For Women, a Less Tragic Path to Power

04/27/2015 02:07 pm ET | Updated Jun 27, 2015

Can you guess the historic milestones that these women have in common: Margaret Chase Smith of Maine; Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming; Isabel de Peron of Argentina; Catherine the First of Russia; and Wu Zetian of China?

Each of them managed to break through history's infamous glass ceiling.

Chase Smith became the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress with a career that began in 1940. Tayloe Ross became the first woman governor when she was elected in 1924. Peron was the first female president of Argentina in 1974. Catherine the First and Wu Zetian were the first women to rule as empresses of Russia and of China, respectively.

These women's service were separated by great oceans and centuries of time. But they all have another thing in common: they achieved their firsts by filling the seats, offices or thrones of their dead or dying husbands.

That common scenario has been a recurring theme throughout United States and world history. Thirty-eight widows have won their husband's seats in the United States House of Representatives. Eight did the same in the Senate.

"Widow succession" is by no means a unique phenomenon to the United States. Before becoming Guyana's first woman president, Janet Jagan had a long and noteworthy career in shaping Guyana's politics. She served as first lady and as Guyana's first woman prime minister, courageously championing non-white liberation in a society deeply rooted in white supremacy. But it was only after her husband -- Guyana's president -- died in 1997 that she was elected to that country's highest office. In 1998, Jagan was awarded UNESCO's prestigious Mahatma Gandhi Gold Medal for Women's Rights.

Sri Lanka's Shirimavo Bandaranaike filled her husband's position as prime minister when he was assassinated in 1959. Ridiculed by political opponents as the "weeping widow" for showing emotion when she spoke about her husband's death, no one could deny she too was tough on the big banks or that she had long-lasting impact on Sri Lanka's politics and government. Even Empress Catherine stayed true to her humble origins by cutting taxes on the peasants, an enlightened act in imperial Russia of the early 18th century.

These women were not alone in proving widows can be far more than placeholders for their deceased husbands. Today, my own Congresswoman Doris Matsui succeeded her late husband to represent Sacramento and is distinguishing herself as a champion of progressive tax reform, of Medicare and Medicaid, and of protecting all Americans from discrimination.

What's the lesson of "widow succession" leadership? It's not that widows can't make good leaders. To the contrary, many of these women were accomplished and beloved by their constituents and country people.

The lesson is that women can make good and great leaders, whether or not they are widowed, whether they are married to presidents or not married at all.

Fortunately, there are a growing number of such women who are winning more and more in their own right and disproving the "widow succession" rule. They are mayors, senators, governors, and secretaries of state. Abroad there is a growing list of women heads of state whose spouses we have never heard of. Angela Merkel's husband's name, anyone?

I hope America too has matured to the point where women can ascend to our highest office on their own merits, and certainly without having to do so in the wake of tragic loss. The names Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Elizabeth Warren and Carly Fiorina are names that we hear over and over.

I hope we are capable of evaluating a highly qualified woman candidate for president in her own right, and in the case of Hillary Clinton, independent of the good health and longevity we all wish for her husband and our former president.

Zingale was the first male to serve on the California Commission on the Status of Women.