Onto the National Stage: Congresswomen in an Age of Crisis, 1935-1954

Thirty-six women entered Congress for the first time between 1935 and 1954, a tumultuous two decades that encompassed the Great Depression, World War II, and the start of the Cold War. Women participated in America’s survival, recovery, and ascent to world power in important and unprecedented ways; they became shapers of the welfare state, workers during wartime, and members of the military. During this time the nation’s capital took on increasing importance in the everyday lives of average Americans. The Great Depression and the specter of global war transformed the role of the federal government, making it a provider and protector. Like their male counterparts, women in Congress legislated to provide economic relief to their constituents, debated the merits of government intervention to cure the economy, argued about America’s role in world affairs, and grappled with challenges and opportunities during wartime.

Women Members of the 83rd Congress/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_Essay2_2_Women_83rd_NARA.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration Women of the 83rd Congress (1953–1955). Seated, from left: Vera Buchanan of Pennsylvania, Leonor Sullivan of Missouri, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, Marguerite Church of Illinois, Gracie Pfost of Idaho. Standing, from left: Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts, Frances P. Bolton of Ohio, Ruth Thompson of Michigan, Cecil Harden of Indiana, Maude Kee of West Virginia, and Katharine St. George of New York.
Distinct trends persisted from the pioneer generation (1917–1934) of women in Congress. Second-generation women still made up only a small fraction of the total congressional membership. At their peak, 15 women served in the 83rd Congress (1953–1955), less than 3 percent of the combined membership of the U.S. House and Senate. These numbers afforded women scant leverage to pursue a unified agenda, though few even seemed inclined to champion what would later be called “women’s issues.” The widow-familial succession remained for women a primary route to political office.

Subtle changes, however, slowly advanced women’s status on Capitol Hill. By and large, women elected to Congress between 1935 and 1954 had more experience as politicians or as party officials than did their predecessors. In the postwar era, they were appointed more often to influential committees, including those with jurisdiction over military affairs, the judiciary, and agriculture. Also, in a significant break from tradition, several women emerged as national figures and were prominently featured as spokespersons by their parties.

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