his absence, the lieutenant governor would have acted as governor, as provided in the line of succession outlined in Section Seven of Article V of the New Mexico Constitution. However, Lieutenant Governor José Baca had passed away unexpectedly in May. Next in line of succession was the position of Secretary of State. And so, between June 21 and July 5, 1924, Soledad Chávez Chacón found herself acting governor of New Mexico—the first woman in the state to hold that position. Fortunately, details of the momentous event were recorded in newspapers at the time. In a story entitled, “Hand of Woman is Guiding New Mexico Ship of State,” in the Albuquerque Morning Journal of June 22, 1924, a reporter recounted that the fireplace mantle and governor’s desk were strewn with flowers placed by Governor Hinkle’s wife for the occasion, and that a pile of mail awaited attention. It further noted: “Mrs. Chacon was able to do little today but receive callers who came to pay their respects.”
Chacón’s statement on the occasion is worth reading: “I have been approached on various occasions for a statement of my views regarding my unique position in which I have been placed due to the untimely passing of our lieutenant governor, and I feel very strongly that my first words should be of appreciation to our governor—Hon. James F. Hinkle, who has given me this opportunity. It is but another instance of his fair, honest and conscientious administration of the affairs of state government, without personal or party prejudice. These establishing characteristics are recognized by all people and need no commendation from me. We are indeed fortunate as a people to have a man of Governor Hinkle’s type as our executive. I also desire to pay tribute to the memory of our deceased lieutenant governor, Hon. Jose A. Baca, who formerly so ably presided in Governor Hinkle’s absence, and who but for the hand of destiny would now be preparing to enter upon the discharge of the duties of this office. Being a loyal member of Governor Hinkle’s administration, it shall be my earnest endeavor, during his absence, to follow the policies inaugurated by him in all matters upon which a decision may be required. I have tried at all times to pursue the right course in the conduct of my office as secretary of state and shall follow the same method while I am serving as acting governor of the state of New Mexico, believing that ultimately ‘only the right can prevail.’ I am fully cognizant that there is a great responsibility attached to the duties of acting governor, and it is a position which requires careful thought and consideration even to the smallest detail. This, I believe, is the first time in the history of the United States that a woman has ever been called upon to assume the responsibilities of the governor of a state, and it is my earnest desire to carry out the plans and wishes of our governor during his absence, in as fearless and conscientious a manner as has been his policy.”
Chacón stayed busy during her two weeks as acting governor. While many of her acts were merely office routine, some were more substantial. She signed a requisition on the war department for funds for the use of the New Mexico National Guard. In June 28, acting upon the recommendation of the Board of Trustees of the New Mexico Industrial School and the superintendent of that
institution, she conditionally pardoned Joseph Maloney. Other requests for
pardons were made, but she declined to act upon them until they had been formally recommended by the Board of Pardons.
For one weekend in February 1909, Oregon Governor George Chamberlain left his female chief of staff, Carolyn Shelton, in charge of the state between the short time he left Oregon to assume his position as United States Senator in Washington, DC, and the time the incoming governor, Frank Benson, took over. While Chacón’s time governing New Mexico came later, she is considered the first acting governor to be entrusted with substantial duties while in office.
Chacón served as secretary of state for two terms. In 1934, she ran again for office, and was elected to represent Bernalillo County as a state legislator in the New Mexico House of Representatives. Sadly, she was not in office long. Soledad Chacón passed away on August 4, 1936.
Andrés, Benny, Jr. “Soledad Chávez Chacón,” Latinas in the United States: A Historical Encyclopedia, edited by Vicki L. Ruiz, and Virginia Sanchez Korrol, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006.
Chávez, Dan D. Soledad Chávez Chacón: A New Mexico Political Pioneer, 1890-1936. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Printing Services, 1996.
Coan, Charles F. A History of New Mexico. Chicago: American Historical Society,
“Soledad Chávez Chacón.” Find a Grave, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/123312300/soledad-chac%C3%B3n , accessed September 4, 2016.
Soledad Chacon, Find a Grave Memorial Number 123312300, citing Mount Cavalry Cemetery, Albuquerque, Bernalillo County, New Mexico.
Howard, Melissa. “The First Woman to Govern New Mexico.” IMPACT, Albuquerque Journal Magazine, Albuquerque, November 2, 1982.
“Soledad Chávez Chacón Fellowship.” New Mexico Historical Review, 1999.
Duran, Dianna J., Secretary of State, 2013. New Mexico Compilation Commission,
Sanbonmatsu, Kira. “Why Not a Woman of Color? The Candidacies of US Women of Color for Statewide Executive Office.” Oxford Handbooks Online, http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199935307.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199935307-e-43 , accessed September 4, 2016.
State of New Mexico. Blue Book, 1923-24. Santa Fe, NM.
List of female governors in the United States, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_female_governors_in_the_United_States , accessed September 4, 2016.
“Hand of Woman is Guiding N.M. Ship of State.” Albuquerque Morning
Journal, June 22, 1924.
Learn more about Soledad Chávez Chacón and our resources for educators on the New Mexico Historic Women Marker Program curriculum page.