Legislative Interests and Achievements
The majority of the early women Members legislated in areas deemed by their society to be gender-appropriate; women were viewed as caregivers, educators, and consumers. The pioneer women in Congress were scattered across more than 30 committees, most of which ranked as lower-tier panels. Not surprisingly, the largest number of House women (five) served on the Committee on Woman Suffrage before it was disbanded in December 1927. Other assignments given to women Members included seats on committees like Education (four); World War Veterans’ Legislation (four); Civil Service (four); Public Buildings and Grounds (four); and Indian Affairs (three).
From their earliest days in Congress, women’s legislative interests were not monolithic. Members’ agendas derived from unique political beliefs, personal ideologies, and constituencies, all of which shaped the contours of their legislative efforts. Florence Kahn successfully promoted major Bay Area projects – securing funding to initiate construction of the Bay Bridge and procuring land for the development of the Alameda Naval Air Station. Edith Rogers, as chair of the hospitals subcommittee of the World War Veterans’ Legislation Committee, procured millions in funding for a national network of veterans’ hospitals. Ruth Owen authored legislation to combat the fruit fly, which threatened agricultural interests in her Florida district. From her seat on the Foreign Relations Committee, Owen promoted American participation in international conferences; at the outset of the Great Depression, she advocated the creation of a Cabinet-level department to oversee the health and welfare of families and children–a “Department of Home and Child.” Even Rankin, while focusing in her first term on woman suffrage, tended to the needs of miners in her district from her seat on Public Lands.
Congressional women did not vote as a bloc or always agree on the viability of legislation and programs that directly affected their gender as illustrated by the stark differences between the first and second women in Congress (Rankin and Robertson). Rankin, former secretary of the NAWSA, focused on issues affecting women and children. “There are hundreds of men to care for the nation’s tariff and foreign policy and irrigation projects,” she told voters on the campaign trail. “But there isn’t a single woman to look after the nation’s greatest asset: its children.”27 Once in the House, she worked to pass a constitutional amendment for the vote in Congress and also sponsored a bill to create an education program on women’s health. That legislation came before the House several years later as part of the Sheppard–Towner Maternal and Infancy Act, which allocated $1.25 million annually in federal money for prenatal, maternal, and infant health care education through public health nurses supervised by the Children’s Bureau. This marked one of the earliest efforts in U.S. history to secure federal funding social welfare.28
Robertson was the only woman in Congress when the Sheppard–Towner legislation was introduced in May 1921. A disciple of limited federal government, she refused to endorse it. She was also an avowed foe of the powerful lobbying groups that backed the measure, namely the League of Women Voters (the NAWSA’s incarnation after 1920) and the National Woman’s Party (NWP). Congresswoman Robertson denounced the bill as an intrusion into women’s private lives. Nevertheless, Sheppard–Towner was signed into law on November 23, 1921, demonstrating the lobbying power and public relations savvy of women’s groups while highlighting the glaring lack of women’s power within Congress. “If Members could have voted in the cloakroom it would have been killed,” recalled a male Representative.29
In fact, the legislation that most affected women in the 1920s was won primarily by the organized lobbying of voluntary associations when very few women were in Congress. The Cable Act of 1922 granted married women U.S. citizenship independent of their husband’s status, and provided citizenship protection for women who married aliens or who gained U.S. citizenship by marrying an American citizen. The Lehlbach Act of 1923 improved the merit system of the civil service, making it easier for women to secure federal jobs. After intense lobbying by women’s groups, Congress passed the Child Labor Amendment to the Constitution on June 2, 1924, which sought to achieve national uniformity for child labor standards. This amendment would have given Congress the power “to limit, regulate, and prohibit the labor of persons under 18 years of age,” had it been subsequently ratified by the states. Finally, in 1923, the NWP pushed for and won the introduction of the Equal Rights Amendment on the 75th Anniversary of the Seneca Falls (NY) Convention of women reformers. The measure was reintroduced scores of times in subsequent Congresses but it languished in committee for nearly 50 years. In the interwar years, no woman Member publicly aligned herself with it both because it was perceived as a threat to existing labor protections for women and because of mistrust of the NWP and its militant tactics.30
Several major public policy issues recur in these profiles. One was the debate about Prohibition, the federal ban on alcohol. Congress passed the 18th Amendment in December 1917, prohibiting the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquor within or into the United States. The states ratified the amendment in January 1919. The passage of the Volstead Act later that October over a presidential veto provided the mechanism that enforced the amendment. Lauded by “dry” temperance advocates and derided by “wet” opponents, Prohibition proved a divisive and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to regulate morality through federal legislation. It was eventually repealed in 1933 by the 21st Amendment.
For the women in Congress during this initial period, Prohibition was a significant issue. Women had played a prominent role as temperance reformers and agitators, since the early part of the 19th century. Among the best-known was the leader of the WCTU, Frances Willard, who wielded tremendous influence in the late 1800s as a key congressional lobbyist for Prohibition.31 None of the early women in Congress were as strident. Most addressed Prohibition in one of two arenas, either on the campaign trail or in legislative initiatives. They were evenly divided over the issue. Among its supporters were Rogers, Owen, Oldfield, and McCormick. Rogers’s “dry” position was an important factor in her initial special election. Owen’s Florida constituents turned her out of office in 1932 when she was reluctant to support legislation repealing Prohibition. Opposition to Prohibition became politically more expedient in the early 1930s, when the focus on the debate shifted from morality to economics. Mary Norton offered the first bill to repeal Prohibition laws. Congresswomen Pratt, Jenckes, and McCarthy also supported efforts to repeal the Volstead Act, arguing that this action might help revive the flagging economy. Jenckes and McCarthy, who hailed from agricultural districts, argued that renewed production of grain-based spirits would benefit farmers.
Another issue that affected women Members during this era was the decade-long argument concerning the payment of a bonus to World War I veterans. The American Legion lobbied Congress shortly after the First World War to fund a bonus for servicemen to compensate them for the wages they lost when they left higher-paying civilian jobs to serve in uniform. Congress approved a bonus in 1922, but the bill was vetoed by President Warren Harding. In May 1924, over the veto of President Calvin Coolidge, Congress passed the Soldiers Bonus Act, which provided veterans a bonus of $1.25 for each day of overseas duty and $1 for each day of domestic service—payable in 1945. Veterans could borrow up to 25 percent of their total bonus amount from a fund created by the bill.32 By the early 1930s, with the country mired in a devastating depression, veterans organized a march on Washington, D.C., to demand immediate payment of the bonus. The Bonus March on the capital in 1932 involved thousands of protesters and their families who set up camp in the Anacostia Flats, a short distance from the U.S. Capitol. In June 1932, the House approved the bonus bill but the Senate rejected it. Protesters who remained afterward were forcibly ejected by army troops, who used tanks and tear gas to disperse them.
Care for the welfare of servicemen was another arena in which women were widely recognized as experts, because of the development of a large female nursing corps in the years during and after the Civil War.33 Women Members used that authority to weigh in on both sides of this debate. Congresswoman Robertson, an ally of servicemen during World War I, voted against the first Bonus Bill in 1922, angering so many constituents that they turned her out of office the following year. Congresswoman Nolan was an early advocate of a bonus and challenged the Coolidge administration to make it a higher priority than tax cuts for the wealthy. Willa Eslick of Tennessee was watching from the House Gallery in June 1932 when her husband, Edward, collapsed and died of a heart attack in an impassioned speech supporting the Bonus Bill. At the urging of local servicemen, Eslick ran for her late husband’s seat and won election to a brief term, which she dedicated to his legislative agenda. Isabella Greenway of Arizona, long a patron of veterans, helped renew the debate for a bonus payment after she was elected to Congress in 1933. Greenway was an ally of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, but her relations with the administration eventually cooled when the President’s Economy Act of 1933 called for cuts to servicemen’s pensions and denied a proposed $2 billion bonus.
The debates over Prohibition and the soldiers’ bonus ultimately culminated with the onset of yet another challenge confronting women in Congress during this period, the Great Depression. The stock market crash in October 1929, preceded by years of rampant stock speculation and ineffectual federal regulatory policies spread economic ruin throughout the country. Investors’ mounting losses, sharply lower consumer spending, plummeting agricultural prices, and widespread runs on banks sent the economy into a three-year skid. By the winter of 1932–1933, more than 5,500 banks had been shut down, nearly one in four Americans was unemployed, and the gross national product had declined by nearly a third.34
The Great Depression decisively influenced the careers of congressional women. For Republicans, it proved disastrous. In 1930, Ruth McCormick’s bid for the U.S. Senate was undercut by growing disillusionment with the Herbert Hoover administration’s policies for economic recovery. Two years later, Ruth Pratt fell victim to a similar trend when she lost her Manhattan House seat. A trio of Democratic Arkansas widows—Oldfield, Wingo, and Caraway—focused on relief for their agricultural constituencies through a variety of federal measures. Democrats Kathryn O’Loughlin McCarthy and Virginia Jenckes were elected from traditionally Republican districts in 1932 by agricultural constituencies desperate for federal relief. Isabella Greenway of Arizona campaigned partly on her cachet as a friend of the Roosevelt family and partly on her ability to translate that influence into public works jobs for Arizonans. But even for Democratic supporters of the New Deal there were perils and disagreements. Kansas farmers revolted against the Agricultural Adjustment Act, a cornerstone of the early New Deal, and voted McCarthy out of office after only one term. While Congresswomen Jenckes and Greenway supported emergency government programs to prime the economic pump, they were much more skeptical about later New Deal programs that sought to establish a social welfare system including unemployment insurance and old-age pensions.
26For committee attractiveness during this period, see Charles Stewart III, “Committee Hierarchies in the Modernizing House, 1875–1947,” American Journal of Political Science 36 (No. 4, November 1992): 835–856.
27Smith, Jeannette Rankin: 102.
28Theda Skocpol, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992): especially 494–522.
29Quoted in Chafe, The Paradox of Change. 27.
30Gertzog, Congressional Women: 148–152.
31For more on the temperance and Prohibition, see Ruth Bordin’s Woman and Temperance: The Quest for Power and Liberty, 1873–1900 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990) and Thomas R. Pegram, Battling Demon Rum: The Struggle for a Dry America, 1800–1933 (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee Publishers, 1998).
32Steven Stathis, Landmark Legislation, 1774–2002 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 2003): 185–186.
33See, for example, Susan M. Reverby, Ordered to Care: The Dilemma of American Nursing, 1850–1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987).
34For a thorough treatment of the Great Depression era, see David M. Kennedy, Freedom From Fear (New York: Oxford, 2004).