Historical Markers
Anne Brancato Wood Historical Marker
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Anne Brancato Wood

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Broad and Chestnut Sts., Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
June 17, 1994

Behind the Marker

A woman standing in front of a podium, holding a gavel in her right hand poses for this photo. Men are seated behind her.
Brancato as Speaker Pro Tempore of the House of Representatives, 1935.
In 1932, Philadelphia native Anne Brancato made history by becoming the first female Democrat to be elected to the Pennsylvania state legislature. But her significance extended well beyond that. Brancato went to Harrisburg at the same time that Franklin Delano Roosevelt arrived in Washington, and in many ways she embodied the ethnic, urban, working-class strands of the New Deal coalition that would coalesce under FDR. In her advocacy for socially progressive public policy, she also advanced New Deal ideals within the state of Pennsylvania.

Little in Brancato's background presaged her pioneering role as a New Dealer. She grew up in a large, Italian-American family in South Philadelphia, where her parents owned and operated two produce stores. The family's small businesses were a neighborhood crossroads, so thanks to them, Brancato grew up speaking Italian, English, and Hebrew - communication skills that would serve her well later in life.

United States presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith (r) raises his hat in salute during a train trip to promote his bid for the 1928 presidency.
Alfred E. Smith campaigning for president in 1928.
In 1928, Brancato and a friend joined the local Democratic club in South Philadelphia. At the time, the overwhelming majority of Italians routinely voted Republican, for the Republican city machine provided the safety net of jobs, police protection, favors, and handouts upon which poor and working-class Philadelphians depended.

Under city boss William Vare, Italian Americans dominated the city's street cleaning department. In that year's presidential election, however, Philadelphia's Italian voters abandoned the GOP to support Democrat Alfred Smith by a slim majority; as a Catholic, Smith seemed more friendly to Italian American social values than Protestant Herbert Hoover.

Hoover had been in office less than a year when the stock market crash plunged the nation into the Great Depression. By 1931, unemployment in densely settled South Philadelphia hovered around 30 percent, one of the highest rates in the city, and Italian-Americans accounted for roughly a third of the families seeking private forms of relief.

When New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran for president in 1932, Brancato, who had quickly risen to a leadership position in the 26th Ward, decided to seek a seat in the state legislature. Only one Italian American, former Republican activist Biagio Catania, elected in 1928, had ever sat in the state General Assembly as a Democrat. By 1932, however, Italian Americans were ripe for conversion. Like other immigrant groups from southern and eastern Europe, most Italian Americans were working class and lower middle class. As the Depression dragged on, many stood to benefit from the federal relief that FDR promised to provide if elected.

Black and white photograph of a young woman, head and shoulders.
South Philadelphia's Ann Brancato soon after her election to the Pennsylvania...
Brancato proved a formidable campaigner. During her first campaign in the fall of 1932, she used a loudspeaker mounted on the back of her father's car to broadcast her pro-Roosevelt message in both English and Italian. Her energy and oratorical skills helped bring out voters, particularly among working-class ethnic women, up to this point an untapped voting bloc. "The party needs women, and I am the best vote getter that they have," she later said. That November, she won the Fifth District seat in the General Assembly, receiving 1,500 more votes than Joseph Argentieri, her Republican opponent.

Brancato's first term proved rough going. Although Democrats had picked up close to forty seats in the lower House, Republicans still outnumbered them two to one. In the Senate, the GOP dominated Democrats by a six to one margin. On the floor of the General Assembly, Republicans attempted to intimidate Brancato by seating her in their midst, then shamelessly co-opted her bills, claiming authorship, for example, of one of her first measures, an anti-eviction bill, once its passage seemed inevitable.

Despite the opposition, Brancato proved a tireless advocate for working-class Pennsylvanians and marker for women in government. In 1937 she introduced the Pawnbrokers License Act, intended to protect the poor and the needy from loan sharks who charged unlawful rates of interest. She sponsored bills to improve conditions for working-class women. Along with a Minimum Wage Bill for Women, her Hasty Marriage Act, signed into law by marker Governor George Earle in 1936, required that couples wait three days after applying for a marriage license before they could marry. Brancato reasoned that this would provide an opportunity for many poor women to back out of forced, and often unhappy marriages.

Black and white photograph of two women seated at a desk.
Newly elected state legislators Ann Brancato, 5th district (South Philadelphia),...
Brancato's advocacy for ordinary Pennsylvanians won her considerable notice among political observers. "There is no more ardent advocate of minimum wage laws, shorter weeks child labor protection and anti-sweatshop laws than Representative Brancato," wrote one admirer in a profile of Brancato's career in the lower house. "A list of her affirmative votes on social welfare bills reads like a social workers Bible." It also won her the respect of her Democratic colleagues. When they in 1934 elected her to chair the Committee on Cities, she became the first female in the history of the General Assembly to head a committee. In 1935, she made history again when she became the first woman in Pennsylvania history to be named Speaker Pro Tempore of the House of Representatives.
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"Vote to Re-Elect Anna M. Brancato to the General Assembly," campaign...

Brancato's achievements are even more remarkable when one considers how underrepresented women were in state politics during the 1930s. Even after Democrats won control of the lower house in 1935 session, she remained one of only two or three female representatives. In 1939, she was joined by markerCrystal Bird Fauset of Philadelphia, the first African American woman ever to be elected to a state legislature in the United States.

Brancato stepped down from office after her fourth term ended in 1940; four years later, she reentered the state House for a fifth and final term. In 1946, she returned to her home in South Philadelphia, where she married and started a successful telephone answering service and real estate brokerage.

In 1956, she sought but did not win a seat in the state Senate. Despite that disappointment, she remained keenly attuned to political issues, both in her home city and state. In 1958, she helped found "More Women on the Ballot," an organization which sought to increase women's role in state politics and presence in elected office. In 1972, Mayor Frank Rizzo decreed Anna Brancato Wood day in honor of her service to the city and to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, on behalf of some of its most vulnerable citizens.

The Great Depression had a profound impact on the lives of American men and women. As unemployed soared among male wage earners, women's wages became more important for the support of the family. At the same time, many women were forced out of jobs so that men could have them. The economic changes were felt in American culture and politics as well. Anne Brancato rode to elected office on the voter protests of the 1930s.

The New Deal coalition forged a permanent political realignment, in both Philadelphia and across the Commonwealth, ending the reign of Republican machines that had once controlled the votes of ethnic city dwellers. It also opened political opportunities for women carried into office by newly mobilized working-class female voters. Brancato repaid their faith in her and the new Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt by fighting for social legislation that promised more than the "personal services" and limited opportunities they had received from the Republican Party.
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