Full Documentary Transcript

In 1925, Florence Prag Kahn succeeded her late husband Julius in a San Francisco-based U.S. House seat. Most early congressional widows served as temporary placeholders until party leaders chose long-term, male successors. But Kahn was no ordinary political widow. With an insider’s knowledge of House operations and a gift for turning a phrase, she set herself to “attending to business”—expanding the Bay Area’s infrastructure and military installations during her 12-year career, while blazing a trail for women seeking political office.

Introduction

“[‘Second Leisure’] is a time when women can give constructively to their country or their State or their city.”
—Florence Kahn

Florence Prag Kahn once remarked that “there comes a time in most women’s lives when the children are grown and there is a let-down in life’s responsibilities.”

She named this phase “second leisure.”

Following the death of her husband Julius in 1925, 58-year-old Florence Kahn won election to his San Francisco House seat, becoming the first Jewish woman to serve in Congress and just the seventh woman to serve on Capitol Hill.

Expectations for early congressional widows dictated a quiet term of service and rapid retirement to private life.

But Florence Kahn defied expectations, spending her “second leisure” expanding women’s place in politics and procuring federal dollars that changed the face of northern California.

Olden Days

The olden days, the olden times
Whose memories ring in sweetest chimes

—attributed to Mary Goldsmith Prag

Florence Prag was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, on November 9, 1866, the daughter of Polish-Jewish immigrants Conrad and Mary Goldsmith Prag.

The family moved to San Francisco, California, when Florence was young.

Mary Prag was clever and well-read and she had great influence on her only daughter.

As one of the first Jewish members of the San Francisco board of education, Mary’s ties with the city's prominent leaders later advanced her daughter’s congressional career.

Florence Prag was well-educated for a woman at the time; she was one of seven women in a class of 40 to graduate from the University of California at Berkeley in 1887.

Unable to afford law school, Florence taught for more than a decade at San Francisco’s Lowell High School.

Wife of a Congressman

“One of the things I learned during twenty-five years as the wife of a Congressman is not to meet the issues until they come up and not to talk too much.”
—Florence Kahn

On March 19, 1899, Florence Prag married Julius Kahn, a freshman Republican Representative from San Francisco.

Julius was born in Germany in 1861 and immigrated to San Francisco as a boy.

A former stage actor turned lawyer, he was embarking on a quarter century-long career on Capitol Hill.

Florence Kahn raised two sons, Julius, Jr., and Conrad, while helping Julius manage his congressional workload.

She acted as his aide and confidante as he rose to chair the Committee on Military Affairs.

Florence’s influence grew as she handled her husband’s workload while he battled a long illness.

Julius Kahn was re-elected in November 1924 but died the following month.

Widow’s Mandate

“Mrs. Kahn, shrewd, resourceful, witty, is an all-around first-rate legislator, the equal of any man in Congress, and the superior of most.”
—Alice Roosevelt Longworth

Like other congressional widows of this era, the personal tragedy of losing a spouse provided Florence Kahn’s political entrée.

Local Republican leaders recognized her familiarity with Julius’s work. They asked Florence to run for the vacant seat.

Florence Kahn won the special election on February 17, 1925, against three opponents.

Kahn was in good company; nearly half the women elected to Congress before 1934 were widows who succeeded their late husbands.

The term “widow’s mandate” was later coined to explain the phenomenon.

Kahn, however, bucked the prevailing expectation that congressional widows merely finish their deceased husbands’ terms.

She was re-elected five times to a district that encompassed the north side of San Francisco’s burgeoning metropolis—on the tip of a peninsula situated between the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay.

Cool, Grey City of Love

“The winds of the Future wait
At the iron walls of her Gate,
…My cool, grey city of love.

Poet George Sterling

San Francisco grew dramatically in the 1920s.

Skyscrapers shot upward; streetcar lines lengthened; and ferries linked the peninsula with surrounding bayside communities.

The Bay Area’s population nearly doubled between 1910 and 1930.

Florence Kahn’s insider’s knowledge of the House of Representatives ultimately aided her in obtaining prestigious committee assignments.

This allowed her to serve the particular interests of the city in the committee rooms where much of Congress’s substantial work was accomplished.

In her second term, Kahn won a seat on the Military Affairs Committee that Julius Kahn once chaired.

And in 1933, she became the first woman appointed to the influential House Appropriations Committee, which initiates federal spending bills.

Preparedness Never Caused a War

“Preparedness has never caused a war, nor has unpreparedness ever prevented one.”
—Florence Kahn

Florence Kahn’s legislative achievements fulfilled her husband’s initiatives and the needs of her San Francisco constituency.

She remained a devout proponent for strong armed forces in an era when peace activists sought to outlaw war.

Kahn secured military installations in the Bay Area, the largest of which was the Naval Air Depot in Alameda.

She shined a spotlight on the East Bay location in 1930 when she introduced a successful bill to authorize the acquisition of the land for the U.S. Navy.

The Navy opened the Alameda Naval Station shortly before the U.S. entered World War II.

Kahn’s San Francisco district also was the site of two simultaneous bridge projects in the 1930s.

The Golden Gate connected San Francisco with the Marin headlands to the north.

And the Bay Bridge linked the city to the East Bay.

Kahn employed her formidable political skill to procure federal funding for the Bay Bridge, ensuring the further economic development of northern California.

She also shaped legislation with national consequences.

Kahn’s support for the Federal Bureau of Investigation was so reliable that her personal friend, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, nicknamed her the “Mother of the F.B.I.”

Believing that government could not legislate virtue, Kahn helped to ease Prohibition’s restrictions set forth in the Volstead Act, which outlawed the production, sale, and possession of alcohol.

No Sex in Citizenship 

“There is no sex in citizenship, and there should be none in politics. I felt that I had a man’s job to do and I wanted to fill it in a man’s way, by attending to business.”
—Florence Kahn

Florence Kahn was one of only a handful of women in Congress and she pursued legislative initiatives aiding women working in the federal government.

Despite passionately believing that women belonged in politics, however, she never considered herself a feminist.

“I am not specifically interested in so-called women’s questions,” Kahn remarked, “as all national positions are sexless.”

Much of her effectiveness in the House resulted from a vibrant and clever personality.

Asked how she managed such a successful legislative record, Kahn snapped back, “Sex appeal!”

The quip stood in sharp contrast to the Congresswoman’s no-nonsense wardrobe featuring shapeless black dresses and pince nez glasses.

“She won’t slick herself up [and] she won’t reduce,” one journalist observed.

Democratic Landslide

“You always know how Florence Kahn is going to vote, but only God has the slightest inkling of what she’s going to say.”
—American Mercury Magazine

While Florence Kahn’s sense of humor was unpredictable, her loyalty to the Republican Party was not. Kahn’s resolute party affiliation, however, brought her House career to a close.

Amidst the economic crisis of the Great Depression, San Francisco voters joined a nationwide trend, seeking relief in the New Deal policies of Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

FDR’s 1936 re-election landslide swept even more congressional Democrats into office. Kahn’s San Francisco district, solidly Republican for three decades, was no exception.

Progressive-Democrat Frank Havenner defeated her with 58 percent of the vote.

Retiring Home

“I have always felt a warm gratitude to Mrs. Kahn, not only for her wit…, but for her underlying wisdom.”
—Representative Sol Bloom of New York

Florence Kahn retired to San Francisco where her Nob Hill home remained a gathering place for the city’s political elite.

In 1939, she chaired the women’s division of the Golden Gate International Exposition, celebrating her home city’s prominent place in pan-Pacific culture.

Kahn died on November 16, 1948, following a series of heart attacks.

“Although her health ebbed,” the San Francisco Chronicle eulogized, “her wit and her fabulous intellect remained undimmed, almost until the moment of her death.”

Credits

Narrator
Karen C. Fox

Additional Voices
Farar Elliott
Laura Turner O’Hara
Terrance Rucker
Matt Wasniewski
Jaime Zapata

Produced by
Office of History and Preservation
(present day Office of the Historian and Office of Art and Archives)
Office of Publication Services

Office of the Clerk
U.S. House of Representatives

Images and Source Information provided by
Alameda Naval Air Museum
Architect of the Capitol
Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)
Congressional Research Service
Judah L. Magnes Museum
Naval History & Heritage Command
Pacific Region, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)
Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Still Picture Division, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

Special Thanks to
Julie Haugen, Pacific Region, NARA
Jessie Kratz, Center for Legislative Archives, NARA
Lara Michels, Judah L. Magnes Museum

Please Visit Image Credits for detailed source information