A Roosevelt family friend and New Deal stalwart, Nan Wood Honeyman of Oregon won election to the House of Representatives during the 1936 landslide re–election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. As an unreconstructed supporter of the President, Honeyman experienced the promises and pitfalls of hitching her political wagon to executive programs that did not always rest well with her constituents.
Nan Wood was born in West Point, New York, on July 15, 1881. Her father was Charles Erskine Scott Wood, Indian fighter, poet, and former adjutant of the United States Military Academy. In 1883, he resigned from the army and moved his family to Portland, Oregon. “Nanny” attended private schools and graduated from St. Helen’s Hall in 1898. She later attended the Finch School in New York City for three years, where she studied music and established a lifelong friendship with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1907, she married David Taylor Honeyman, secretary–treasurer of the Honeyman Hardware Company in Portland, and they raised three children: Nancy, David, and Judith. David Honeyman, whom his wife described as a “Roosevelt Republican,” was supportive of her nascent political career though he was determined to “keep my wife’s politics out of my business.”1
Nan Honeyman became active in local and state politics in her late 40s as an anti–Prohibition activist. Though a teetotaler herself, Honeyman rejected the idea that “any law governing people’s personal conduct should be a part of the Constitution.”2 In 1928, she became head of the Oregon division of the Women’s National Organization for Prohibition Reform. Two years later, she aligned with liberal interests in the state and became vice chair of the Oregon Democratic Committee. The party asked her to run for Congress in 1930 as Portland’s U.S. Representative. It was a testament to what party leaders believed Honeyman’s potential was as a vote getter. Since the district was created through reapportionment in 1912, only one Democrat had ever won election there and, then, only for a single term. Honeyman declined the offer but campaigned actively for the eventual Democratic candidate, General Charles H. Martin. Martin won election to two consecutive terms. In 1933, Honeyman served as president of the state constitutional convention which ratified the 21st Amendment, repealing Prohibition. A year later, when Martin won election as Oregon governor, party leaders again prevailed on Honeyman to run for the Portland seat. She again declined, according to one newspaper account, because she was apprehensive about her lack of experience in elective office.3 She instead campaigned for and won a seat in the Oregon house of representatives. Honeyman later served as a delegate to the Democratic national conventions of 1936 and 1940.
In 1936, Honeyman challenged freshman incumbent Republican William A. Ekwall in the race for the Portland seat. Honeyman embraced the New Deal platform of President Roosevelt and supported the plan championed by Eleanor Roosevelt and Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, which called for a pension drawn from taxing an individual’s lifetime income. Honeyman refused to endorse a competing proposal—the so–called Townshend Plan. Francis Townshend, a California doctor, had advocated “universal” old–age pensions of $200 per month to every American 65 years or older. A faction of the Democratic Party, “Townshendites,” ran John A. Jefferey as an Independent candidate after Honeyman scooped up the nomination.4 Honeyman held two advantages, in particular: a strong network of women’s groups from her anti–Prohibition work and a door–to–door campaign style. Honeyman visited Portland factories to talk with workers on their lunch breaks. She canvassed the city, walking block by block to speak with housewives and retirees. “Don’t ever think that the day of personal campaigning is past,” Honeyman declared. “Voters want to know who is representing them. And women running for office can overcome much masculine prejudice by meeting the men voters face to face.”5 At the 1936 Philadelphia convention, she gained valuable publicity by seconding FDR’s nomination. In a state where two–thirds of voters preferred FDR to Republican Alf Landon in the fall elections, Honeyman benefited from presidential coattails. She captured 53 percent of the vote, while Ekwall, her closest competitor, managed only 31 percent.6 She became the first woman to represent Oregon in Congress. Honeyman’s youngest daughter, 20–year–old Judith, came to work for her mother in Washington.7
On January 4, 1937, when Honeyman took the oath of office she told a reporter that she intended to “keep my eyes and ears open and my mouth shut,” during the first session.8 She largely fulfilled that pledge. During her House service, Honeyman staunchly supported the New Deal. She was assigned to three committees: Indian Affairs, Irrigation and Reclamation, and Rivers and Harbors. The latter assignment was a valuable one, considering the port business of her district. Honeyman supported a range of federal programs that benefited her constituents. She voted for a resolution to continue loans to farmers in 1937 for crop production and harvesting, noting that about 10,000 Oregon farmers had benefited from the program since Roosevelt had taken office.9 Honeyman supported the President’s neutrality policies, including the 1937 Neutrality Act, which created a “cash and carry” program whereby belligerents could purchase strategic goods in the U.S. and ship them back on non–American carriers. She was uncomfortable, however, with America becoming an arsenal for Atlantic allies. U.S. security, she declared, might be “accomplished more effectively and quickly by concentrating our naval and military programs to this end and by eliminating all phases of that program which might constitute needless preparation for aggressive warfare.”10 In 1938, Honeyman sponsored a bill authorizing the federal government to acquire lands along the Columbia River on which to build a large naval port and air base. Referred to the Naval Affairs Committee, it did not pass.11
But for all Honeyman’s connections and her key committee post, she seemed a bit adrift in Washington. Her forays onto the House Floor were infrequent, and her legislative interests were eclectic, ranging from strengthening the nation’s defenses to proposing that the federal government create a national award for poetry. Honeyman seemed at times curiously aloof to the interests of her district’s constituents. For instance, during Irrigation and Reclamation Committee debate over appropriations for the completion and operation of the Bonneville Dam along the Columbia River, she often deferred from delivering her opinion, noting only that she unreservedly supported whatever actions President Roosevelt recommended. The Bonneville Dam was one of the great public works projects of the New Deal. Construction commenced in 1933, and by its completion five years later, the dam, combined with its system of locks, promised to open navigation along vast stretches of the Columbia River (with its mouth at the Pacific in Portland) and to generate electricity for large swaths of the Northwest. Honeyman did weigh in on the nascent issues of private versus public power, fighting to make a greater share of the hydroelectric power generated by the Bonneville Dam available to publicly owned cooperatives. To that end, Congresswoman Honeyman fought for congressional funding for more transmission lines to meet the projected increase in demand for power from the facility.12 In an effort to limit the role of private utility companies, Honeyman also sought to keep Bonneville’s power–generating function securely under the oversight of the Interior Department.13
The critical turning point for the freshman Representative seems to have been her unflinching support for Roosevelt in the midst of the “court–packing” fight in 1937, when the President sought to create a Supreme Court more favorable to his New Deal programs. Critics accused FDR of undermining the independence of the judiciary. In support of Roosevelt’s plan, Honeyman mailed out a mimeographed letter to constituents. She declared her allegiance to FDR, telling voters in her district that she would not oppose the President’s effort “to liberalize the judiciary.” Pouncing on this episode, critics described Honeyman as a “stencil for the White House duplicating machine.”14
When Honeyman ran for re–election in 1938, she beat William J. Pendergast, Jr., by a wide margin in the Democratic primary. But in the general election she faced a formidable candidate—liberal Republican Homer D. Angell. Trained as a lawyer, Angell was in the state senate after three terms in the Oregon house of representatives and enjoyed wide name recognition in Portland. Despite the Roosevelt administration’s efforts to aid her re–election—the First Lady endorsed Honeyman in her syndicated newspaper column and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, who admired the Congresswoman’s stand on public power, stumped on her behalf during the campaign’s home stretch—Honeyman lost to Angell by a thin margin of about 2,500 votes, 51 to 49 percent.15 Overall, Democrats lost 78 congressional seats in the 1938 mid–term elections. In 1940, Honeyman again challenged Angell with the support of Eleanor Roosevelt. However, with two Independent candidates drawing off about 4,000 votes, Angell won re–election by a slender margin, about 3,000 votes, or less than two percent of the total turnout.
After Congress, Honeyman stayed active in politics and government. From August 1941 to May 1942 she was the senior Pacific Coast representative of the Office of Price Administration. In late 1941, she also was appointed by the Multnomah County commissioners to fill a vacant seat for a brief term in the Oregon state senate, but she resigned several months later. Honeyman’s loyalty to the Roosevelt administration was rewarded when FDR appointed her the collector of customs in the 29th District, Portland, in May 1942. She served in that position for 11 years, retiring in July 1953. Honeyman moved to Woodacre, California, in the mid–1960s and died there on December 10, 1970.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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