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.

Winnifred Mason Huck of Illinois/tiles/non-collection/w/wic_cont1_10_huck_golfing_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Winnifred Mason Huck of Illinois practices her golf game at the Potomac Park Links in Washington, D.C., in November 1922 with the Washington Monument in the background. Golf was an increasingly popular sport—driven partly by the success of its first bona fide U.S. superstar, Bobby Jones. Huck and later women in Congress took up the sport, in part, to interact with male colleagues who often used the links as an informal forum for transacting legislative business.
So prevalent was the practice of wives succeeding husbands in this and later generations that the term “widow’s mandate,” or “widow’s succession” was coined to explain it.15 The prevailing expectation was that the women would serve briefly and provide a seamless transition by carrying forward the legislative business and district interests of their deceased husbands. Local party officials, especially in the one-party South, recruited widow candidates for reasons of political expediency: to hold the seat while awaiting a male successor or to avoid a protracted intraparty fight for an open seat. Media stereotypes reinforced this limited role. Marking the retirement of congressional widow Effiegene Wingo of Arkansas, the New York Sun reflected on the phenomenon of widow’s succession. “Some of the women who have inherited a seat in Congress have demonstrated their individual ability,” the Sun observed, “but of most of them it can be said that they submitted with dignity and good taste to a false code of chivalry, served unostentatiously and departed the Capitol quietly, wondering what the men who invented the term-by-inheritance thought they were doing.”16

Congresswomen Florence Kahn of California (left) and Mary Norton of New Jersey flank Representative John P. Hill of Maryland/tiles/non-collection/w/wic_cont1_11_kahn_norton_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress In this January 1926 photo, Congresswomen Florence Kahn of California (left) and Mary Norton of New Jersey flank Representative John P. Hill of Maryland. The three Members sought to modify the Volstead Act which enforced the 18th Amendment (ratified in 1919) that prohibited the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol inside the United States, as well as its importation into the country. Prohibition ended with the repeal of the 18th Amendment in late 1933.
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.

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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.