This year marks the 115th anniversary of the birth of Anne Brancato, among the most accomplished and fascinating Philadelphians from 20th-century political history. Overcoming social and political barriers during the Great Depression, Brancato became the first-ever woman elected as a Democrat in the Pennsylvania state legislature. She fought passionately for the rights of the poor and dispossessed while challenging machine politics and advocating for women's empowerment long before the feminist movement of the 1960s.

Brancato was born on Jan. 17, 1903, to Italian immigrant parents and exhibited precociousness throughout her youth. She studied at Banks Business College, the Academy of the Sisters of Mercy, and took classes at Temple University, studying a variety of languages including Italian, French, and Japanese.

She found her calling in politics. After cutting her teeth in a Democratic club in South Philadelphia in the late 1920s, Brancato aimed her sights on a seat in the General Assembly. Living in a district dominated by Philadelphia's Republican political machine, Brancato — a 29-year-old unmarried Democratic woman of Italian descent — faced tough odds. Only one other Italian American Democrat had ever held a General Assembly seat, and no woman had ever been elected to the legislature as a Democrat.

Anne Brancato as speaker pro tempore of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, 1935.
Historical Society of Pennsylvania
Anne Brancato as speaker pro tempore of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, 1935.

Without a large-scale organizational infrastructure, Brancato walked door-to-door, personally disseminating campaign literature and even presenting speeches in flawless Italian to enthusiastic Italian American voters. Her efforts paid off. For the 1933 term, the young Brancato went to Harrisburg as a representative for the Fifth District.

"The party needs women, and I am the best vote-getter that they have," Brancato reportedly said during the 1932 campaign. Her 1,500-vote edge over Republican Joseph Argentieri may very well have been the result of a female electorate eager to see women in power.

The Great Depression bore on as Brancato commenced her political career. Part of a larger national movement for poverty relief, Brancato pursued a host of social-welfare laws designed to support the most vulnerable of her constituents. She sponsored the Mothers' Assistance Fund Law, which aided impoverished mothers, and advocated for short-form birth certificates, which eliminated the word illegitimate from the birth certificates of children born out of wedlock. Her appropriations bills benefited poor people with vision and hearing impairments and she sponsored legislation that curtailed predatory loan-shark behavior.

"We must make our women conscious of their responsibilities in government," Brancato once said.  She lived this mantra through her political career, demonstrating that politically active women could bring about positive change on behalf of their communities. She sponsored legislation that raised wages for women and limited abusive workplace practices. Brancato not only fought for pro-women policies, but proudly broadcast her political priorities, referencing them on campaign materials. In a political and cultural climate that permitted her colleagues in the legislature to openly ridicule her as a woman on the floor of the General Assembly, this was no small gesture.

After four successful terms, Brancato relinquished her seat in 1940 before briefly returning to the legislature in 1944. After her last term, she started a successful business — the Anne Brancato Telephone Answering & Secretarial Service — and married Augustus Wood, adopting the name Anne Brancato Wood. In 1956, she attempted one last foray into politics with a failed campaign for a state Senate seat.

During the final 15 years of her life, chronic laryngitis greatly diminished Brancato's ability to speak. Despite her ailment, she continued to write pleas to prominent national political figures to support young upstarts and worked on behalf of a staggering number of civic organizations, including the Navy League, the Philadelphia Housing Authority, the Pennsylvania Constitution Commemoration Committee, the Alliance of Catholic Women, St. Bernadette's Home of the Aged and Convalescent, among scores of others.

She passed away on Aug. 22, 1972.

Patrick Glennon is a communications officer at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. pglennon@hsp.org