During her one term as a New York Congresswoman, Winifred Stanley tirelessly championed women’s rights. The former prosecutor and the first female assistant district attorney in Erie County, New York, urged Americans to contemplate and begin planning for the imperatives of peacetime demobilization and new international responsibilities after World War II.
Winifred Stanley was born on August 14, 1909, in the Bronx, New York. The eldest of six children, she was raised by her mother, Mary, who once was an English and a music teacher, and her father, architect John Francis Stanley, in Buffalo, New York. Winifred Stanley graduated from Lafayette High School and earned her bachelor’s degree with honors from the University of Buffalo in 1930. Stanley went on to receive her L.L.B. and J.D. from the same institution in 1933, graduating first in her class. In 1934, she commenced her law practice.
Stanley’s reputation as a lawyer was impeccable, but her greatest precongressional accomplishment proved to be the root of her future defense of women’s rights while serving in Congress. When going to court one morning, she found the courtroom closed to women because of the nature of the crime being tried. She considered this an intolerable affront to women, especially because her gender also had been barred from New York juries, regardless of the crime. Stanley considered jury duty “second in importance only to the right to vote” and mobilized women’s clubs, church societies, and political organizations to press for women’s right to participate in the courtroom as citizen peers.1 Her actions not only won the right for participation on a jury panel for women in New York but also caught the attention of then–District Attorney Leo J. Hagerty. He subsequently named 28–year–old Stanley the first female assistant district attorney of Erie County.
Following the 1940 Census, New York stood to lose two seats in Congress. The Republican Party searched for an effective short–term Representative to win the state’s At–Large seat slated for elimination. Once redistricting occurred, their ideal candidate would choose not to run against a higher–ranking Republican in the following election. Winifred Stanley, by then a successful assistant district attorney, was the perfect choice. Stanley was elected to the 78th Congress (1943–1945) in 1942, winning in a landslide and topping eight other candidates with a final total of nearly two million votes.2
With a strong legal background, she sought a spot on the Judiciary Committee. Despite her qualifications, the Congresswoman was denied a position because she lacked seniority and because sexism still prevailed among her mostly male colleagues. James W. Wadsworth, Jr., a New York Representative in charge of committee assignments, flatly opposed women in the workplace. He believed that, “a woman’s place is in the home.”3 Other Republican leaders seemed disinclined to assist Stanley, perhaps because of her short–term status.4 Instead of the Judiciary Committee, she was appointed to the Patents and Civil Service committees, both lower–rung panels.5
The imminent end of World War II created the challenge for the 78th Congress to provide for victory and plan for the subsequent peace. Citing the overwhelming support of her constituents, Stanley supported economist Beardsley Ruml’s plan in 1943—a suggestion to forgive all 1942 federal income taxes, while instating a withholding tax on all 1943 wages.6 The withheld tax would allow for a quick source of revenue for the federal government’s war effort, and Americans would not have to pay the previous year’s taxes alongside their present dues.
Stanley also gained a reputation for being a pragmatic postwar planner who was more interested in the “prose” of the readjustment to peacetime, than in the “poetry” of victory.7 She commented that, “Maintaining peace is like maintaining democracy. It’s a full time job.”8 On January 24, 1944, Stanley introduced a concurrent resolution calling for a special joint committee to deal with postwar employment. Citing the national problem of returning soldiers who would flood the job market, she insisted that the committee be bipartisan and consist of Members from different parts of the country.9 In a speech on the House Floor, she also proposed a resolution in support of an American delegation to the proposed United Nations.10 In addition, Stanley looked out for the interests of war veterans and her constituents by pushing for the establishment of more Veterans’ Administration hospitals in upstate New York.
Stanley continued to advocate women’s rights during her congressional service, becoming the first Member of Congress to introduce an equal pay for equal work bill. On June 19, 1944, Stanley proposed a bill to amend the National Labor Relations Act to make it unlawful “to discriminate against any employee, in the rate of compensation paid, on account of sex.”11 She wanted to maintain in “peacetime the drive and energy which women have contributed to the war effort” and further declared that, “we shall be paying only lip service to those glorious and fundamental guarantees of our nation’s heritage.”12 She vigorously worked for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to both the U.S. Congress and the New York state constitution. Along with Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, Stanley was one of the first House Members to push for a renewed effort at passing ERA in 1943, the 20th anniversary of its introduction in the House.13 In addition, she argued that women should be commissioned as surgeons in the U.S. Army. “It has often been remarked that this is a ‘man’s world,’” she once noted, “It’s ‘our world,’ and this battered old universe needs and will need the best brains and the ability of both men and women.”14 Stanley also introduced a joint resolution calling for a constitutional amendment to eliminate the poll tax, and she also backed increasing wages for postal employees.15
In line with her party, Congresswoman Stanley was a vocal critic of the Roosevelt administration’s New Deal programs. During the 1944 campaign, while losing her own seat to reapportionment, she nevertheless remained busy, taking to the campaign trail in 15 states to urge election of the GOP presidential candidate, New York Governor Thomas Dewey. During one rally, Stanley told the crowd: “American voters are sick of the New Deal’s mismanagement, which results in two agencies doing the work of one. They are tired of the countless alphabetical agencies and bureaus which have sprung up like mushrooms. They want the alphabet given back to the children. They want the Government of this country restored to the people. They want intelligence and integrity restored to the White House.”16 Stanley, however, was not above urging government intervention when New York’s interests were at stake. In February 1943, responding to a meat shortage crisis in New York City, Stanley asked the wartime Office of Price Administration to aid independent meat packers who were suffering from high livestock prices.17
Despite her reputation as a tenacious worker, Stanley also was active in the Washington, D.C., social scene. She received a Fashion Academy Award for being one of the nation’s best–dressed public women. She also served as an adviser to the “Eight Girls to Every Man” club, an organization finding homes and proper social engagements for young women working for the federal government.18 Rumor linked Stanley romantically with Republican Whip, Congressman Leslie Arends of Illinois. Both parties publicly denied any such relationship.19
After leaving Congress in 1945, Stanley accepted an appointment in New York Governor Dewey’s administration. She was later appointed counsel for the State Employees Retirement System and subsequently returned to the position of assistant district attorney, this time in the Albany office of the state law department. She retired from state service in 1979 but remained in private practice until 1986. After a brief illness, Winifred Stanley died on February 29, 1996, in Kenmore, New York.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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