Women Take the Spotlight

On January 6, 1941, Jeannette Rankin attended a Joint Session of Congress just days after being sworn in to a second term in the House. Representatives and Senators of the new 77th Congress had gathered to count the electoral college vote. A mere 30 minutes after completing that duty, Members of Congress listened to President Franklin Roosevelt's address about the war in Europe and the looming threat to America.

For Rankin, who’d first entered Congress 24 years earlier at the opening of the 65th Congress in 1917, the scene must have been familiar—war clouds gathering on the horizon, a dramatic presidential address, and a whirl of press attention, much of it paid to her return and, remarkably, still focused on her gender.

Five Congresswomen/tiles/non-collection/4/4-10-photo-Rankin-pa2012_08_0002-2.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
After the Joint Session, Jeannette Rankin (left) spoke with Frances Bolton, Mary Norton, Margaret Chase Smith, and Edith Nourse Rogers.
This time, Rankin was not the only woman in the House of Representatives. Six women joined her at the start of the Congress: Frances Bolton of Ohio, Mary Norton of New Jersey, Caroline O’Day of New York, Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, and Jessie Sumner of Illinois. (Veronica Boland of Pennsylvania and Katharine Byron of Maryland both won seats in special elections later in the Congress.)

In addition to the Congresswomen on the House Floor, a number of high-profile female guests attended the Joint Session. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was accompanied by a mysterious woman, whose regal appearance led many in the House Chamber to crane their necks and ask, “Who’s that woman with Mrs. Roosevelt?” She turned out to be Crown Princess Märtha of Norway. “The First Lady leaned over innumerable times to chat with the Crown Princess, and obviously was explaining to her some points of procedure in a joint session,” newspapers reported.

View of the House Chamber During the Joint Session/tiles/non-collection/4/4-10-photo-Rankin-2008_130_20.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives This photograph shows a view of the House Chamber during the January 6, 1941, Joint Session. The back of one Congresswoman’s head is visible in the lower right corner.
Lucinda Rayburn, sister of Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas, arrived early. “Miss Lou” remained excited throughout the afternoon, charming onlookers with her enthusiasm. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, widow of late Speaker Nicholas Longworth and relative of the President, took a seat on the House Floor, along with her daughter Paulina.

“Looks like the women have taken over the place,” a journalist huffed as he entered the Press Gallery before President Roosevelt’s address. Perhaps the women visitors were inspired by Rankin, Rogers, Norton, and other Congresswomen. The Washington Post recorded that “the ladies had their share of the seats and plenty of attention, as the joint Congressional session got under way in a blaze of klieg lights.”

The many women in the chamber got reporters buzzing in admiration of, and occasional surprise about, their presence. One Washington Post article about the afternoon was titled, “Norse Princess, First Lady and Envoys' Wives Make Dazzling Assembly as Congress Opens.” The Christian Science Monitor carried an article with the shocked title, “In Congressional Spotlight: Why, Look! It's the Women!” Much of the reporting focused on the Congresswomen’s clothes. (Black ensembles with an orchid corsage or pearls were trending.)

The Rostrum During the Joint Session/tiles/non-collection/4/4-10-photo-Rankin-PA2011_07_0008.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives On January 6, 1941, the House and Senate met in a Joint Session to tally electoral votes and listen to the President’s address.
Some newspapers illustrated the Joint Session and the President’s notable speech with photographs of the Congresswomen, rather than images of the President. News photographers took several snapshots of Rankin with Bolton, Norton, Smith, and Rogers after the Joint Session. One, in the House Collection, shows the women smiling and talking. The Boston Globe hammed it up with a similar photo, entitled, “Congressional ‘Coeds’ Go for a Stroll.” The image of the Congresswomen served as the illustration for an article about Roosevelt’s address. The Christian Science Monitor ran a photo of the five Congresswomen, called, “the Feminine Touch to the 77th Congress.” In the photographs, the humor and friendship between the women Members is palpable. Bolton and Rogers smile at one another. In other photographs of this moment, Norton, Smith, and Rogers light up with laughter.

In 1917, Rankin was the first woman elected to Congress. At the time, she was the first and only woman in the House. The press and the public paid her attention not only because of her politics, but also because of her gender. Back for her second term, Rankin was no longer the lone woman. “There is nothing unusual about a woman being elected,” she said. Although Rankin and the other Congresswomen might not have found it unusual anymore, gender continued to take the spotlight.

Sources: Washington Post, January 7, 1941; Boston Globe, January 7, 1941; and Christian Science Monitor, January 7, 1941.

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.

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