As a nursing volunteer and advocate for veterans across the country during and after World War I, Edith Nourse Rogers was thrust into political office when her husband, Representative John Jacob Rogers, died in 1925. During her 35–year House career, the longest tenure of any woman to date, Rogers authored legislation that had far–reaching effects on American servicemen and women, including the creation of the Women’s Army Corp and the GI Bill of Rights. “The first 30 years are the hardest,” Rogers once said of her House service. “It’s like taking care of the sick. You start it and you like the work, and you just keep on.”1
Edith Nourse was born in Saco, Maine, on March 19, 1881. She was one of two children born to Franklin T. Nourse, an affluent textile plant magnate, and Edith Frances Riversmith.2 She received a private school education at Rogers Hall School in Lowell, Massachusetts, and finished her education abroad in Paris, France. Returning to America in 1907, she married John Jacob Rogers, a Harvard–trained lawyer. The couple was childless and settled in Lowell, Massachusetts. In 1912, John Rogers was elected as a Republican to the 63rd Congress (1913–1915) and was successfully re–elected to the House for six succeeding terms. He eventually served as Ranking Majority Member on the Foreign Affairs Committee and authored the 1924 Rogers Act, which reorganized and modernized the U.S. diplomatic corps.3 During World War I, Edith Nourse Rogers inspected field hospitals with the Women’s Overseas Service League. “No one could see the wounded and dying as I saw them and not be moved to do all in his or her power to help,” she recalled.4 In 1918 she joined the American Red Cross volunteer group in Washington, D.C. Her work with hospitalized veterans earned her the epithet the “Angel of Walter Reed Hospital.”5 When the war was over, three Presidents—Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover—appointed Rogers as their personal ombudsman for communicating with disabled veterans. She also continued to work in her husband’s congressional offices in Lowell and Washington. The Congressman considered his wife his chief adviser on policies and campaign strategy.6 Their home on 16th Street in northwest Washington became a fashionable salon where the Rogers entertained powerful politicians and foreign dignitaries.
On March 28, 1925, Representative John Rogers died in Washington, D.C., after a long battle with cancer. Edith Rogers declared her plan to run for her husband’s seat a week later.7 Her chief Republican competition for the nomination was James Grimes, a former Massachusetts state senator who ran on a “dry,” Prohibition and pro–law–and–order platform. During the campaign, Rogers noted that she had always been a prohibitionist and believed in strict enforcement of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution—a position that won her the support of temperance advocates. In the GOP primary of June 16, 1925, Rogers dispatched Grimes with 13,086 votes to 1,939.8 Democrats nominated Eugene N. Foss of Boston, a former Massachusetts governor, to challenge Rogers in the June 30th special election. Foss believed the GOP was vulnerable because it did not support stringent tariff policies—a matter of concern especially in the strongly Democratic district which encompassed textile mill cities such as Lowell. Local political observers had nicknamed the northeastern Massachusetts district the “fighting fifth” because of its equal proportions of registered Democrats and Republicans. Having come from a family in the textile business, however, Rogers appealed to many textile workers as a more empathetic Republican.9 “I am a Republican by inheritance and by conviction,” she declared.10 On June 30, 1925, voters overwhelmingly went to the polls for Rogers, who prevailed with 72 percent of the vote—handing Governor Foss the worst political defeat of his long career.11 Rogers observed, “I hope that everyone will forget that I am a woman as soon as possible.”12
Rogers was returned to the House by increasingly large margins, eclipsing those of her husband, in her subsequent 17 re–election campaigns. She was charismatic, and her sense of humor endeared her to voters and colleagues. Noting her 18–hour days, the press dubbed her “the busiest woman on Capitol Hill.”13 She was attentive to textile and clothing manufacturers—economic engines in her district, which was a hub of the U.S. textile industry—by allocating federal money to create new international markets and by advocating protective legislation.14 With her trademark orchid or gardenia pinned to her shoulder, Rogers became a congressional institution and was never seriously challenged during her 18 consecutive terms. In 1950, on the 25th anniversary of her first election, GOP colleagues hailed her as “the First Lady of the Republican Party.”15
When Rogers was sworn into the 69th Congress (1925–1927), she did not receive any of her husband’s former committee appointments, which included Foreign Affairs and the powerful Appropriations panel. Instead, she received middling committee assignments: Expenditures in the Navy Department, Industrial Arts and Expositions, Woman Suffrage, and World War Veterans’ Legislation (later renamed Veterans’ Affairs). In the 70th Congress (1927–1929), she dropped the first three committees and won seats on the Civil Service and Indian Affairs panels (she stayed on the latter for only one term).
In the 73rd Congress (1933–1935), Rogers won back her husband’s seat on the more coveted Foreign Affairs Committee.16 Her concern with veterans’ issues went hand–in–hand with her interest in foreign affairs. Well–traveled and attuned to international affairs, Rogers seemed a natural appointment to that panel. Soon after taking her seat, Rogers began to address the dangers of fascism in Nazi Germany and in Italy. She was one of the first Members of Congress to denounce Nazi racial policies. In 1937 she broke with fellow Republicans to vote against the Neutrality Act, which had won wide support from GOP isolationists. In 1939, Rogers and Democratic Senator Robert Wagner of New York cosponsored a measure to increase the quota for Jewish immigrants in an effort to rescue Jewish refugee children fleeing Nazi persecution. In 1940, she again crossed party lines to vote for the Selective Service Act—creating the nation’s first peacetime draft. Rogers eventually rose to the number two Ranking Minority Member post on the Foreign Affairs Committee before she voluntarily retired from it in late 1946, when the Legislative Reorganization Act reduced the number of committee assignments a Member could hold.
In 1947, Rogers gained the chairmanship of the newly renamed Veterans’ Affairs Committee when the Republicans took control of the House in the 80th Congress (1947–1949). She again chaired it when power briefly transferred back to the GOP in the 83rd Congress (1953–1955). Veterans’ issues had long defined Rogers’s House career. In 1926, she secured pensions for army nurses and later helped create a permanent nurse corps in the Veterans’ Administration.17 In the spring of 1930, as chair of the World War Veterans’ Legislation Committee’s subcommittee on hospitals, Rogers inserted a $15 million provision for the development of a national network of veterans’ hospitals into the Veterans’ Administration Act. She did so over the objections of the committee chairman, but her diligence was applauded by veterans’ groups. “Expecting much from her, veterans always receive much,” one wrote. “She never disappoints.”18
Congresswoman Rogers’s crowning legislative achievements came during World War II and in the immediate postwar years. In May 1941, Rogers introduced the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps Act, to create a voluntary enrollment program for women to join the U.S. Army in a noncombat capacity. Her proposal, she explained to colleagues, “gives women a chance to volunteer to serve their country in a patriotic way,” as medical care professionals, welfare workers, clerical workers, cooks, messengers, military postal employees, chauffeurs, and telephone and telegraph operators, and in hundreds of other capacities.19 On May 14, 1942, the WAAC Act was signed into law, creating a corps of up to 150,000 women for noncombatant service with the U.S. Army. A year later that measure was supplanted by Rogers’s Women’s Army Corps Bill, which granted official military status to the volunteers by creating the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) within the Army. Rogers’s success opened the way for other uniformed women’s services in the Navy (WAVEs) and the Air Force (WASPs).
Congresswoman Rogers, who had witnessed some of the difficulties of post–World War I demobilization and its effects on veterans, sought to ease that transition by putting in place programs to assist servicemen and women who would soon return from Europe and the Pacific. As the Ranking Minority Member of the World War Veterans Legislation Committee, she sponsored a package of measures, later dubbed the GI Bill of Rights, which passed the House in 1944. Among the chief provisions of the legislation were tuition benefits for college–bound veterans and low–interest home mortgage loans. During the 82nd Congress (1951–1953), Rogers spearheaded the Veterans Re–adjustment Assistance Act of 1952, which extended the GI Bill provisions to Korean War veterans.20 Late in the war, Rogers also proposed the creation of a Cabinet–level Department of Veterans Affairs. The proposal was not adopted in her lifetime but eventually came to fruition in 1989. So beloved by veterans was Rogers that the American Legion conferred upon her its Distinguished Service Cross—making her the first woman to receive the award.
Rogers’s intense patriotism and conservative ideology led her to embrace postwar anticommunism. In the early years of the Cold War, she feared the potential insurgency of communism in the United States, making public addresses and floor speeches on the subject.21 She supported the investigations of the House Committee on Un–American Activities and the loyalty program undertaken by President Harry S. Truman’s administration. She later supported the initial investigations conducted by Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. Her concern about the influence of the “red menace” extended to international organizations. Though she supported the creation of the United Nations, Rogers advocated in 1953 that if China were admitted to the U.N. that the U.S. should withdraw from the organization and evict the organization’s headquarters from New York City.
Late in her career, Rogers was mentioned as a possible challenger against Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who came up for re–election in 1958. Observers believed Rogers was the only potential Republican who could defeat Kennedy. But the 77–year–old Congresswoman declined the opportunity. On September 10, 1960, three days before the primary for the 87th Congress (1961–1963), Congresswoman Rogers died of pneumonia in a Boston hospital.22
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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