Water, liquor, and communism stirred Virginia E. Jenckes’s considerable passions and spurred her into elective politics, where she unseated a 16–year veteran Congressman to become the first Indiana woman to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. Jenckes’s expressions of commitment to creating flood control for her constituents, abolishing Prohibition, and routing communist influences from American society made her one of the more colorful Washington politicians during the New Deal.
Virginia Ellis Somes was born on November 6, 1877, in Terre Haute, Indiana, to James Ellis, a pharmacist, and Mary Oliver Somes. She attended public schools in Terre Haute and took one year of coursework at Coates College.1 In 1912, Virginia Somes married Ray Greene Jenckes, a Terre Haute businessman 34 years her senior.2 A year later, Virginia Jenckes gave birth to a daughter, Virginia. The couple operated a 1,300–acre family farm along the banks of the Wabash River in western Indiana. Ray Jenckes died in 1921, leaving his widow to manage the farm and raise their child.
Flooding posed a constant problem in western Indiana. In 1927, a new dike along the Wabash River failed, threatening lives and Jenckes’s $15,000 crop. She mobilized local residents and participated in a 3,000–sandbag effort that successfully contained the breach. That experience led her to found and serve as secretary and lobbyist for the Wabash and Maumee Valley Improvement Association, an organization that proposed flood control programs and projects. In 1928, Jenckes achieved a major political triumph when party leaders adopted one of her association’s flood control plans into the Democratic National platform.3 Success emboldened Jenckes, and within several years she had committed herself to running for Congress.
In 1932, the road to Washington was not an easy one. A year earlier, reapportionment had reshuffled Indiana politics, leaving Jenckes the task of ousting two incumbents. The new Indiana district, tucked along much of the western portion of the state that bordered Illinois, included 10 counties and Jenckes’s hometown. In the primary, she faced Democrat Courtland C. Gillen, a one–term incumbent from Greencastle. Acting as her own campaign manager, Jenckes developed a simple strategy and platform: abolish Prohibition. “Get rid of Prohibition and you will have a market for your corn,” she told farmers.4 Prohibition had closed Terre Haute’s distilleries after 1919 and contributed to a slide in commodities prices that accelerated with the onset of the Great Depression. The message resonated in the presumed dry sections of the Indiana district. She also reminded the voters of her strong record and personal experience with flood control.5
In the Democratic primary in May 1932 she unseated Gillen. In the general election, her 19–year–old daughter, Virginia, chauffeured her on a speaking tour that logged 15,000 miles.6 Jenckes faced Fred Sampson Purnell, an eight–term incumbent, who had represented the northern counties prior to redistricting. Purnell, who voted down a proposal to loosen Prohibition laws in the 72nd Congress (1931–1933), found himself in the political battle of his life as the Democratic Party embraced the repeal of the legislation. Jenckes ultimately prevailed with 54 percent of the vote to Purnell’s 46 percent. In Indiana the four GOP incumbents lost and the state’s 12–seat House delegation went all–Democratic, thanks to presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt’s long coattails. Hoping to capitalize on farmers’ discontent with the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), Purnell challenged Jenckes again in 1934. But she won by a hair’s breadth, polling just 383 more votes than Purnell out of 135,000 cast.
Securing all–important committee assignments was another matter entirely. In 1933, Congresswoman Jenckes failed to persuade Democratic leaders to give her a seat on either the coveted Agriculture Committee or the Rivers and Harbors Committee, which would have given her the opportunity to effect change for her farming constituents through crop relief programs or flood control. Instead, she received assignments on three lower–tier committees: Mines and Mining, Civil Service, and District of Columbia.7 She kept the latter two assignments throughout her House career but dropped Mines and Mining after the 74th Congress (1935–1937). The District of Columbia Committee assignment brought plenty of work but few rewards, as it did not remotely benefit any of her constituents. Nevertheless, Jenckes devoted herself to giving D.C. voters a greater voice in their government, reducing the workload on city firefighters, and monitoring developments in city schools. In 1937, she became the first American woman appointed as a delegate to the Interparliamentary Union in Paris.8
During her first term, Jenckes made good on her promise to seek an end to Prohibition—a task made easier by a compliant Congress and President. One of her first House votes was to support the Cullen Beer Bill— allowing for the production, transportation, and sale of the beverage—which passed by a wide margin in March 1933.9 She also managed to secure $18 million in funding during the following Congress for a series of flood control projects along the Wabash River Basin.10
Jenckes emerged as an advocate for American veterans and workers. In one of her first floor speeches, she urged her colleagues to support a comprehensive “rehabilitation” program for U.S. veterans.11 A year later, Jenckes voted for the Patman Bill to extend a bonus to World War I veterans. She also encouraged Congress to adopt the Railroad Retirement Act, which nationalized rail workers’ pensions, an important step toward creating universal old–age pensions.12 Having voted for the first AAA to relieve drought and Depression–stricken farmers, Jenckes supported efforts to develop substitute legislation after the Supreme Court had invalidated the original act.13 Jenckes believed New Deal programs particularly affected women and that it was important that she was in Congress to speak for women’s interests. “For the first time in history, there’s an electric connection between Congress and the home,” Jenckes said.14
Though Jenckes broadly supported New Deal relief programs, her relationship with the Roosevelt administration was frosty. She had faith in her convictions but not always the requisite tact of a Washington insider. She believed FDR to be too conservative, too patrician, and too willing to subordinate the Democratic Party’s interests to his own “selfish ambitions.”15 Jenckes soon clashed with Harry Hopkins—one of President Roosevelt’s most trusted advisers, chief administrator of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and director of the Works Progress (later Projects) Administration—over the disbursement of federal money in her district.16 While Jenckes embraced federal programs to ease her constituents’ economic burdens, she was more hesitant than other New Dealers about reinventing the role of government either in the direction of a planned economy or the creation of the welfare state. In 1934, she expressed concern that small factions of organized labor would use the National Industrial Recovery Administration as a vehicle to dominate certain trades.17 Despite her efforts to protect the retirements of many different American workers, Jenckes seemed ambivalent about the role government should play in that regard. She voted in 1935 for the Social Security Act, which established unemployment insurance and old–age pensions. As a senior citizen, however, she refused social security payments, noting, “I think when you give dole to people you take away their self respect.”18
With the implementation of the New Deal relief measures, Jenckes turned her attention to other matters. Her interest in stemming subversive activities in America dominated her work and made her something of a controversial figure in the nation’s capital. As a strong supporter of J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation, she often defended the agency’s budget requests on the House Floor. She also was an unremitting anticommunist. When many government buildings were erected in the 1930s without provision for display of the American flag, Jenckes suspected a conspiracy and introduced a measure requiring that the Stars and Stripes be flown atop every federal building.19 Jenckes pursued her anticommunist crusade by using her seat on the District of Columbia Committee to expound on the dangers of communist indoctrination in the public schools. In 1935, she supported an amendment—later dubbed the “red rider”—to a D.C. appropriations bill which outlawed the teaching, advocacy, or mere mention of communism in the capital’s public schools.20 She locked horns with New York Represen–tative Fred J. Sisson, who introduced an amendment to repeal the “red rider.” Sisson claimed that Jenckes made her allegations without “a scintilla of evidence.”21 Jenckes would not relent, however, warning that “Washington is the hotbed of international propagandists.”22 The dispute eventually brought Jenckes into conflict with other committee members, including Chairwoman Mary Norton of New Jersey. In May 1937 the House overwhelmingly repealed her amendment.
Jenckes’s tumultuous third term and growing resentment over New Deal programs foreshadowed a difficult 1938 re–election campaign. Noble Johnson, a former GOP Indiana Congressman, proved a formidable challenger. Johnson benefited from Jenckes’s inability to secure a key committee assignment, as well as public backlash against President Roosevelt’s failed “court packing plan.” Jenckes ran unopposed in the primary but lost the general election by a 1,755–vote margin. Seven of Indiana’s 12 House seats swung to GOP insurgents in 1938. After Jenckes’s defeat, New York Times editors noted that she had “served with distinction.”23
Retiring from Congress in early 1939, Jenckes settled in Washington, D.C., where she volunteered extensively for the American Red Cross.24 She helped five priests escape Hungary during the 1956 uprising, setting up a behind–the–scenes network and funneling communist opposition messages to then–Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson. Late in life she returned to Indiana and eventually resettled in her native Terre Haute. After a long life of public service, Virginia Jenckes died in Terre Haute on January 9, 1975, at the age of 98.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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