Jean Ashbrook, who once described herself as “a small–town girl who enjoyed the role of wife and mother,” came to Congress in a manner that by the 1980s had become less conventional for women: the widow’s mandate.1 Congresswoman Ashbrook served out the remaining seven months of John Ashbrook’s term and retired when her Ohio district was reapportioned out of existence.
Emily Jean Spencer was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on September 21, 1934. She attended schools in Newark, Ohio, and graduated from Newark High School in 1952. Spencer received a bachelor of science degree from Ohio State University in 1956. In 1974, she married John Ashbrook, a lawyer, newspaper publisher, and son of a former conservative Democratic Representative from Ohio. As a homemaker, Jean Ashbrook raised three children from a previous marriage: Elizabeth, Katherine, and John. She also served as a member of several charities and political clubs. John Ashbrook had children of his own, three daughters from a marriage to Joan Needles which ended in divorce in 1971.
John Ashbrook, who followed in his father’s professional footsteps, was elected as a Republican to 11 terms as the U.S. Representative from an Ohio district that covered a large swath of the north–central part of the state, an agricultural region with the town of Mansfield as its largest population center. Congressman Ashbrook served as the Ranking Republican on the Education and Labor Committee and also on the Judiciary and Select Intelligence committees. Ashbrook earned the reputation as one of the House’s most “militant and dedicated” conservatives but also one of its most independent. “I have never felt I had to go along with anything,” he once remarked, “and getting along is not important to me.”2 This sentiment rang true when Ashbrook challenged President Richard Nixon for the Republican nomination in 1972. Undeterred by the opposition he received from many conservatives in the GOP, Ashbrook entered the race to draw attention to what he perceived as the “leftward drift” of the Nixon administration.3
John Ashbrook had entered the primary for Ohio’s senatorial nomination before he died suddenly on April 24, 1982. Ohio Governor James A. Rhodes urged Jean Ashbrook, who had been campaigning across the state for her husband’s Senate race, to run for his vacant House seat. “Immediately I said, ‘Yes,’” she recalled. “I really don’t know why.” Her motivation, like that of many widows who had preceded her, became clearer during the brief campaign as she pledged to continue the conservative politics of her husband. At her announcement press conference Ashbrook emphasized her experience as a congressional spouse. “We were a team,” she said. “I campaigned for eight years in the 17th District, and I do of course believe for what [John] stood for. I think John thought I was capable. I think I could do a good job.”4
Congressman Ashbrook’s district was one of two Ohio seats slated for elimination at the end of the 97th Congress (1981–1983) as a result of a redistricting plan precipitated by declining state population. His district was chosen for consolidation because of his decision to seek the Republican nomination for the Senate.5 Aware that her tenure in Congress would be brief, Jean Ashbrook nonetheless entered the race to succeed her husband in the House.
Despite a voter turnout of only 10 percent in the June 29 special election, Ashbrook defeated Democrat Jack Koelbe with 74 percent of the vote. “Under the circumstances, it’s a bittersweet victory for me,” Ashbrook told her supporters. “But I’m very pleased that the people of the 17th District have reaffirmed their commitment to President Ronald Reagan and the principles they shared with my late husband.” Though her husband had been a close friend of the President, Ashbrook acknowledged concerns over the economy in her district by noting that, “I’m pro–Reagan, but John Ashbrook was never a rubber stamp for anyone. I’m definitely backing the President, but I will have my eyes and ears open.”6 Ashbrook’s election and seating in the House on July 12 set a new record for the number of women in Congress–22. “My gosh, I made history,” Ashbrook said at the time. “That was rather nice.”7 After being sworn in on July 12, 1982, she received an assignment on the Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries. Her only ambition, she remarked, was “to carry on John’s conservative philosophy.”8
In her first speech on the House Floor, Ashbrook spoke out against President Reagan’s veto of a bill to strengthen copyright laws. The legislation would have been a boon to the printing industry, which was a major employer in her district. “I hated to do that to the President,” she said. “But after all, I said I wouldn’t be a rubber stamp.”9
In most other legislative matters, Ashbrook was a confirmed supporter of the Reagan administration. In July, Ashbrook introduced a bill that would have denied federal law enforcement or criminal justice assistance to any jurisdictions that implemented certain gun control ordinances. She also introduced a bill to prescribe mandatory minimum sentences for anyone convicted of federal felonies committed against senior citizens. Ashbrook supported the Enterprise Zone Tax Act of 1982, which provided tax relief and regulatory exemption for businesses that relocated to poor areas with high unemployment. She also backed a bill that would have created a U.S. Academy of Freedom to educate citizens about the dangers of communism and to promote democracy abroad.
After retiring from Congress on January 3, 1983, Ashbrook returned to Ohio. She resides in her hometown of Newark.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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