BYRON, Katharine Edgar

BYRON, Katharine Edgar
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
1903–1976

Biography

Maryland’s first woman Member in Congress, Katharine Edgar Byron, came to the House through the “widow’s mandate,” after an airplane crash had killed her husband. Congresswoman Byron became a firm supporter of President Franklin Roosevelt’s foreign policies during World War II.

Katharine Edgar was born on October 25, 1903, to Brigadier General Clinton Goodloe and Mary McComas Edgar in Detroit, Michigan, where General Edgar was posted. Katharine’s mother, Mary, belonged to a prominent political family from western Maryland. Her grandfather, Louis Emory McComas, had served in the House and Senate during the late 19th century. Katharine, one of two children, spent an affluent and politically connected childhood based in the McComas estate, Springfield Farm, in western Maryland.1 She attended elite private schools such as the Westover School in Middlebury, Connecticut, and the Holton Arms School in Montgomery County, just outside Washington, D.C. In 1922, Katharine met and married William D. Byron, a World War I aviator and the owner of a leather manufacturing business. The couple had five sons: William, James, Goodloe, David, and Louis. William Byron was mayor of Williamsport, Maryland, a member of the state senate, and a member of the Maryland Roads Commission. In 1938 he successfully ran for the U.S. House as a Democrat in a district that covered western Maryland, including the towns of Frederick and Hagerstown. Byron won a tight re–election race in 1940 against the legendary professional baseball pitcher Walter “Big Train” Johnson. Katharine Byron aided her husband’s political career through her activities with local organizations such as the Red Cross flood disaster committee. She also served as town commissioner for Williamsport during William’s House service. Additionally, Katharine was one of Washington’s well–known Democratic hostesses from the Byron family home in northwest Washington.

Less than two months into his second term, Representative Byron died in an airplane accident on February 27, 1941, near Atlanta, Georgia, that killed six others and severely injured World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker.2 With only tepid support from local Democratic leaders, Katharine Byron decided within a month to seek her husband’s seat in a special election scheduled for late May 1941. She said she hoped to “carry on Bill’s work.”3 Among those rumored to be interested in the Democratic nomination were former Congressman David J. Lewis, Maryland Democratic National Committeeman William Preston Lane, State Senator John B. Funk, and Earl Cobey, a western Maryland attorney and an associate of U.S. Attorney General William C. Walsh. Lewis, a Progressive liberal and the former chairman of the Labor Committee, had represented the district for 14 years, from 1911 to 1917 and again from 1931 to 1939. In 1938, he made an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate, thus opening the seat which William Byron had won. Lane, a close associate of William Byron and the spouse of a Byron family member, refused to run against Katharine, although he also withheld his endorsement from her.4 Women’s groups in Montgomery County, one of the district’s largest counties, did not support Byron because they did not believe she could defeat the presumptive Republican candidate, A. Charles Stewart from Frostburg, Maryland.5 Meanwhile, Katharine Byron pressed party leaders for the nomination, telling them that she wanted to complete her husband’s programs, but pledging that if she won she would not seek re–election to the 78th Congress (1943–1945). On April19, 1941, 30 Democratic committeemen gathered in Hagerstown, Maryland, to choose their candidate. After a long deadlock, Byron prevailed when an Alleghany County committeeman swung his vote to her, giving her a 16–14 edge and the support of three of the district’s five counties.6

Katharine Byron’s campaign for the general election was equally contentious. Stewart, age 62, was a considerable opponent and a political veteran. In 1938, he lost narrowly to William Byron in a heated contest that centered on the New Deal—falling a little less than 1,500 votes short out of 91,000 cast.7 In 1941, the new Byron–Stewart contest centered on the nation’s response to war in Europe. The Democratic candidate backed the Roosevelt administration’s foreign policies and pledged to support in Congress “all aid to Britain, short of war.”8 Stewart, tapping into isolationist sentiment in the rural areas of the state, accused Byron of being a rubber stamp for an administration trying to “spill blood of our boys in the squabbles of Europe.” On Stewart’s behalf, Walter Johnson stumped throughout the district, drawing large crowds of workers and baseball enthusiasts.9

But Katharine Byron had her own marquee speakers and a built–in edge in party registration. In campaign appearances with nationally known Democrats like First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Representative Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, Byron endorsed U.S. support for nations fighting against the Nazis and recommended greater military preparedness. Byron, the state’s first woman candidate for Congress, proved a durable campaigner and rallied the support of women’s Democratic groups.10 Two days before the election, Eleanor Roosevelt swung through the district to provide her unqualified endorsement for Byron. “Her popularity in Government circles and her contacts in Washington will prove a real benefit to her constituents,” Roosevelt assured voters. “We need not only more women in Congress but more Representatives of the high qualifications possessed by Katharine Byron.”11 The widow candidate also benefited from a 4–1 advantage in registered Democrats within the district. She closed the campaign with a “caravan tour” in Stewart’s stronghold in Alleghany and Garrett counties, which included musical performances by three of her sons, who offered a rendition of a song they called “Beautiful Ka–a–aty.”12 On May 27, 1941, Byron defeated Stewart by an even slenderer margin than had her husband, a little more than 1,000 votes. “My election, I feel, is a very fitting tribute to my late husband and it is my only hope to do the utmost to carry on the work he has begun,” she told reporters on election night.13 On June 11, 1941, Katharine Byron was sworn in as U.S. Representative and assigned to the Civil Service and War Claims committees.

Katharine Byron’s career in the House was shaped by international exigencies which produced a climate far different from that when her husband had won election as a Democrat just a few years earlier. Most of her 18 months in office were devoted to issues arising from American aid to nations fighting Nazi Germany and, then, U.S. intervention in the Second World War. In a debate on the amendment to the Neutrality Act in November 1941, Byron urged her colleagues to accelerate the delivery of war material to Great Britain and the Soviet Union by repealing the neutrality law that forbade American ships from delivering such equipment to belligerents. On the House Floor she recounted a conversation with her only draft–age son, William. “How should I vote?” she asked him. “Mother, there is only one thing to do and that is to vote for the repeal of the act, and I will be very proud of you,” he replied. She added, “I feel it is my duty to my sons, to my late husband, and to those I represent to vote for this measure so that our country will remain the democracy it is today and not be dominated by Hitler.”14 That same month she christened the Liberty Fleet freighter Francis Scott Key at a Baltimore shipyard. Three weeks later, on 8 December, the day following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas recognized Byron and four other Representatives to declare on the House Floor their support for a declaration of war. “I am willing to give my sons to their country’s defense,” Byron told colleagues. “I am 100 percent in favor of avenging the wrong done our country and maintaining our country’s honor. We must go into this thing to beat the Japanese aggressor. I shall do everything by voice, by vote, everything within my power to bring about this end.”15

The war shaped Byron’s subsequent work, even where she dealt with issues of local interest. In 1942 she argued for the maintenance of Works Projects Administration (WPA) programs within her district as a necessary adjunct to national defense projects. WPA funds were supporting the construction of two airfields in the district as well as the housing and childcare needs of construction workers and their families. “We have many projects started in the district very necessary to the defense program,” Bryon said, “and if these had to be abandoned it would endanger our war effort.”16

Contrary to her earlier promise not to seek re–election, Congresswoman Byron filed for the Democratic primary in the summer of 1942, but she withdrew shortly thereafter, leaving the nomination to Lieutenant Colonel E. Brooke Lee, who eventually lost in the general election.17 Byron had already delivered her first campaign speech, in William D. Byron Park in Williamsport, when a call went out for women to support the war effort. Her governess, a registered nurse, decided to quit and volunteer as a military nurse. Byron later claimed that she could neither stand in the way of that decision nor find a replacement and, thus, abandoned her re–election campaign to take care of her children, the youngest of whom was five.18 In October 1947, she married Samuel Bynum Riddick, head of public relations for the Federal Housing Administration.19 Much of Byron’s postcongressional career was spent as a Red Cross volunteer. In 1970, Katharine Byron took to the campaign trail again, helping her son, Goodloe Byron, win election to the U.S. House in a district that covered much of the region that hers had 30 years earlier.20 Katharine Byron, still active in the capital’s elite social circuit, died in Georgetown on December 28, 1976.

Footnotes

1Hope Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress (New York: Praeger, 1973): 158.

2“Byron Killed in Air Crash Fatal to Seven,” 28 February 1941, Washington Post: 3.

3William O. Varn, “Contest Hot, Sixth District Votes Today,” 27 May 1941, Washington Post: 27.

4“Lewis May Seek Byron’s Seat,” 17 March 1941, Washington Post: 6; “Lane Denies Endorsement of Mrs. Byron,” 9 April 1941, Washington Post: 12.

5“Lewis May Seek Byron’s Seat.”

6“Caucus Names Widow to Run for Byron Seat,” 20 April 1941, Washington Post: B3.

7Varn, “Contest Hot, Sixth District Votes Today.”

8“Mrs. Byron Marks Victory Amid Hubbub of Congratulations and Household Duties,” 30 May 1931, Washington Post: 13.

9“Walter Johnson Backs Stewart at Montgomery Rally,” 8 May 1941, Washington Post: 7.

10Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: 157.

11“First Lady Urges Election of Mrs. Byron,” 26 May 1941, Washington Post: 22.

12“Mrs. Byron Marks Victory Amid Hubbub of Congratulations and Household Duties.”

13“Mrs. Byron Elected Maryland’s First Congresswoman,” 28 May 1941, Washington Post: 1.

14Ruth Cowan, “House Women Back Change in Neutrality,” 14 November 1941, Washington Post: 2; Congressional Record, House, 77th Cong., 1st sess. (13 November 1941): 8853.

15“Katharine Byron Dies, Former Md. Legislator,” 29 December 1976, Washington Post: C8; Congressional Record; House, 77th Cong., 1st sess. (8 December 1941): 9521.

16Congressional Record, House, 77th Cong., 2nd sess. (11 June 1942): 5163.

17“Coalition May Fight for Charter,” 10 August 1942, Washington Post: 13; and “Elections Statistics, 1920 to Present,” http://clerk.house.gov/member_info/electionInfo/index.aspx.

18Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: 158.

19“Mrs. Byron, Mr. Riddick To Be Wed,” 28 September 1947, Washington Post: S5.

20Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: 158.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Katharine Edgar Byron" in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Civil Service
  • House Committee - War Claims
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