The Widow and Familial Connections
More often than not, the pioneer women in Congress gained experience in public affairs as political confidantes and campaign surrogates for the Congressmen to whom they were married or otherwise related. Ironically, it was personal tragedy rather than a shared interest in reform that provided political entrée for most early women in Congress. Beginning with Representative Mae Nolan in 1923, eight of the women who followed Rankin into Congress between 1917 and 1934 were widows who succeeded their late husbands. None had held political office. Several, however, were among their husbands’ most trusted political advisors, particularly Edith Nourse Rogers and Florence Prag Kahn.
While most widows left Capitol Hill after filling out a brief, unexpired term, some, like Rogers, whose 35 years in the House make her the longest-serving congressional woman, enjoyed public careers that far eclipsed those of their male predecessors. Hattie Wyatt Caraway of Arkansas, too, rejected the convention that widows were mere placeholders. As the second woman appointed to the Senate and later elected to fill out the remaining 10 months of her husband’s term, Caraway shocked the Arkansas political establishment in May 1932 when she announced her candidacy for a full term. “The time has passed when a woman should be placed in a position and kept there only while someone else is being groomed for the job,” she told reporters en route to an election victory and a 12-year Senate career.17
Another dimension to this phenomenon, may be described more properly as the familial connection. Four women from this era drew upon the experience of fathers who were established politicians (Winnifred Huck, Ruth Bryan Owen, McCormick, and McCarthy). Huck directly succeeded her late father with no experience in elective politics. In still another twist on the familial connection, Katherine Langley won a special election to succeed her husband, Kentucky Representative John Wesley Langley, after he was convicted and sent to prison for violating Prohibition. All told, 14 of these 20 pioneers drew upon precongressional experience as the wives or daughters of officeholders.
15The importance of the widow’s mandate is discussed in the introduction to this book. For a full treatment of this phenomenon, see Irwin N. Gertzog, Congressional Women: Their Recruitment, Integration, and Behavior (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995): 17–36.
16“Pro and Con,” 18 June 1932, Washington Post: 6.
17Susan M. Hartmann, “Caraway, Hattie Ophelia,” American National Biography Vol. 4 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): 369–370.