Marian Clarke won election to the U.S. House of Representatives less than two months after the death of her husband, Representative John D. Clarke, in an automobile crash. Shortly after being sworn into office, Congresswoman Clarke confided to the Washington Post: “I wanted dreadfully to come, of course. I felt the need of some absorbing work.”1 While coping with her own loss, Clarke attended to the needs of individuals and industry in her local district struggling with the effects of the Great Depression.
Marian K. Williams was born on July 29, 1880, in Standing Stone, Pennsylvania, the daughter of Ripp and Florence K. Williams.2 Her parents moved her and her older brother, Kingsley, to Cheyenne, Wyoming, in 1891, and the Williamses spent their childhood in various states. Marian Williams attended art school at the University of Nebraska and graduated with a B.A. from Colorado College in 1902. As an undergraduate at Colorado College, she enrolled in a public speaking class taught by John Clarke. “At the end of the course he called me to him and said he hated to discourage me but he felt duty bound to tell me I never would be an orator,” Marian recalled. “In fact, he explained that he really shouldn’t pass me in the course but he would stretch a point and let me by on my written work.” Years later she would deliver campaign speeches on his behalf.3 With her strength as a writer, she worked three years as a reporter for a Colorado Springs newspaper. Marian Williams married Clarke in 1905, and the couple moved to New York City, where John worked for several mining companies before graduating from Brooklyn Law School in 1911. After earning his law degree, John Clarke worked in the mining department of the Carnegie Steel Corporation and for several other mining interests. The Clarkes raised one son, John Duncan. In 1915, they moved to John Clarke’s native Delaware County, in upstate New York. He pursued a newfound interest in agriculture and forestry, operating “Arbor Hill,” a farm near Dehli, New York. He became president of the New York State Forestry Association and vice president of the New York Conservation Association.4
In 1920, John Clarke easily won election as a U.S. Representative from a conservative New York district covering the city of Binghamton and surrounding counties. Except for the 69th Congress (1925–1927), for which he was an unsuccessful candidate, he represented this district from 1921 to 1933. A strong believer in environmental conservation, he cosponsored the Clarke–McNary Reforestation Bill with Oregon Senator Charles L. McNary in 1924, creating a comprehensive national reforestation policy.5 The bill authorized the President to set aside national forests on military and other federal lands and established a federally funded seedling planting program to assist “the owners of farms in establishing, improving, and in growing and renewing useful timber crops.” Marian Clarke played an active role in her husband’s congressional career in Washington, D.C. “You see I was always interested in my husband’s work and followed his activities very closely,” Clarke told the Washington Post. “It was a rare day that didn’t find me in the gallery all eyes and ears for what was going on.”6 She recalled that her political experience also included her work as a “general factotum” in her husband’s office.7
On November 5, 1933, while returning home from a wedding along snowy back roads, John Clarke died in a head–on auto wreck. Less than a month after her husband’s death, Marian Clarke was selected at a meeting of district Republican leaders in Sidney, New York, as the GOP nominee to fill out John Clarke’s vacant term.8 It is not clear whether she sought the nomination actively or whether GOP leaders simply offered it to her. She was a compromise candidate, however, chosen on the 11th ballot.9 The heavily Republican New York district encompassed a largely agricultural swath of the state and the city of Binghamton near the border with Pennsylvania. Despite the high number of registered GOP voters residing in the district, New York Democrats felt optimistic about the odds of their candidate, John J. Burns, a retired shoe manufacturer and Binghamton city councilman. Burns boasted strong support among businessmen and expected to benefit from a low rural voter turnout in the dead of winter.10 On December 28, 1933, in a blizzard, constituents— many of them driving to polling places on treacherous roads from their farms—comfortably elected Marian Clarke. Turnout was low, less than 20 percent, but Clarke ran slightly ahead across the entire district and received a large plurality in her Delaware County precincts. With that boost she beat Burns by about 5,000 votes out of approximately 30,000 cast, giving her roughly 60 percent of the total.11 “It has been a life–saver,” she said of the election. “It means that I can go right on with the same interests.12” Clarke became one of just three Republican women—Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts and Florence Kahn of California were the others—elected to Congress during the first six years of the New Deal. She also held the distinction of being the only woman among the 45 members of the New York congressional delegation.
When Clarke took her seat in the House on January 3, 1934, she received assignments on three minor committees: Civil Service, Claims, and Invalid Pensions.13 In her first floor speech, Representative Clarke introduced a measure to raise the equipment allowance for rural mail carriers to cover winter and early spring months. In a district with many dirt roads, Clarke insisted such an extension would greatly aid postal carriers forced to navigate icy roads on snowmobiles or muddy springtime lanes by car. Increased allowances also would help offset increased insurance expenses and a new four–cent gas tax. “No one is more aware than I of the necessity for economy at the present time, but it seems to me as though there might be other ways to save this amount that would be more humanitarian than taking it from these men whose lives are already so hard,” Clarke said to applause from the floor and gallery.14 Despite passing the House, the bill languished in committee in the Senate.15 In March 1934, Clarke introduced a bill to reimburse Army personnel for personal property losses incurred during the infamous 1915 hurricane which struck Texas’s Gulf Coast.16 Having lived for more than a decade in the capital, Clarke also played an active role in several Washington, D.C., women’s organizations.
Like her Democratic counterparts, Clarke remained preoccupied with the economic needs of her constituents during the depths of the Great Depression. Since her New York district included more than 22 shoe factories that employed 17,000 workers, Clarke urged her House colleagues to add an amendment to the Tariff Act of 1930 to protect shoe manufacturers from cheaply produced and inferior products imported from foreign countries.17 “I am not one of those who believe that Congress can or should attempt to legislate prosperity,” Clarke told her colleagues in a floor speech. “I think that is the wrong way of looking at the whole problem. I urge that it is not the function of Congress and it is not the intent of the government to lift any group bodily from a particular economic condition through economic means…. But I think we are all agreed, Mr. Speaker, to this general proposition: That it is the function of Congress to insure equal opportunity.” Clarke argued that without protecting such large employers and preserving an industry tax base, the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration would undercut its efforts to stimulate the economy.18
During her short stint as a Representative, Clarke exhibited limited legislative effectiveness due to her relative political inexperience and because Democrats greatly outnumbered Republicans in the House. In 1934, she declined to run for the GOP renomination. The eventual Republican nominee, Bert Lord, a lumber businessman from Afton, New York, and former state commissioner of motor vehicles, won handily that fall. Upon her retirement from the House, Clarke returned to Arbor Hill. She remained active in GOP politics and served as an alternate to the 1936 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Tragedy struck Marian Clarke again when her only son died in an auto wreck in 1939. She lived most of the remainder of her life in relative seclusion at Arbor Hill. Clarke died in Cooperstown, New York, on April 8, 1953.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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