Crafting an Identity

New Yorkers queue up in a bread line during the depths of the Great Depression./tiles/non-collection/w/wic_cont1_15_great_depression_bread_FDR_ Lib_67-107(1).xml Image courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library/National Archives and Records Administration New Yorkers queue up in a bread line near the intersection of Sixth Avenue and 42nd Street in New York City in 1932 during the depths of the Great Depression. One in four American workers were unemployed as a result of the prolonged economic crisis.
The passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 marked a great divide in the women’s rights movement in America. A central “paradox of change” for newly enfranchised women was embedded in the suffrage movement itself. Some reformers had sought to liberate women by making them politically equal to men, whereas others fought for the vote believing that women’s interests were inherently different from men’s, requiring special advocacy that could not be co-opted by existing institutions.35 This central question, in one form or another, remained unresolved through much of the 20th century and has persisted throughout the history of women in Congress. Did women’s historical underrepresentation give these pioneer Congresswomen the responsibility to advocate for all women, even for those beyond the prescribed borders of their districts or states, or could they best promote women’s political advancement by eschewing a narrow set of “women’s issues”?

Congresswomen in this era favored the latter choice and tended to limit their support to legislation that addressed issues affecting women within the context of their traditional roles as wives, mothers, and dependents.36Ruth Baker Pratt of New York refused to champion women’s special interests in Congress and, on one occasion, proclaimed that “sex had no place whatever in politics.”37 Nevertheless, she used her profile to urge women to participate in local politics. Pearl Oldfield, the widow of a powerful Arkansas Congressman, agreed with Pratt’s assessment. After serving two years in the House, she retired, telling the New York Times, “No one should seek or expect public office simply because of her sex, but she has an equal right to appeal to the voters for support on the basis of her comparative ability to render public service.”38 The press reinforced these views. The Washington Post celebrated Ruth McCormick’s 1930 Senate bid because the Congresswoman “made a straightforward fight for the nomination without appealing for support on the ground that women are entitled to representation. If she wins, it will be on her own merit. If she should lose, she would nevertheless be credited with the most remarkable campaign ever conducted by a woman.”39

Mary Norton, adept at navigating toward power within the institution, captured that spirit most succinctly when she rebuffed a male colleague who deferred to her as a “lady” during a debate. “I’m no lady, I’m a Member of Congress,” Norton replied, “and I’ll proceed on that basis.” Her remark encapsulated the belief shared by most of her female contemporaries on the Hill—Democrat and Republican—that the surest way for women to attain power and influence in Congress was to work within the prescribed system to mitigate gender differences. That belief would be subsequently reevaluated and challenged.

Next Section: Onto the National Stage


35Chafe, The Paradox of Change: 23.

36Gertzog, Congressional Women: 148.

37Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: 78.

38“Mrs. Oldfield Decries Feminist in Politics,” 19 February 1931, New York Times: 3.

39“Ruth McCormick,” 10 April 1930, Washington Post: 6.