Crystal Bird Fauset with Eleanor Roosevelt in 1942. (Temple University Archives via Explore History PA)

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Pennsylvania generally has a poor track record when it comes to electing women to political office. But the state did have one notable first.

We explain with a headline from today’s Philadelphia Tribune in 1965:

“Crystal Fauset, Pioneer Politico, Dies”

Born in 1894, Crystal Bird was not a native Philadelphian.

She spent her formative years in Boston, where she worked as a school teacher and later a YWCA organizer.

In 1931, Bird earned her bachelor’s degree from Columbia and married Arthur Fauset, an anthropologist and folklorist from a family with deep Delaware Valley roots.

Both became prominent voices in the local Civil Rights movement.

At the time, Philadelphia was a Republican city. And Black voters had long been one of the GOP’s key constituencies. Fauset was among a generation of Black leaders challenging that status quo. In 1932, she canvassed for Democrat Franklin Roosevelt with a focus on Black women.

From there, Fauset rose through the ranks of the local and national Democratic party.

She eventually became close friends with Eleanor Roosevelt, establishing herself as a key conduit between the party and Black Philadelphians.

In 1938, Fauset’s political rise culminated in a historic first.

That year, voters in West Philadelphia’s majority white 18th legislative district elected Fauset to the Pennsylvania State House.

She was the *first* Black woman elected to a state legislature in American history.

Although Fauset’s historic election prompted some national coverage, there’s little available to be found in The Inquirer.

The paper mentioned her triumph in half a sentence…under the subhead “WOMAN IS WINNER.”

The Black press gave Fauset’s win far more attention, including front-page treatment from The Philadelphia Tribune. She told the paper:

“I’ll not consider it a personal honor at all. I consider it rather a recognition of Negro womanhood.”

Fauset did not remain in the state legislature long. In 1939, she accepted a post in Pa.’s Works Progress Administration.

She later worked for the Office of Civil Defense and became an unofficial member of the Roosevelt administration’s so-called “Black Cabinet.”

Fauset’s political journey took another twist in 1944.

Frustrated with the lack of progress on Civil Rights, Fauset left the Democratic party and became a Republican.

Some coverage from the time that suggests Fauset left the party because of a personal difference with the DNC chair and unfulfilled promises of a larger role in the party. Retrospectives suggest her departure related more to policy.

It is a fascinating legacy. As a politician and organizer, Fauset helped catalyze a key political shift within the Black electorate. And her pioneering victory was proof that Black voters were indeed leaving the party of Lincoln.

But Fauset herself wasn’t satisfied with shifting Black voters from one party to another. And when Democrats didn’t move fast enough, she sought a new path forward.

Fauset later changed her focus to international relations, and died in 1965 at age 71.

Originally tweeted by Avi Wolfman-Arent (@Avi_WA) on March 30, 2023

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Avi Wolfman-Arent

Avi Wolfman-Arent is co-host of Studio 2 and a broadcast anchor on 90.9 FM. He was previously an education reporter with WHYY, where he's worked since 2014. Prior to that he covered nonprofits for the...