Decades before Ronald Reagan, stage star and California celebrity Helen Gahagan Douglas made the transition from acting to politics to become one of her party’s standard–bearers. In an era when Cold War priorities often marginalized domestic reforms, Douglas became a beacon to New Deal liberals, who hoped to push economic and social legislation into the post–World War II period.1 Impatient with the institutional pace and intricacies of the House, Representative Douglas used her skills as an actress and her fame to speak passionately about topics ranging from equal rights for women to civil rights for African Americans and protections for the American worker.
Helen Gahagan was born in Boonton, New Jersey, on November 25, 1900, one of five children raised by Walter Hamer Gahagan II and Lillian Rose Mussen Gahagan. Her father owned a prosperous construction and shipyard business, and the family lived in the upper–middle–class section of Park Slope in Brooklyn, New York. Helen Gahagan attended the prestigious Berkeley School for Girls in Brooklyn. She later studied at the Capen School for Girls in Northampton, Massachusetts, and then at Barnard College in New York City. Against her father’s wishes, Gahagan left school before earning a degree. From 1922 to 1938, she pursued a career as an opera singer and an actress, starring in a variety of shows and plays. In a 1930 Broadway hit, Tonight or Never, Helen Gahagan met and costarred with her future husband, Melvyn Douglas. They married on April 5, 1931, and left New York City to relocate in Los Angeles as Melvyn pursued a film career. There, the Douglases raised two children, Peter and Mary Helen.
The move west, made in the early years of the Great Depression, exposed Helen Douglas to the suffering and deprivations wreaked by a disastrous drought and economic crash. It also inspired her to become active in public service on behalf of migrant farm workers and others whom the Depression had dislocated. “I became active in politics because I saw the possibility, if we all sat back and did nothing, of a world in which there would no longer be any stages for actors to act on,” she recalled.2 Domestic woes were compounded by foreign dangers. Douglas and her husband traveled frequently and witnessed firsthand Japanese militarism and European fascism in the 1930s.3 With international tensions on the rise, Helen Douglas set entertainment work aside and threw herself into public–service projects, becoming a member of the national advisory committee of the Works Progress Administration and a member of the California state committee of the National Youth Administration. She traveled frequently to the White House to meet with Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1940, she became a California Democratic national committeewoman—a post she held until 1944—serving as the vice chair of the California Democratic central committee and as head of the women’s division. From 1942 to 1943, she was on the board of the California Housing and Planning Association.
In 1944, when six–term incumbent Democrat Thomas Ford announced he would retire from his seat encompassing downtown Los Angeles, Douglas entered the race to succeed her political ally. With Ford’s endorsement, she prevailed in the primary as the only woman among eight candidates, receiving more than 14,000 votes, versus about 5,200 for the runner–up.4 In the general election, Douglas appealed to African–American voters in her urban district. Her platform called for equal rights, labor rights, food subsidies, unemployment insurance for returning GIs, a revitalized farm security program, and income–based taxation for farmers and small business owners. She also advocated international cooperation. Her candidacy drew attention to equality for women. When asked about a woman’s place in Congress, Douglas replied, “Politics is a job that needs doing—by anyone who is interested enough to train for it and work at it. It’s like housekeeping; someone has to do it. Whether the job is done by men or women is not important—only whether the job is done well or badly.”5 Douglas ultimately prevailed over her Republican opponent, William D. Campbell, by a slim margin, 51.5 to 48.5 percent. As she established a reputation in the House, Douglas’s electoral support increased. In her subsequent bids for re–election in 1946 and 1948, she defeated her GOP challengers with 54 percent and 65 percent, respectively.6
Douglas had little interest in mastering legislative processes, preferring instead to call attention to her agenda while using her celebrity to gain public exposure and awareness for specific programs.7 Her busy congressional schedule was complemented by an equally hectic speech–making itinerary around the country. Repeatedly during her congressional years, Douglas acted as a publicist for key liberal issues by making major speeches, both on and away from the House Floor, on issues ranging from postwar price controls to civil rights to the international regulation of atomic energy.
Douglas’s sole committee assignment throughout her six years in the House reflected one of her many areas of focus: Foreign Affairs. At the center of her philosophy on U.S. foreign policy was Douglas’s abiding internationalism. Douglas believed that America’s dominant military and economic “strength carries responsibilities and obligations which we must fulfill.”8 Consequently, she backed American participation in the United Nations, supported the implementation of the Bretton Woods Agreements, which created the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and consistently challenged U.S. policy early in the Cold War which, she believed, contributed to tensions with the Soviet Union. Douglas also supported Philippine independence and the creation of a Jewish state in Israel.9 President Harry S. Truman appointed her as an alternate U.S. Delegate to the United Nations Assembly.
In early October 1945, as debate raged over control and oversight of atomic energy, Douglas weighed in with a major floor speech that called for civilian, rather than military, control over the developing science. “We cannot keep this knowledge to ourselves,” she warned. “The air needs to be cleared of suspicion and doubt and fear. The United Nations, through the Security Council, should have the right to find out and know what is going on in every research laboratory in the world.”10 In the winter of 1945–1946, Congresswoman Douglas and Senator Brien McMahon of Connecticut introduced nearly identical bills which aimed at developing peaceful uses of atomic energy through U.S. civilian control. Douglas fought to strike out amendments during House passage which granted far–ranging powers to military developers. Many of these provisions did not appear when the House and Senate versions were reconciled, and the measure was passed in 1946. The Atomic Energy Act created the Atomic Energy Commission, charged with oversight of the development and testing of atomic weapons, as well as with peaceful applications of atomic power.11
Douglas’s House career also drew from her devotion to domestic priorities, including the continuation of New Deal economic policies and the pursuit of civil rights reform. In 1948, she trooped onto the House Floor toting a bag of groceries, to demonstrate the reduced buying power of housewives after the government lifted wartime price controls.12 A vocal and consistent defender of labor and unions, Douglas vehemently opposed the Taft–Hartley Act. Officially known as the Labor–Management Relations Act, the bill encompassed a series of amendments to the New Deal–era National Labor Relations Act, weakening the power of organized labor. Among its most controversial provisions was an amendment requiring union leaders to sign loyalty oaths attesting that they were not Communist Party members.13 Douglas also was a major proponent of federal efforts to provide affordable housing for Americans in the postwar era, an issue central to her constituency in booming California.14
During a period when the Jim Crow laws still applied in the nation’s capital, Helen Douglas used her outsider status to challenge prevailing racial attitudes. The first white Representative with African Americans on her staff, she also sought to desegregate Capitol restaurants. Douglas also attacked the practice of poll taxes, which effectively prevented many southern African Americans from voting, and she urged passage of antilynching legislation.15 When Mississippi Democrat John Rankin, chairman of the Committee on World War Veterans’ Legislation, charged that black regiments performed incompetently during key World War II battles, Douglas fiercely fought the allegation using military records. African–American servicemen, she reminded colleagues, fought “for a freedom which [they have] not as yet been permitted fully to share.”16
Douglas’s role as a spokesperson for liberal causes made her beloved by liberals and reviled by conservatives. In October 1945, Douglas lashed out at the House Un–American Activities Committee, which was investigating alleged communist sympathizers and which would eventually focus on many Hollywood writers and artists. Douglas argued that such a panel was unconstitutional.17 Critics charged that she was a communist fellow traveler. Douglas countered that the gravest danger to American society was not the threat of internal, or even external, communist subversion but that of demagoguery and repressive domestic controls justified in the name of national security. “The fear of communism in this country is not rational,” Douglas exhorted. “And that irrational fear of communism is being used in many quarters to blind us to our real problems.”18 In her 1948 re–election campaign, Douglas’s GOP opponent used redbaiting tactics to try to unseat her. The strategy failed, as she won by the widest margin of her career, but it set a troubling pattern in motion.
In 1950, Representative Douglas opted to run for one of California’s U.S. Senate seats. When incumbent Senator Sheridan Downey abruptly withdrew from the race, Manchester Boddy, editor of the Democratic–leaning Los Angeles Daily News, became Douglas’s principal opponent. Despite Boddy’s attempts to smear Douglas during the Democratic primary by labeling her a communist sympathizer, or a “pink lady,” Douglas ultimately prevailed by a 2–1 margin.19 The negative campaign begun by Boddy—particularly the “pink lady” epithet—resonated in the general election, as Douglas’s Republican opponent, Representative Richard M. Nixon, employed a similar strategy. Nixon’s ample campaign purse permitted him to wage a massive public relations campaign against Douglas. Nixon accused her of being “pink down to her underwear”; he distributed hundreds of thousands of pink flyers comparing Douglas’s liberal voting record with those of other congressional liberals. Douglas defended her voting record and returned Nixon’s verbal volleys; in one speech she referred to Nixon as “Tricky Dick,” a name that stuck with him for the remainder of his political career.20 But when Douglas tried to redirect the debate to compare their congressional careers and positions on issues, Nixon’s whispering campaign of unsubstantiated innuendos kept voter interest focused on allegations against Douglas. Nixon won with 59 percent of the vote, a nearly 700,000–vote plurality.21
Douglas retired to private life as a lecturer and a successful author. She later returned to the theater and performed in two Broadway plays. In 1964 she was again in the political spotlight when President Lyndon Johnson appointed her as the Special Ambassador to head the United States delegation to the inauguration ceremonies for President William V.S. Tubman of Liberia. She also authored a book based on her close friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt. She resided in New York City, succumbing to cancer on June 28, 1980.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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