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ALLEN, Maryon Pittman

1925– 2018

Biography

Maryon Pittman Allen, who briefly succeeded her husband upon his sudden death, is one of the few widows who remarked frankly about the shock and pain associated with serving under such circumstances. A journalist who married into politics, she was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1978 by Alabama Governor George Wallace after the death of the skilled parliamentarian James Allen.

Maryon Pittman was born on November 30, 1925, in Meridian, Mississippi, one of four children raised by John D. and Tellie Chism Pittman. The family moved to Birmingham, Alabama, the following year, where John Pittman opened a tractor dealership. Maryon Pittman attended public schools and then went to the University of Alabama from 1944 to 1947. While still attending college, she married Joshua Mullins on October 17, 1946. The couple raised three children—Joshua, John, and Maryon—but were divorced in 1959. As a single mother, Maryon Pittman was employed as an insurance agent and then as a journalist, working as the women’s section editor for five local weeklies in Alabama. As a staff writer for the Birmingham News, she took an assignment in 1964 to interview James Browning Allen, a widower and then the lieutenant governor of Alabama, who had just delivered a speech before the Alabama Federation of Women’s Clubs. Four months later, on August 7, 1964, James Allen and Maryon Pittman married; Allen brought two children from his previous marriage, James Jr., and Mary. When Alabama Senator Lister Hill chose not to seek re–election to the 91st Congress (1969–1971), James Allen sought and won election to his seat. A longtime Alabama state legislator, Senator Allen served on the Judiciary Committee. He became a master of parliamentary procedure, helping to revive the filibuster. Senator Allen fought the creation of a federal consumer protection agency, taxpayer financing of federal campaigns, and the 1978 treaties which ceded U.S. control of the Panama Canal. Allen, the New York Times observed, “was a valued ally in any fight, a man who could out–talk or out–maneuver many of the wisest and most experienced politicians in Washington…If he did not beat the opposition, he wilted them.”1 Senator Alan Cranston once remarked, “He can catch other people napping, but he’s not sneaky. He just plays hardball within the rules.”2 The Washington Post wrote that Allen “did not merely learn Jefferson’s parliamentary manual; he absorbed it and employed it more doggedly, shrewdly and creatively than any other senator in years.”3 While her husband ensconced himself in the Senate, Maryon Allen continued her journalism career, writing a Washington–based news column, “The Reflections of a News Hen,” that was syndicated in Alabama newspapers.

On June 1, 1978, Senator Allen died suddenly of a heart attack. Alabama Governor George Wallace, with whom James Allen served as lieutenant governor in the 1960s, appointed Maryon Allen on June 8, 1978, to succeed her husband. Wallace also called a special election to coincide with the general election on November 7, 1978, to fill the remaining two years of James Allen’s term. Maryon Allen pledged to “continue to espouse the great principles of government to which Senator Allen dedicated his life. When I cast a vote on the floor of the U.S. Senate, it will reflect the philosophy he expressed so eloquently and strongly during his almost 10 years of service.” She also announced her intention to run for the two–year term despite widespread speculation that Governor Wallace (who was ineligible for gubernatorial re–election) was considering campaigning for the seat himself. On June 12, 1978, Maryon Allen was sworn into the U.S. Senate by Vice President Walter Mondale; Senator Muriel Humphrey, widow of Hubert Humphrey, embraced Allen after the ceremony.4

“I’m trying to do this thing with taste and dignity, I’m not sure I can do it,” Maryon Allen told the Washington Post after two months on the job. She also confided that her husband had made her promise that if his health failed, she would consider taking his seat in the Senate. “Jim and I found each other late in life,” she recalled. “We were too close. I feel like I am an open, bleeding, raw, walking wound. I cover it up all during the day here in the Senate with a front. Jim wanted me to. I hate the word widow. But if I hadn’t done this I would have fallen into the poor pitiful Pearl routine and felt sorry for myself. Jim wasn’t going to give me that luxury. He gave me every other one. And, I must admit, at my age it’s kind of exciting to start a new career.”5 She was assigned seats on two of her husband’s former committees: Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry and Judiciary. Though she had lobbied Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd of West Virginia for a seat on the Rules and Administration Committee, she did not receive it.6

Perhaps her most important vote during her short Senate career came in October 1978, when she supported a proposal by Republican Jake Garn of Utah which would have allowed any of the 35 states that had ratified the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) since its passage in 1972 to rescind their approval. The Senate also was considering an extension of the ERA deadline of March 1979 by an additional three years. Supporters of the GarnAmendment argued that if the extension was passed to allow more states to approve then states also should be allowed to reverse their votes within that same time frame. The proposal failed by a 54–44 vote, clearing the way for successful passage of the extension.7

Alabama political observers fully expected that retiring Governor George Wallace would challenge Allen for the seat in the November special election. But early in the summer he surprised supporters by declining to seek the Democratic nomination, leaving Allen as the favorite. In yet another unexpected twist, Allen’s campaign began to fall apart in the wake of a July Washington Post interview in which the new Senator was quoted as being highly critical of Governor Wallace and his wife.8 Allen later claimed the interviewer had distorted her comments, but the reaction in Alabama damaged her chances for election. Nevertheless, Senator Allen remained confident. She concentrated on her Senate duties and campaigned little before the Democratic primary of September 5th. Allen led the primary voting with 44 percent, but fell short of the outright majority required by state election laws. Forced into a run–off with Alabama State Senator Donald Stewart, Maryon Allen eventually lost by a margin of more than 120,000 votes on September 26, 1978. In the general election Allen supported Republican candidate James D. Martin, a U.S. Representative and close friend of her husband’s. Stewart eventually defeated Martin, 55 percent to 43 percent. Allen left the Senate on November 8, 1978, the day after the election.

After her Senate career, Maryon Allen worked as a columnist for the Washington Post. She later worked as a public relations and advertising director for an antique and auction company in Birmingham, Alabama, where she lived until her death on July 23, 2018.9

Footnotes

1M.A. Farber, “Senator James B. Allen Dies; Alabamian Led Canal Pact Fight,” 2 June 1978, New York Times: B2.

2Martin Weil, “Sen. James Allen of Alabama Dies of Heart Attack,” 2 June 1978, Washington Post: A1.

3“James Browning Allen,” 4 June 1978, Washington Post: B6.

4“Maryon Allen Sworn In Senate,” 13 June 1978, Washington Post: A4; Ray Jenkins, “Allen’s Death Roils Politics in Alabama,” 3 June 1978, New York Times: 8.

5Sally Quinn, “Maryon Allen—The Southern Girl in the Senate,” 30 July 1978, Washington Post: K1.

6Quinn, “Maryon Allen—The Southern Girl in the Senate.”

7Chris Kendrick, “ERA Supporters Win a Round in Senate,” 5 October 1978, Christian Science Monitor: 1.

8Quinn, “Maryon Allen—The Southern Girl in the Senate.”

9Matt Schudel, "Maryon Allen, Journalist and Onetime Ala. Senator With Irreverent Streak, Dies at 92," 27 July 2018, Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/maryon-allen-journalist-and-onetime-ala-senator-with-irreverent-streak-dies-at-92/2018/07/27/9b0bbe36-903f-11e8-bcd5-9d911c784c38_story.html?utm_term=.f0ff0b19574a.

 

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

Alabama Department of Archives and History

Montgomery, AL
Papers: 1978. 1 cubic foot. Files and press releases.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Maryon Pittman Allen," in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2006.

Watson, Elbert L. "Maryon Pittman Allen." In Alabama United States Senators, pp. 150-52. Huntsville, AL: Strode Publishers, 1982.

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Committee Assignments

  • Joint Committee - Joint Committee on Printing
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