Maude Elizabeth Kee made history as West Virginia’s first woman Member of Congress and as a critical part of that state’s Kee family dynasty in the U.S. House, stretching from the start of the New Deal to the Watergate Era. Succeeding her late husband, John Kee, in 1951, Elizabeth Kee went on to chair the Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Veterans’ Hospitals and became a leading advocate for the coal–mining industry, a major employer in her district. When she left Congress in 1965, her son, James, won her seat, accounting for one of a handful of father–mother–son combinations in Congress.
Maude Etta “Elizabeth” Simpkins was born in Radford, Virginia, on June 7, 1895, the seventh of 11 children born to John Jesse Wade Simpkins and Cora French Hall Simpkins. Her father was a policeman and a railway company employee before moving into real estate and resettling the family in Roanoke, Virginia. Raised in a conservative Republican, Baptist household, she quickly challenged her parents’ politics and religion. Her siblings later recalled that she converted to Catholicism and became a Democrat, “as soon as she was old enough.”1 She attended the National Business College and, during World War I, took her first job as a secretary for the business office of the Roanoke Times and, later, as a court reporter for a law firm. Elizabeth Simpkins married James Alan Frazier, a railway clerk. They had three children: Frances, James, and a child who died in infancy. The marriage soon fell apart, and James Frazier’s attorney during the divorce was John Kee, who fell in love with Elizabeth. In 1925 she moved to Bluefield and, a year later, she married him.2 John Kee was elected to the 73rd Congress (1933–1935) in the 1932 Roosevelt landslide, as a Democrat from a southeastern West Virginia district. Elizabeth Kee served as his executive secretary throughout his congressional career, including his service after 1949 as chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs.3 She once described her job on Capitol Hill as “being all things to all constituents,” a combination of “clergyman, lawyer, psychiatrist and family friend.”4 Meanwhile, Kee authored “Washington Tidbits,” a weekly column that was syndicated to West Virginia newspapers.
John Kee died suddenly on May 8, 1951, during a committee meeting. Four days later, Elizabeth Kee announced that she planned to seek nomination to fill her late husband’s seat.5 Initially, she was the underdog behind such powerful politicians as Walter Vergil Ross, who had served several terms in the West Virginia legislature, and Sheriff Cecil Wilson. Party leaders proposed that she should be retained as a secretary for the eventual nominee, a suggestion that infuriated her. Her son, James, campaigned heavily with United Mine Workers Association leaders in the district, convincing them that John Kee had several projects developing in Congress and that Elizabeth Kee could attend to them unlike any outsider. That strategy worked as the United Mine Workers Union—a powerhouse in her district which encompassed seven coal–mining counties and the famous Pocahontas coal fields—threw its weight behind the widow Kee. She still faced a formidable challenge from Republican Cyrus H. Gadd, a Princeton, West Virginia, lawyer. Gadd tried to turn the campaign into a referendum on the Harry S. Truman administration, which was at the nadir of its popularity. Gadd also attacked Kee as being beholden to oil interests after Oklahoma Senator Robert Kerr, an oilman and old ally of John Kee’s, campaigned for her in the district. The Kee campaign turned the table on Gadd, exposing his major campaign contributors with ties to the oil industry. Kee won the July 17, 1951, special election with a plurality of about 8,500 votes, receiving 58 percent of the total.6 She was sworn in to office on July 26, 1951, becoming the first woman to represent West Virginia in the U.S. Congress.7
Later that year, Kee announced she would not seek re–nomination for the seat, but she reversed herself several weeks later when a flood of requests convinced her to remain in Congress.8 In the 1952 general election, she again faced GOP challenger Cyrus Gadd, dispatching him with a 35,000–vote margin, capturing 64 percent of the total. She won by a greater plurality than any of her West Virginia House colleagues. She subsequently was re–elected five times by sizable majorities, winning her next two campaigns with more than 60 percent of the vote or more; in 1958, she was unopposed.9 One local paper’s endorsement summed up the depth of her support: “it is absolutely unthinkable … for the voters to even consider anyone else to represent them than Mrs. Kee. We don’t want her to have to waste valuable time in campaigning, when she could be devoting her energy and ‘know how’ in furthering legislation and certain projects for the benefit of southern West Virginia.”10
John Kee had crafted a reputation as a progressive–liberal Democrat in Congress, and it was a political pattern that Elizabeth Kee followed.11 Throughout her 14 years in Congress, she served on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, eventually chairing the Subcommittee on Veterans’ Hospitals. She also was appointed to the Government Operations Committee in the 85th through 87th Congresses (1957–1963) and to the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs in the 88th Congress (1963–1965). From her Veterans’ Affairs seat, Kee became an advocate on behalf of former servicemen and servicewomen, noting, “more attention should be devoted to the welfare of this country’s veterans.… You just can’t economize at the expense of the veteran. And I know the American people—no matter how much they want Government spending cut—I know they feel that way.”12
Kee generally was a firm supporter of Cold War foreign policy. Of her own volition and on her own dime, she toured seven South American countries in 1952 on a 16,000–mile trip that, in part, fulfilled one of her husband’s aspirations.13 In the 82nd Congress (1951–1953) she voted for an extension of the Marshall Plan’s economic aid program to Europe in the form of a $7.5 billion assistance package. In the following two years, she supported $4.4 billion and $5 billion foreign aid bills.14 Kee would come to question such extravagant outlays during the Dwight Eisenhower administration, particularly when economic conditions deteriorated within her home state. Representative Kee was particularly critical of proposed tariff reductions, which she feared would affect her constituents.15
Representing the second largest coal–producing district in the country, Kee became a major advocate for coal miners and related businesses. West Virginia mines accounted for about one–third of the national output by 1957.16 But the industry suffered heavily from foreign fossil fuel competition and, for much of the 1950s, recession plagued the state economy. Throughout her time in the House, Kee repeatedly defended U.S. coal operations from foreign energy imports, particularly “residual” (heating) fuel oil from South America and natural gas from Canada. “We do not intend to stand idly by and see American workers thrown out of employment by unnecessary concessions to foreign countries,” Kee declared.17 Congresswoman Kee addressed this issue, often casting it as a threat to U.S. national security because it took away American jobs and made the country reliant on imports of critical materials. “If we are to be prudent in our efforts to safeguard the basic security of our country, our own self–preservation, then the Congress of the United States must, now, face up to its responsibility and pass legislation to protect in a fair and just manner our own basic coal industry,” she said in a floor speech.18 Still, Kee could do little to stanch the flow of foreign oil into the U.S. market.
Kee was successful, however, developing a program of economic rejuvenation for West Virginia that mirrored the “Point Four” technological and economic aid that U.S. officials extended to developing nations.19 Given little support from the Eisenhower administration, Kee and other Catholic supporters threw their full weight behind the candidacy of John F. Kennedy in 1960, playing an influential part in helping Kennedy win the critical West Virginia primary.20 During the first year of the Kennedy administration, Kee’s economic program was adopted as part of the Accelerated Public Works Act, which sought to head off recession by providing federal dollars for public works projects in vulnerable districts. The legislation created the Area Redevelopment Administration (ARA), which pumped millions of dollars into recession–prone regions in the form of industrial loans, job retraining programs, and grants for water systems. In southern West Virginia, which became a model for the program, ARA money created recreational facilities, parks, and tourist attractions.21 Kee reminded her colleagues that despite pressing concerns abroad that required huge allocations of American aid, immediate problems at home still needed to be addressed. Foreign aid bills were important, Kee admitted, “But not more important than bread and milk for coal miners’ children, good jobs for their fathers, new industries and increased business activity for economically depressed American towns and cities,” she said.22
In 1964, Kee declined to seek an eighth term in the House due to poor health.23 Her son and longtime administrative assistant, James, won the Democratic nomination. That November, when he won easy election with 70 percent of the vote, Maude Kee became the first woman in Congress to be succeeded directly by one of her children. From 1933 to James Kee’s retirement, when the district was reapportioned out of existence prior to the 1972 elections, the Kee family represented West Virginia in the House. Elizabeth Kee retired to Bluefield, where she died on February 15, 1975.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
[ Top ]