As one of America’s early consumer advocates, Leonor K. Sullivan authored many of the protective laws that Americans have come to take for granted. Initially, it was a lonely undertaking. As Representative Sullivan recalled of her early years in Congress, “Those of us interested in consumer legislation could have caucused in an elevator.”1 During her 12 terms in Congress, Sullivan left her mark on a variety of issues, becoming one of the more influential Congresswomen to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Leonor Alice Kretzer was born on August 21, 1902, in St. Louis, Missouri, one of nine children of Frederick William Kretzer and Nora (Jostrand) Kretzer. Her father was a second–generation German tailor. Since her parents did not have the resources to send her to college, Kretzer worked at a local telephone company and took night classes at Washington University in St. Louis, focusing on vocational psychology. During the 1930s, she worked as an instructor in business and accounting at the St. Louis Comptometer School; she later became placement director there before becoming director of the St. Louis Business School.2 On December 27, 1941, she married John Berchmans Sullivan, a freshman Congressman from St. Louis. Leonor Sullivan worked as her husband’s administrative assistant and campaign manager in five primary and election campaigns; during that stretch of time, her husband was defeated twice, only to be returned to office in the subsequent election.3
When John Sullivan died on January 29, 1951, Missouri Democratic leaders refused to nominate Leonor Sullivan to run in the special election to fill the vacancy. “We don’t have anything against you,” they told Sullivan, “we just want to win.”4 Their chosen candidate, Harry Schendel, lost to Republican Claude I. Bakewell. Leonor Sullivan, meanwhile, took a year–long position as an administrative aide to Missouri Representative Theodore Irving because she lacked the funds to amass her own congressional campaign without the backing of the Democratic Party. In 1952, Sullivan announced her candidacy for her husband’s reapportioned district. She defeated seven contenders in the Democratic primary, including the party–endorsed candidate, who made a campaign promise that if elected, he would give Sullivan a job on his staff. Running in the general election as “Mrs. John B. Sullivan,” she defeated her Republican opponent, Bakewell, by a 2–1 margin, to earn a seat in the 83rd Congress (1953–1955). During the campaign, Sullivan claimed greater experience and qualification than the incumbent because of her years in Washington working for her husband’s office, a message that resonated with many of the late Congressman’s former supporters. After that campaign, Sullivan, the first woman elected to Congress from her state (and the only one until the 1990s), was never seriously challenged; she captured her next 11 elections with between 65 and 79 percent of the vote.5
Congresswoman Sullivan quickly established herself as a protector of working Americans and consumers. In 1953, she urged her colleagues to amend the income tax law to allow widows and working mothers to make deductions for childcare. Sullivan also delivered a speech on the House Floor against proposed cuts to the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor. In 1957 she wrote and successfully guided into law the first Federal Poultry Products Inspection Act. She also sponsored legislation to protect consumers from hazardous substances, harmful food color additives, and cosmetics. A committed consumer advocate, in 1962 Sullivan urged her House colleagues to pass stricter consumer protection legislation. “You are faced with an arena of supreme importance to the lives and health and safety and well being of the American people—all of the foods we eat, all of the drugs and devices we use for health purposes, all of the cosmetics used not only by women but in increasing numbers by men, as well.”6
In 1959, working with Senator Hubert Humphrey, Sullivan authored the Food Stamp Act. Under the new legislation, low–income Americans would no longer have to rely upon disbursements of surplus food, but instead would be able to use coupons to buy food at grocery stores. During the second Dwight D. Eisenhower administration, however, the Agriculture Department refused to allocate funds for the program, which the conservative Secretary of Agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson, considered improper. Upon the urging of Sullivan, the John F. Kennedy administration reinstated an experimental food stamp program in 1961. In 1964, Sullivan authored legislation to increase the scope of the Kennedy initiative, making food stamps available for poor Americans nationally. On the House Floor, she maintained, “The States and localities, which now bear a heavy financial burden under the direct distribution system, would save added millions under the food stamp plan. Who loses, then, under the plan? Hunger. Only hunger loses.”7 President Lyndon Johnson incorporated the legislation into his “War on Poverty” in 1964, but not before a sharp partisan battle within the Agricultural Committee and the President’s decision to couple the food stamp measure with increased subsidies for wheat and cotton farmers.
One of Sullivan’s great legislative triumphs came when she served as the House Floor manager for the 1968 Consumer Credit Protection Act. The bill established “truth in lending” provisions, requiring lenders to provide consumers with information about the cost of credit. “Now we come to the moment of truth in truth in lending,” Sullivan declared to her colleagues during debate. “Will we give the consumer the whole truth in lending, or just part of the truth?”8 When President Johnson signed the groundbreaking legislation, he praised “that able Congresswoman from Missouri,” noting that Sullivan “fought for a strong effective bill when others would have settled for less.”9 Two years later, Sullivan continued her efforts to protect American consumers when she authored the Fair Credit Reporting Act, a bill prohibiting credit companies from distributing false credit information.
By 1969, after 15–term veteran Representative Frances Bolton of Ohio had retired, Sullivan emerged as the doyenne of women in Congress. The first woman appointed to the House Democratic Steering Committee, which determines Democratic committee assignments, she also was elected secretary of the House Democratic Caucus, an organization to determine party strategy and consensus, for five terms. During her 24 years in the House, Sullivan served on the Banking and Currency Committee, the Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries, and the Joint Committee on Defense Production. During the 93rd and 94th Congresses (1973–1977), she chaired Merchant Marine and Fisheries, making her only the sixth woman in congressional history to chair a committee. As chairwoman, her accomplishments included passage of the 1976 Fishery and Conservation Management Act, an environmental bill which established a 200–mile fisheries conservation zone off the coasts of the United States.
Though she defended the rights of women consumers, Sullivan did not embrace the larger feminist agenda. She was the only woman Member to vote against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the 92nd Congress (1971–1973), because she thought it threatened home life and existing legislation which protected women in the workplace. “I believe that wholesome family life is the backbone of civilization,” Sullivan said. Passage of the ERA would “accelerate the breakup of home life.”10 She also feared that the amendment would break down hundreds of protective labor, marital, and family statutes in the states. Finally, the ERA offended her sensibilities. The “ERA says you are my equal,” she once observed, but “I think I’m a whole lot better.”11 Sullivan also opposed efforts by younger women Members to create a special caucus for women’s issues, which came about only after her retirement.12 Nevertheless, Sullivan supported the Equal Pay Act of 1963, a first step toward the equal pay for equal work doctrine. She also backed an amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act that stipulated an end to sexual discrimination in the workplace. In 1961, Sullivan and her fellow Congresswomen marched into Speaker Sam Rayburn’s office to request the appointment of Representative Martha Griffiths of Michigan to the influential Joint Economic Committee.13
In 1976, at age 74, Sullivan declined to seek a 13th term and was succeeded by Richard A. Gephardt, who eventually became Democratic Leader in the House. Her age, but principally her disaffection with the institution of Congress, accounted for her decision to retire. She explained in a post–Watergate interview that despite contemporary attempts at congressional reform, she was “disturbed at what’s happening to the whole government … the corruption that always goes on … the lack of morals … too many people thinking, ‘So what?’”14 She returned to St. Louis and moved into a home she had bought long before on the south side of the city, atop a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. Passing riverboat captains often blew their ships’ horns to salute Sullivan, who had been a benefactor of the barge industry during her time on the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee.15 In 1980, she married retired millionaire businessman Russell L. Archibald. He died in March 1987. Sullivan died in St. Louis on September 1, 1988.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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