In June 1932, Willa B. Eslick watched as her husband, Representative Edward Eslick, collapsed on the House Floor while speaking in support of the Patman Veterans' Bonus Bill. A moment that otherwise would have been a high point of the four–term Congressman's career instead turned tragic. Willa Eslick soon became the latest widow to succeed her husband. In completing the final fraction of Congressman Eslick's term in the 72nd Congress (1931–1933), she supported legislation to alleviate the economic woes of Depression–stricken farmers and to combat concerns of internal subversion.
Willa McCord Blake was the eighth child born to G.W. and Eliza Blake in Fayetteville, Tennessee, on September 8, 1878. She attended private schools for her primary education and later went to Dick White College and Milton College in Fayetteville. She also attended Winthrop Model School and Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee. The only time in her early adult life that Willa Blake left Tennessee was to study at the Metropolitan College of Music and Synthetic School of Music in New York City. After her college career, she became active in Democratic politics, served on the Tennessee Democratic Committee, and became a civic activist. Willa Blake married Edward Everett Eslick, a lawyer from Pulaski, Tennessee, on June 6, 1906.1 Edward Eslick eventually served as a government appeal agent for Giles County, Tennessee, during World War I. In 1924, he was elected as a Democrat to the 69th Congress (1925–1927) and won re–election to the three succeeding Congresses. Eslick represented a Tennessee district that encompassed a sprawling expanse of 11 agricultural counties in the western part of the state. Rooted in the Civil War and Reconstruction Era, Tennessee developed a solid partisan nature in which western and central portions of the state evolved into Democratic strongholds, whereas eastern Tennessee traditionally backed the GOP.2 In 1930, Speaker Nicholas Longworth of Ohio appointed four Members, including Eslick and New York Representative Hamilton Fish, to a special House committee on communist activities, which garnered national attention.3 Meanwhile, Willa Eslick accompanied her husband to Washington, D.C., where she followed his career with interest.
As a member of the House Ways and Means Committee in the 72nd Congress, Edward Eslick supported cash payments for American veterans who had served in World War I.4 On June 14, 1932, the Tennessee Representative began an impassioned speech on the House Floor urging passage of the Patman Veterans' Bonus Bill. With his wife and a ragtag collection of World War I veterans watching from the House Gallery, Eslick slumped over in mid–sentence from a massive heart attack. "We hear nothing but dollars here. I want to go from the sordid side—," he said before collapsing.5 Willa Eslick attempted to revive her 60–year–old husband as he lay on the floor, but he died soon thereafter.
Only four days later, Tennessee Democratic officials prevailed upon the widow Eslick to seek the nomination for the August special election to fill the vacant seat. William Fry, a former World War I serviceman and Columbia, Tennessee, lawyer, made the appeal on behalf of veterans, friends, and family.6 She agreed. Eslick defeated three opponents in the August 14, 1932, special election (on the same day as the Democratic primary statewide), garnering 51 percent of the vote to become the first woman to represent Tennessee in Congress.7 With Congress in extended recess for the fall 1932 general elections, Eslick was not officially sworn in until the House reconvened on December 5, 1932. A special lame duck session of Congress, called to deal with the soaring federal deficit and foreign debt, enabled Eslick to serve three months, until March 3, 1933.8 As a Representative, she received assignments on two committees: the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds—a position her husband held throughout his tenure in the House—and the Committee on World War Veterans' Legislation.
Although Eslick's committee assignments allowed her to further the legislative interests of her husband, they deprived her of a prime platform from which to assist directly the most pressing needs of her constituents, most of whom were farmers struck hard by the Great Depression. Nevertheless, in an effort to improve the lot of Tennessee farmers, she supported a plan aimed at preventing farm–mortgage foreclosures. "There are few comforting words that we who represent agricultural districts may give to our people," Eslick noted in a floor speech. "One is that everybody now recognizes that something should be done for them without delay." She also gave voice to agriculture's traditional mistrust of big industry. "Among those who now advocate succor to the producers of our food products are even included the makers of their machinery and steel tools who are still gouging farmers with war prices," Eslick told colleagues. "They brazenly ask for more tariffs, so that no one can force a moratorium for their excessive costs. They are the source of much corruption in some parts of the land. The farmer can not continue to buy in a protected market and sell in a free one."9
Eslick and dozens of other Representatives from rural districts brainstormed during late–night sessions to create other legislative solutions to alleviate the economic burdens imposed on farmers: immediate farm relief measures, efforts to curb overproduction, and voluntary measures that farmers themselves could enact. She voted for the emergency farm parity plan proposed by Texas Congressman Marvin Jones. Representative Eslick also supported a bill that offered federal relief to cotton farmers who reduced their production. She strongly endorsed in–coming President Franklin Roosevelt's plans for Tennessee River Valley development and the construction of an electrical–generating plant at Muscle Shoals, Alabama. "For our immediate section of Tennessee," she observed, "much of the gloom has been lifted by the hope which the President elect has given us."10
Eslick also carried on her husband's efforts to pass antisubversive legislation aimed principally at communist fellow travelers, radical immigrants, and union organizers. On February 2, 1933, she urged dire penalties for those who sought to undermine the U.S. government.11 Two weeks later the Judiciary Committee reported on the House Floor a measure (later named the Eslick Bill, after Edward Eslick) directed at any person who "by word of mouth or in writing" advocates "the overthrow or subversion of the government of the United States by force."12 The legislation had gained added momentum after Giuseppe Zangara, a naturalized Italian bricklayer, attempted to assassinate President–elect Franklin D. Roosevelt during a February 15, 1933, public rally in Miami, Florida. Chicago Mayor Anton J. Cermak was killed in the fusillade of bullets. Zangara, who spoke broken English, was quickly linked with radical extremists and communist groups. The Eslick Bill was related to other legislation aimed at preventing "criminal syndicalism," or union organizing, in both the agricultural and industrial sectors. The 72nd Congress adjourned in early March, before the measure was taken up on the House Floor.
Willa Eslick was not eligible for re–election to the 73rd Congress (1933–1935), since Edward Eslick died after the filing deadline for the 1932 congressional primary—and his opposition for the party primary already was set. In 1932, redistricting in Tennessee shifted most of Congress–woman Eslick's district into a newly created district, where Clarence Wyly Turner, a county judge and a former U.S. Representative, won the Democratic nomination on the same day Willa Eslick won her special election. With Tennessee's one–party system, capturing the Democratic nomination was tantamount to winning the election itself, and Turner went on to serve several terms in the House. Representative Fritz G. Lanham of Texas, chairman of the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds, had known Willa Eslick socially for years. But in his farewell commemorating her departure, it was her work as a committee colleague that he highlighted: "her outstanding ability, her keen intellect, which have enabled her so faithfully to carry on for her people and for the Nation work of the same efficient character" as her husband. "We part with her with regret…because of the service she has rendered and could render to our common country," Lanham added.13 Aside from not having qualified for nomination and the redistricting issue, however, Eslick seemed disinclined to seek a second term. She retired from public life and later returned to her home state. Willa Eslick died at age 82 on February 18, 1961, in Pulaski, Tennessee.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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