Sarah Lee Fain (1888–1962)


Sarah Lee Fain was one of the first two women elected to serve in the Virginia General Assembly following ratification in 1920 of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which gave American women the right to vote. When she took her seat as a delegate from Norfolk in January 1924, Fain and her legislative colleague Helen Timmons Henderson, of Buchanan County, became pioneers whose presence in the Virginia State Capitol signaled the start of women’s full participation in the political life of the state. Virginia changed slowly, however, and six more decades would pass before women served in the state’s legislature in appreciable numbers.

Sarah Lee Odend’hal was born in Norfolk on November 23, 1888. She attended Leache-Wood Seminary and Hemmingway High School, from which she graduated in 1907. For the next twelve years, she taught in the Norfolk public schools and in the summer months took courses at the University of Virginia. Although as a woman she was not permitted to matriculate at the university, her summer studies were the equivalent of an undergraduate degree in education and administration. In September 1917, she married Walter Colquitt Fain, and shortly thereafter became active in a variety of women’s organizations supporting the American effort in World War I (1914–1918).

First Women Elected to the General Assembly

Such activity sparked her interest in public life, and when the Nineteenth Amendment became law in 1920, she joined the Norfolk branch of the League of Women Voters and soon became active in Democratic Party politics. In 1922, she signed on to the campaign to reelect Virginia’s U.S. senator Claude A. Swanson and was so successful in convincing Norfolk’s newly franchised female voters to support him that several of her friends convinced her to run for a seat in the House of Delegates. She campaigned effectively in the Democratic primary and, on November 6, 1923, was elected to one of Norfolk’s four assembly seats.

Fain was treated as a novelty and a celebrity when she arrived in Richmond in January 1924, but if observers expected her to behave in unorthodox ways, they were disappointed. She did not espouse a feminist agenda, as some of her detractors had feared she might, but rather focused on maritime and education issues that were important to her constituents. Challenged for her spot on the Democratic ticket in 1925, she won reelection handily, and when she stood for a third term in 1927, she was unopposed. In her third term, Fain chaired the Committee on Schools and Colleges and helped secure passage of an important education reform bill.

Fain did not seek a fourth term in 1929, but a year later tried unsuccessfully for a seat in Congress. She moved to Washington, D.C., in 1931, and worked for several New Deal agencies. Fain helped to found the U.S. Information Service and served as its first director. After stints in other federal positions in North Carolina and Texas, she moved to San Marino, California, in 1938. Fain did not run for public office again, but she did return to Norfolk to campaign for businesswoman Meeta B. Meyers in 1951 when she ran unsuccessfully for Fain’s former seat. Fain died in California on July 19, 1962. The city of Norfolk did not elect another woman to the General Assembly until Evelyn Hailey in 1973.

November 23, 1888
Sarah Lee Fain is born in Norfolk.
Sarah Lee Fain graduates from Hemmingway High School.
Sarah Lee Fain marries Walter Colquitt Fain.
Sarah Lee Fain signs on to the campaign to reelect Virginia's U.S. senator Claude A. Swanson. Her success in convincing female voters to support him prompts others to suggest that she run for office herself.
November 6, 1923
Sarah Lee Fain, of Norfolk, and Helen Timmons Henderson, of Buchanan County, become the first women elected to the General Assembly.
Sarah Lee Fain easily wins reelection to her seat in the General Assembly.
Sarah Lee Fain forgoes an attempt at a fourth term in the General Assembly and instead makes an unsuccessful attempt at a seat in Congress.
July 19, 1962
Sarah Lee Fain, one of the first women elected to the General Assembly, dies in California.
  • Richmond Times-Dispatch, “Delegates Meet for First Time. Two Women Legislators Hold Conference in Norfolk on Way Here. Husbands at Home. Mrs. Fain and Mrs. Henderson Develop Comradeship at First Sight,” January 9, 1924.
  • Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, “Legislative Debutantes—First Women Elected to General Assembly Guests at Reception,” January 9, 1924.
  • Treadway, Sandra Gioia. “Sarah Lee Fain: Norfolk’s First Woman Legislator.” Virginia Cavalcade 30 (Winter 1981): 125-133.
APA Citation:
Treadway, Sandra. Sarah Lee Fain (1888–1962). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/fain-sarah-lee-1888-1962.
MLA Citation:
Treadway, Sandra. "Sarah Lee Fain (1888–1962)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 13 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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