Early Congresswomen’s Backgrounds

Alice Robertson of Oklahoma, Mae Ella Nolan of California, and Winnifred Mason Huck of Illinois/tiles/non-collection/w/wic_cont1_9_robertson_nolan_huck_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Left to right: Alice Robertson of Oklahoma, Mae Ella Nolan of California, and Winnifred Mason Huck of Illinois pose on the House entrance steps of the U.S. Capitol, February 15, 1923.

A majority of the early congressional women were born in the 1880s and 1890s and came of age during the Progressive Era. Culturally, the first generation of women in Congress had several commonalities. They were all white; the first non-Caucasian woman would not be elected until nearly half a century after Jeannette Rankin entered Congress. Most were raised Protestant, although there were several notable exceptions: including the first Catholic and the first Jewish women in Congress (Mae Nolan and Florence Kahn, respectively), who represented neighboring districts in San Francisco. Moreover, these women pioneers were exceedingly well-educated, partly because many came from well-to-do families that could afford private schooling and post-secondary education. Many were sent to elite finishing schools. More than half (13) attended university or college and several others graduated from trade schools. Before coming to Congress, many participated as volunteers and organizers in civic organizations and the social welfare endeavors typical of Progressive Era reformers. These activities included suffrage and electoral reform, missionary and education work, public health, nursing, veterans’ affairs issues, legal aid, and childcare. Rankin, at age 36, was the youngest woman elected to Congress during this pioneer generation. Two other women, Mae Nolan of California and Katherine Langley of Kentucky, were in their late 30s as well. At the opposite end of the spectrum was 87-year-old Senator Rebecca Felton. The median age of the women elected to Congress through the mid-1930s was 50. (By contrast, the median age of the men entering Congress during the same period was about 46.)13

Few women could draw on previous electoral experience. Mary Norton (a New Jersey County freeholder), Ruth Baker Pratt (a New York City alderman), and Kathryn O’Loughlin McCarthy (a Kansas State representative), were the only women in this era who had held public office before they came to Congress. Several other women had prominent careers as lobbyists, activists, or party officials. Rankin was widely known as an advocate for suffrage reform and Edith Nourse Rogers was a national spokesperson for World War I veterans before she came to Congress. Perhaps the most qualified candidate was Ruth Hanna McCormick, a suffrage lobbyist and GOP official and the daughter of former Ohio Senator and Republican kingmaker Mark Hanna. In 1918, McCormick was appointed head of the newly created Republican Women’s National Executive Committee (RWNEC). Initially she assured GOP men that women “do not want jobs, but want good men in office. They have come into politics with their knitting to stay.” Subsequently McCormick worked to remove male oversight by the Republican National Executive Committee (RNEC) and secured the power for the RWNEC to make its own appointments. In 1919 she admonished male RNEC colleagues, saying “I marvel at the apprehension of some of you regarding our citizenship. . . . This is our country no less than yours, gentlemen.”14 However, extensive precongressional experience in politics or public affairs was the exception rather than the rule among this group of pioneers. 

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13Allan G. Borgue, Jerome M. Clubb, Carroll R. McKibbin, and Santa A. Traugott, “Members of the House of Representatives and the Processes of Modernization, 1789–1960,” Journal of American History, 63 (September 1976): 275–302; figures on 291. Roughly 30 percent of men, however, were elected in their 30s.

14Gustafson, Women and the Republican Party, 1854–1924: 179–180; see also Kristie Miller, Ruth Hanna McCormick: A Life in Politics, 1880–1944 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994).