Edna Flannery Kelly, a 20–year veteran of the U.S. House and the first woman to represent Brooklyn, New York, in Congress, made her mark on the Foreign Affairs Committee supporting a broad sweep of American Cold War policies ranging from the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to intervention in the Vietnamese civil war. As chair of the Subcommittee on Europe, Congresswoman Kelly took a hard–line approach to America’s rivals in the Kremlin and in Soviet–sponsored regimes throughout the world.
Edna Patricia Kathleen Flannery was born on August 20, 1906, in East Hampton, Long Island, New York, the youngest of five daughters raised by Patrick Joseph Flannery, a horticulturalist, and Mary Ellen McCarthy Flannery. Edna Flannery graduated from East Hampton High School in 1924 and, in 1928, received a B.A. in history and economics from Hunter College in New York City. In the fall of 1928, Edna Flannery married Edward Leo Kelly, a Brooklyn lawyer. The couple raised two children, William and Maura. In January 1942, New York Governor Herbert Lehman appointed Edward Kelly as a judge on the New York City court. Less than eight months later, however, Kelly was killed in an automobile accident.
Only after her husband’s death did Edna Kelly seriously consider a career in politics. She had a powerful ally in Irwin Steingut, then the minority leader in the New York Assembly and Brooklyn’s political boss. Steingut encouraged her to become active in local political organizations.1 She reorganized the women’s auxiliary of the ailing Madison Democratic Club and served as a research director for the New York state legislature from 1943 until 1949.2 In 1944 she was elected to three terms on the Democratic executive committee of Kings County, New York, and joined Steingut as a co–leader of the 18th assembly district.
On July 15, 1949, Kings County Democratic leaders chose Kelly as their nominee to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Brooklyn–based U.S. Representative Andrew L. Somers. Local leaders were eager to put a woman on the ballot. “They felt that this was the time to recognize the work of women,” Kelly later explained. “I had been a long time working in the Democratic Party.”3 The district contained large Catholic and Jewish populations and was heavily Democratic. Kelly supported President Harry S. Truman’s domestic and foreign policies, pledging to back U.S. participation in the United Nations as well as continued financing for the Marshall Plan, aid to Israel, and entry into NATO.4 On the domestic side, Kelly focused on issues of interest to women, advocating federal dollars for the development of childcare centers and an investigation into high milk prices, as well as her opposition to excise taxes on cosmetics.5 She defeated her nearest competitor, Liberal Party candidate Jules Cohen, by a 2–1 margin.6 Kelly became the first Democratic woman to represent New York City in Congress. From the start, however, she stressed her credentials as Representative for all district constituents, not just women. “Please don’t describe me as attractive,” she chided reporters. “Just say I have common sense!”7
Upon her arrival in Congress, Kelly sought an assignment on the Foreign Affairs Committee. Kelly’s 44 New York colleagues backed her candidacy to fill a vacancy on the committee, but prominent figures—Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and President Truman—asked Kelly to defer that post to Franklin Roosevelt, Jr. Kelly refused. Ultimately, the Democratic Caucus of the Ways and Means Committee controlled the assignments, and that group was dominated by Kelly supporters. She received the assignment; FDR, Jr., got a seat, too, when the committee expanded its roster.8 Kelly served there for her entire House career. She eventually chaired a special Subcommittee on the Canada–United States Interparliamentary group and was Secretary of the House Democratic Caucus. In 1967, she was appointed to the newly formed Committee on Standards of Official Conduct and helped draft its procedures.9
Kelly’s lasting contributions came in international affairs. Her first vote in Congress was in favor of a bill in early 1950 to increase aid to South Korea. It failed by one vote, and Kelly recalled John McCormack of Massachusetts lamenting, “We’re going to resent this vote.”10 Later that year, North Korean communists invaded South Korea. Kelly soon established herself as an implacable foe of communism. In the summer of 1955, she visited the ongoing Geneva Peace talks—the first Soviet–Atlantic Alliance summit of the Cold War—culminating with a great power meeting that included President Dwight Eisenhower, Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden, and French President Edgar Faure. In the midst of the conference, Kelly confronted Secretary of State John Foster Dulles about revelations of massive Russian weapons shipments to Middle Eastern countries. “Mr. Secretary, you leave this ministers’ conference and tell the world what the Russians are doing,” she demanded. Dulles, no friend of Moscow, answered curtly, “Edna, you want war?” Kelly replied, “You’re going to get war if you don’t do it.”11 On the home front, she supported the House Committee on Un–American Activities, arguing that it “performed good service.”12 Among her legislative achievements was her successful amendment to President Truman’s 1952 bill requesting $7.9 billion in foreign aid, suspending funding to Communist Yugoslavia. The House also approved her amendment to the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act of 1954, which outlawed the sale of surplus commodities to the Soviet Union or its satellites.
Voters seemed to agree with her hard–line anti–communist positions. In her 1954 campaign, Kelly defeated Republican Abraham Sher, who campaigned for U.S. diplomatic recognition of Communist China, with 73 percent of the vote. Two years later, she defeated Sher by a similar margin.13 In fact, Kelly never faced serious opposition in the 10 general elections during her two decades in the House.14
After she became chair of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe in 1955, Kelly led the first of five fact–finding missions to Europe and the Middle East. Based upon information gleaned from these trips and from her careful study of postwar Europe, Kelly recommended a wide variety of legislation. She was particularly successful introducing resolutions deploring religious persecutions in Eastern Europe. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, from the vantage of her committee, she urged the United States to play a more aggressive role in mediating Arab–Israeli peace accords through the aegis of the United Nations, though to little effect. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy appointed her a member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations, where she worked closely with her friend U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson. At the time of her retirement, she was the third–ranking Member on the Foreign Affairs Committee. Her sources in Europe were legendary. A colleague recalled trips with Kelly were “like going abroad with Mata Hari. She had innumerable contacts … that were not available at all to the State Department.”15
Kelly’s influence even touched on U.S. foreign policy in East Asia. During a fact–finding trip to Yugoslavia, Kelly attended a dinner with a senior communist official who had visited Viet Minh leader Ho Chi Minh (who had not been seen in public for months). “Oh, you mean my old friend, Ho? How is he?” Kelly deadpanned, fishing for information. The Yugoslav official warmed to her and reported that Ho had been gravely ill for months, information which the American government had not been able to confirm previously.16 Kelly personally knew some of the principals in the Saigon government waging civil war with Hanoi during the 1950s. In 1954, she met Ngo Dinh Diem, the Eisenhower administration’s hand–picked leader in the newly formed Republic of South Vietnam. She remained an ardent backer of Diem, despite later misgivings about corruption within the Saigon government.17 By 1965, two years after Diem was killed in a U.S.–backed coup, Kelly supported direct American military intervention and remained an unwavering supporter.18
By the 1960s, shifting demographics and the decline of the once–powerful New York City Democratic machine threatened Kelly’s safe seat. Political alliances were shifting as reformers sought to topple New York City’s entrenched Democratic organization.19 By 1966, Kelly’s pro–Vietnam War position had become controversial enough to make her a vulnerable incumbent. She narrowly survived a primary challenge from a Flatbush politician who attacked her pro–Vietnam votes and what he described as Kelly’s “anti–Israel” position in the Middle East.20 In the general election, however, Kelly trounced her GOP opponent and a third–party peace candidate with 73 percent of the vote.21
The ethnic and racial composition of Representative Kelly’s section of Brooklyn also shifted dramatically.22 By 1968, the New York legislature had folded Kelly’s district into two new ones. A new black majority district, drawing from the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood Kelly once represented, elected Shirley Chisholm, the first African–American woman to serve in Congress. The other new district went to the dean of the New York state delegation and chair of the Judiciary Committee, Representative Emanuel Celler, a 45–year House veteran. Rather than retire, Kelly mounted the first primary challenge against Celler since he entered Congress in 1923. But with her power base scattered between the two districts, she received only 32 percent of the vote, losing by about 8,500 votes. She later charged that Democratic Party leaders and Celler supporters tried to intimidate her: “It was rougher and dirtier than ever before.”23
When Kelly retired in January 1969, Representative Mel Laird, a Wisconsin Republican and Secretary–Designate of Defense, observed that the Congresswoman’s personal “strength” contributed to America “being strong and being prepared and being willing to stand up and be counted when the chips were down in vital areas of the world.”24 Kelly returned to her home in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn and helped coordinate a Library of Congress oral history project with former U.S. Representatives. Residing in Brooklyn until 1981, Kelly suffered a stroke and moved to Alexandria, Virginia, to live with her daughter. She died there on December 14, 1997.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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