Nena Jolidon Croake of Tacoma was one of the first two women elected to serve in the Washington State Legislature, serving between 1913 and 1915. She promoted minimum wage and mothers’ pension legislation. Croake was also an osteopath for nearly a decade prior to her election to the Legislature, and was probably one of Tacoma’s first female physicians. She did not seek further political office after her term in the House, but continued her osteopathic practice in Tacoma until 1923, when she moved to Los Angeles.
Nena Jolidon Croake was born in Illinois in 1865, the daughter of Francis Jolidon (b. 1825), a French native who immigrated with his family to the United States in 1826, and Dorcas Thompson Jolidon (b. 1836), a native of Indiana. At this writing virtually nothing is known of Croake’s childhood or early adulthood until she moved to Tacoma in 1890.
She married John B. Croake (1850-1913) in Victoria, British Columbia, in 1890. In the late 1880s he had worked in Tacoma as a deputy customs collector, but by the early 1890s was working as a deputy sheriff. (Later in life he changed careers; the 1910 Census lists his occupation as “mining.”) The couple had no children.
Dr. Nena Croake
By the early 1900s Nena Croake was practicing osteopathic medicine, a relatively new field at the turn of the twentieth century. It was even more unusual at that time for a woman to be a doctor, and in fact, Croake was probably one of the first female physicians in Pierce County. Where she obtained her higher education to enable her to practice medicine is a mystery (although she affirmatively answered that she had a higher education in a form she completed for the 1913 legislative session), but it is thought that she may have studied with Dr. Everett Sommer, an osteopath who maintained an office in downtown Tacoma. Croake worked with Sommer for a period of time before hanging out her own shingle in 1903.
She was also active in club circles in Tacoma by the late 1890s. In 1899 she founded the Tacoma Woman’s Study Club and served as its president for three years. But it was women’s issues that were particularly important to her. She served as an officer (possibly in several positions, including president) in the Washington Equal Suffrage Association, and worked with Tacoma’s Emma Smith DeVoe (1848-1927) in the 1910 campaign which resulted in women winning the right to vote in Washington state.
To The Legislature
Croake had long advocated for women to be in the Legislature, and as the next election approached in 1912 said, “now that woman is enfranchised, it is only just and fair that she be given a trial. If she fails it will be no greater crime than it is for the man that sits by her side, and we know that men have not always made a success in law making” (Morgan). She also said that she had urged a number of other women to run, but when she was unsuccessful in that she decided to do it herself.
Running as a Progressive (also called Bull Moose or simply Moose) for one of two House seats in the 37th District, Croake won the party’s primary election in September 1912. Her campaign that autumn included afternoon parlor meetings with interested voters (usually women) and public meetings in the evenings with the other candidates, followed later by house-to-house and telephone campaigning. Her campaign motto was “Consideration for woman is the measure of a nation’s progress,” and she focused on women’s issues, although she also argued for legislation opposing child labor and abolishing capital punishment. But the issue she was most focused on was the passage of a pension for single mothers. As she explained in an interview published in The New York Times the month before the election:
“The mothers’ pension bill is of special interest to women, and the human side of it as well as the economic value it possesses is sweeping the continent as a great wave. A moment’s consideration will convince any unprejudiced mind that it is far better for the state to support the mother and fatherless children and keep them together than for the children to be left to run the streets without care or control and thus soon become criminals, or for the children to be cared for in our institutions at the expense of the state” (“She Fights For Mothers”).
Croake came in second in a field of six candidates, and nearly won it outright, losing to the first-place winner, J. H. Davis, by only nine votes out of nearly 7,500 votes cast. With her victory she became one of the first two women elected to the Washington State Legislature, along with Frances Axtell (1866-1953) of Bellingham. A brief challenge to her victory (alleging that she campaigned within a polling station and also assisted in counting ballots after the polls closed) fizzled, and she was sworn in two months later.
First Bill in the House
Washington’s 13th Legislature convened in Olympia on January 13, 1913, in a rainy downpour, which would come to symbolize the contentious nature of this particular legislative session. This was due in part to the absence of a clear majority in the House: There were 48 Republicans, 30 Progressives, 18 Democrats, and one socialist. Further, the relationship between the Legislature and Governor Ernest Lister (1870-1919) was strained. Yet despite these obstacles, the session was not without accomplishments. The 1913 Legislature enacted legislation implementing the initiative and referendum, which had been approved by voters in the 1912 election. It authorized the use of voting machines in elections, and it also approved a mothers’ pension bill, although it wasn’t the bill Croake had in mind.
Croake received a rather rude introduction to the Legislature. After the new members were sworn in on the first day, the Speaker of the House was elected. Croake seconded the nomination of Thomas Corkery, the Progressive favorite, but later inadvertently said that she had voted for Republican Howard Taylor, the winner. She quickly corrected herself, but the legislators and visitors in the gallery laughed at her mistake, hooting that it was “just like a woman” (Newell). But on the second day she had the honor of introducing the first bill in the House for the 1913 legislative session, which proposed to set a minimum wage of $1.25 a day for women and girls, or for those working by the hour, a minimum of 16 cents per hour for an eight hour day.Ironically, a different version of this bill passed in a vote during the final week of the session in March. The issue wasn’t that Croake’s fellow legislators disagreed with the need for a minimum wage for women so much as they disagreed that a specific wage should be set by the Legislature. Instead the Legislature passed the “Piper Bill” (an alternative bill introduced by state senator George Piper of Seattle), which created a state welfare commission to set the minimum wage and to establish employment conditions for women and children. Croake, in arguing for the passage of her bill, made an impassioned appeal to the House, concluding:
“I have been pleased to be co-laborer with you men, and I have endeavored to use my best judgment in voting on all questions. I ask nothing for myself in return. But for the women’s cause, for the sake of the potential mothers of our race, I do ask you to give the underfed and the underpaid wage-working women and girls of our state your support” (“Mrs. Croake Loses In Her One Fight”).
Mothers’ Pension Bill
Croake was also sideswiped on the mothers’ pension bill. During the first week of the session she was busy drafting her bill, hoping to present it to the full House the following week. But on January 17 two other legislators introduced their own such bills, leading the Tacoma Daily Ledger to remark that Croake had been “scooped.” However, a version of the mothers’ pension bill did pass in the 1913 legislative session, providing a stipend of $15 a month ($330 in 2010 dollars) for widows and for certain single mothers.
If contemporary press accounts are to be believed, Croake was probably the quieter of the two women that served in the 1913 Legislature. She was not a passive participant, but was more reserved and less politically ambitious than her fellow legislator Frances Axtell. (Axtell would later serve in the Woodrow Wilson administration as the first woman appointed to a federal commission in U.S. history.) Indeed, the Daily Ledger commented in an article about Croake’s appeal for passage of her minimum-wage bill that it was “her first real appeal to the House, though she has several times taken the floor during the session for brief statements” (“Mrs. Croake Loses In Her One Fight”).
Croake did not seek re-election in 1914. She continued with her osteopathic practice and her activities in local clubs. She served as first vice president of the newly created Tacoma Fine Arts Association in 1917, and continued to participate in the Tacoma Woman’s Study Club during her remaining years in Tacoma.Croake moved to Los Angeles in 1923 and little is known of her 10 years there, with two exceptions: In the 1930 Census she reported that she was not working, and her obituary says she was in poor health for some time before her death. She died on January 2, 1934, in Los Angeles.