Framing Women Members in Photographs

Winifred Claire Stanley brushed her curled hair. Alice Mary Robertson lifted the lid of a chafing dish. Helen Gahagan Douglas shopped for groceries. News photographs often depicted early female Members of Congress as homemakers and glamour girls rather than politicians, framing the public’s view of their Representatives.

By choosing domestic words and archetypes, the media gave context to images and articles. Since reporters had little experience with women politicians, they repeated familiar images. Sometimes these frames—a term used by media studies—bordered on stereotypes.

Homemakers

Alice Mary Robertson/tiles/non-collection/3/3-7-photo-Robertson-PA2013_06_0004b.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Representative Alice Mary Robertson, who operated the Sawokla Café in Oklahoma, spoke with a chef in the Capitol.
Alice Mary Robertson represented Oklahoma in the 67th Congress. One Harris & Ewing photograph, snapped shortly before the end of her term, shows her conversing with a chef in the Capitol. Before coming to Congress, Robertson ran Sawokla Café, a restaurant and gathering place on her dairy farm—so she was no amateur in a restaurant kitchen. But the caption emphasized that she learned and received “a few pointers” from the male cook, rather than comparing notes as equals.

Startled by a woman with political power, newspapers reverted to common and unthreatening images like mothers and cooks. Robertson appears more as a homemaker in a kitchen than a politician or a businesswoman. The kitchen served as a familiar frame for viewers, and a way to make the public comfortable with the emergence of women in Congress.

Glamour Girls

Winifred Claire Stanley/tiles/non-collection/3/3-7-photo-Luce-PA2011_08_0047b.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Winifred Claire Stanley, a Member from New York, received an award for “best-dressed woman in public life.” Stanley, along with Clare Boothe Luce and Helen Gahagan Douglas, was portrayed as a “glamour girl” of Congress.
During the 78th Congress, Representative Winifred Claire Stanley advocated for women’s rights. However, like Representatives Clare Boothe Luce and Helen Gahagan Douglas, Stanley was frequently called a “glamour girl” by the press. In 1943, she won the Fashion Academy’s award for best-dressed woman in public life. Photographers celebrated with images of her brushing her hair and making coffee in her apartment, showing off different outfits.

The glamour-girl type showed female Members as objects of desire, and as rivals, rather than powerful subjects. When newspapers framed women Members as glamour girls, articles paid close attention to their physical features and love interests, and even tried to manufacture jealousy and conflict. The caption for Stanley’s photograph suggests that she could give Luce “some very serious competition in the congressional glamor field.”

Masculine Performances

John G. Cooper, Randolph Perkins, and Edith Nourse Rogers Examine a Tank at the Capitol/tiles/non-collection/3/3-7-photo-Rogers-2008_137_000.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Massachusetts Representative Edith Nourse Rogers served 35 years in Congress and chaired the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Rogers sat atop an Army tank in front of the Capitol, shown with a more masculine prop than her female peers.
Unlike some women Members photographed with frilly props as homemakers or glamour girls, Edith Nourse Rogers was photographed on a tank. Rogers served in Congress from 1925 to 1960. She was a strong supporter of the military, chairing the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “Rogers was known for her legislative skill—something many reporters considered a male attribute,” so the Congresswoman was often described in masculine terms, wrote journalism professor Maria Braden. Photographs showed her in the cockpit of a plane, not in a kitchen.

Lacking the vocabulary to describe a Congresswoman as both female and powerful, observers described Rogers as masculine. When the Army demonstrated a fast, new tank by the East Front of the Capitol in 1931, she climbed aboard. Showing a female Representative with tanks and planes may have been jarring for viewers, but it symbolized her legislative power. Like Rogers, Florence Kahn did not fit the glamour girl mold, and quipped ironically that her success in the House Chamber was due to “sex appeal!

Reframing

Helen Gahagan Douglas/tiles/non-collection/3/3-7-photo-Douglas-PA2012_04_0056d.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
In 1947, Helen Gahagan Douglas posed for a photograph while shopping for groceries. She used her purchases in a speech on the House Floor the next day.
California Representative Helen Gahagan Douglas shrewdly used the press' own tools to turn media tropes on their heads. In 1947, she grew concerned about the rising cost of living. The Congresswoman planned to bring charts and graphs with financial data onto the House Floor to advocate for price controls on food and rent. But she worried that graphs of grocery prices would be so boring that nobody would pay attention. Instead, drawing from her former career as an actress, Douglas performed a more theatrical stunt. She went shopping, and brought a photographer along. The next day, she spilled out a basket of groceries and receipts in the House Chamber as she presented her case.

A photograph from the grocery store shows Douglas examining a bag of spinach, her shopping cart piled high. At first glance, the photograph seems to fit into the homemaker frame, because she appears to be shopping for a family dinner. However, a closer look shows that the Representative broke through the media frame. “Douglas knew that if she could gain the support of the press, she could win public support,” explained Braden. Instead of a story about her cooking, appearance, or love life, Douglas focused the attention of the press and the public on her cause. Newspapers consequently devoted many columns to the cost of living. Douglas believed that she convinced Congress to retain rent controls by framing the story herself.

Sources: Maria Braden, Women Politicians and the Media (University Press of Kentucky, 1996).

This is part of a monthly series of blog posts exploring the art and history of photographs from the House Collection.