Kansas voters elected their first Congresswoman, Miss Kathryn O’Loughlin, in 1932. But in 1933, Mrs. O’Loughlin McCarthy took office. Romance started on the campaign trail and followed her all the way to Washington.
During the primary campaign, she kept bumping into Daniel McCarthy, a politician running for state senate in Kansas. Although McCarthy was polite to her, he supported her opponent. “Wasn’t that nerve?” O’Loughlin laughed. “I didn’t care a lot at the time, though, except that I respected his influence and was sorry not to have him on my side.”
As O’Loughlin traveled around making speeches, McCarthy kept popping up for his own campaign. “He’d always suggest that I send my driver on to put up the loud speaker, and he’d take me” around the countryside instead. They got to know each other during their drives around Jewell County. Impressed by her witty, strong, and straightforward personality, his feelings about her changed.
O’Loughlin won the primary. Although McCarthy was initially against her, she said, in the general election, he “gave me his whole-hearted support”—followed shortly by his whole heart. “We talked and lived so much politics it’s a wonder romance ever had the nerve to crash the gate.” O’Loughlin won the general election and became the first female Representative from Kansas.
Her love of politics was sparked by her father’s time as a Kansas state representative. “I used to go and listen in. Sometimes I could hardly sit still at the debates. I wanted to get in there and argue too.” But her father disagreed, preferring her to be a bookkeeper at his garage. In spite of his opposition, she studied law at the University of Chicago and dug into her political career.
Immediately following the election, rumors quickly swirled about O’Loughlin’s love life, but they missed the mark. After she saw a movie with Kansas Governor Harry Woodring, O’Loughlin had to deny stories that they were engaged. She hid her budding romance with McCarthy from the media because many of her constituents believed that matrimony would interfere with a woman’s career: “I’m almost certain that if I’d been married before I ran for Congress I wouldn’t have had a chance,” she observed.
Meanwhile, she received numerous marriage proposals from strangers around the country. A Texas cowboy heard that O’Loughlin rode broncos during her childhood on a ranch, and wrote to her, suggesting that they would get along “just fine together.” A banker proposed, thinking she would be a good stepmother for his daughter. She remained untempted by the offers. The San Diego Union reported, “Miss O’Loughlin says she is not considering matrimony, but is thinking of buying a scrapbook for her matrimonial correspondence.”
After dodging rumors and unwanted proposals, the Congresswoman-elect and the state senator-elect were married on February 4, 1933, a month before the start of the 73rd Congress. The ceremony took place in Hyacinth Church, a pine-board chapel located on the cattle ranch of O’Loughlin’s father. A reporter for the New York Times salivated over her wedding gown “in crêpe of mist-of-the-morning shade, with white bands trimmed in iridescent beads and seed pearls,” paired with “an orchid velvet capelet and a string of crystals.”
The unusual circumstances of the marriage continued in Washington. McCarthy missed his wife’s swearing-in because the Kansas state legislature was in session. But he arrived in the capital as soon as he could to take on an unconventional role. He set up shop in her office, working as her secretary when he had a break from his senatorial day job. The newspapers proclaimed him “the one and only husband-secretary in official Washington,” and recounted with surprise that he liked his work.
McCarthy explained his role to the perplexed reporters: “Well, I meet everybody who comes in with requests or problems. I handle and sort Kathryn’s mail, make her appointments, look things up for her and try to be useful generally.” However, he clarified, “I’m not on the Federal payroll. Mine is just [a] labor of love.”
While her husband countered gender stereotypes in the office, the Congresswoman defied expectations in the Capitol. Defending her legislative record on the House Floor, she reminded colleagues and constituents: “Remember my initials are K.O.—and ‘Knock-out’ McCarthy is on the job.”
Sources: New York Times, February 5, 1933; Boston Globe, February 5, 1933; San Diego Union, April 14, 1933; Washington Post, January 17, 1934; Congressional Record, 73rd Cong., 2nd sess. (June 18, 1934).
In honor of the 100th anniversary of the election and swearing-in of the first woman in Congress, we will publish a series of blog posts about the early women Members and the changing role of women in the institution. Check back each month through 2017 to see the latest posts.Follow @USHouseHistory