Edna Nevada Catlin Baker
"A woman's influence in educational matters is always good." Thus, the Nevada State Journal, one of Reno's daily newspapers, urged the election of Mrs. Edna C. Baker to the Board of Regents of the University of Nevada. Less than a month after this endorsement, on November 7, 1916, Baker became the first woman elected to a statewide office in Nevada.
This historic candidate was born Edna Nevada Catlin in Carson City on July 20, 1876, to Nevada pioneers A.P. and Fannie Millard Catlin. Edna completed her early education in Carson City and entered the University of Nevada Normal School (later called the College of Education). She was the first daughter in the family, following twin brothers, one of whom did not survive childhood. The oldest of the Catlin children was Millard, followed by Edna, William, and Jenny, who was born 14 years after her older sister.
Graduating in 1895, Edna was the 49th person to graduate from the fledgling university. She began her teaching career in Carson City; by 1899, she was teaching (and it appears, acting as principal) in Wells in Elko County. Her career was short-lived, however, as she resigned to marry Frederick W. Baker, five years her senior, an engineer on the Southern Pacific railroad, on August 12, 1902.
The newlyweds lived in Winnemucca for several years where their family was expanded by two boys. Lawrence C. Baker was born in 1906; Francis C. Baker, a year later. In 1909, the family moved to Sparks. Both the 1910 and 1920 census show them at the same address: 445 10th Street.
Edna Baker quickly became active in her new home. By 1916, she was well-known enough in suffrage circles and within the community that, in March of that year, the Women's Civic League of Sparks chose her to run for the 4-year seat on the Sparks Board of School Trustees. Baker did not accept the nomination immediately; two days later, the Sparks Tribune reported that she finally entered the race. Her opponent was James W. O'Brien, who was already a member of the board. According to the Tribune, the campaign was lively, but it offered no details. On April 3, 1916, the paper reported that Baker had beaten O'Brien handily. Although almost half of the voters were women, the other female candidate, Mrs. Maud Edwards, was not successful. The paper noted: "This is the first time that Sparks has chosen one of the ladies of the town for the position on the board and the plan meets with the approval of the entire city." Apparently, it met with the approval of the entire board as the members elected Baker as their chair.
In September of 1916, the state's Republic convention nominated Baker, without opposition, to the candidacy for the open 2-year seat on the Board of Regents. In commenting on this nomination, the Sparks Tribune commented that Baker "has been a hard and faithful worker in the Board and has taken an active part in civic matters." The paper explained that the Republicans ". . . naturally turned to the lady from Sparks, who by previous experience and successful candidacies had proven that she was entirely competent to fill the position as well as being a good vote getter." The paper endorsed her the day before the election: "Mrs. Baker is one of the best known women in the State and her keen interest in educational matters makes her a valuable asset to the board of Regents."
Later that same month, Baker hosted the meeting at which the Sparks branch of the Woman's Party was formed. In mid-October, she called the Nevada Republican Women's Committee to order.
Throughout the campaign season, Baker's name was linked to two other Republican candidates for the board: J.F. Abel of Elko and the Honorable Benjamin F. Curier of Winnemucca. Six candidates vied for the three seats open at this election. The Nevada State Journal stated that the seats should go to Abel, Baker, and Curier. Apparently, the existing board had engaged in secretive actions and other activities that the paper found objectionable. These three candidates promised to submit the board’s conduct and the university’s financial matters to public scrutiny and to rid the university of political influence. Advertisements in support of Baker ran for 16 consecutive days before the election; four of those were clearly directed toward women voters.
The Nevada State Journal openly declared that the open seats should go to the three candidates because of their pledge to reform the university. The paper explained that "[t]hey have come out squarely for efficient management of the university, for the elimination of politics from university affairs and for the widest publicity in all matters affecting the people's educational institution."
Editorials and advertisements in the Reno paper often appealed directly to female voters to support Baker. No concern was ever expressed about a woman filling this office; in fact, the Journal believed it to be an asset: "She will bring to the position native ability in management, combined with a warm sympathy with the boys and girls at the university and an intuitive power to get at the heart of things and to make wise decisions."
Baker defeated her opponents, well-known Democrat I.H. Kent of Fallon and Socialist J.F. McQuestian, with an impressive 44 percent of the vote. She carried 11 of the 16 counties (some by substantial margins); interestingly, she lost in two of the three Sparks precincts. Her co-candidates also won their seats, but their margins of victory were not as wide as hers.
Although she was now a state officer, Baker was not required to surrender her seat on the Sparks School Board. She continued as chair of that body until early 1920. Most likely, this accomplishment makes Baker the first, and perhaps only, woman to hold two elective offices at one time.
Baker's term as Regent expired in 1918; in July of that year, she announced that she would not seek re-election. She explained that she did not have the time necessary to devote to the office. The Reno Evening Gazette noted that she had been one of the Regents who had called for the resignation of then-president of the university, A. W. Hendrick, but did not comment on her decision not to run.
Baker did not run for statewide office again. In fact, she may not have run for any office again. She was not re-elected to the school board in 1920; it is unknown at this point if she was defeated or did not run.
On July 12, 1957, Baker died in Palo Alto, California, after a long illness. She and her husband had moved there in 1950, after he retired from the railroad. She was survived by her husband, who remained in Palo Alto; two sons, Lawrence of Palo Alto and Francis of Seattle; seven grandchildren; and her brother, William Prince Catlin of Culver City, California. In the obituary published by the Nevada Appeal of Carson City, it was noted that she was "long active in Nevada political circles and women's service organizations."
Edna Nevada Catlin Baker was followed by two other female members of the Board of Regents. For 32 years after her election, there was always a woman on the Board. She was truly a Nevada pioneer.
--Researched and written by Dana R. Bennett
Much of this article originally appeared under the title “Leading the Charge: Edna Baker helped set Nevada’s course,” published in the March/April 1997 issue of Silver and Blue. The author wishes to thank the publication’s editor for agreeing to allow the use of that article in the development of this biography.