At one time celebrated as the richest woman in America, Frances Payne Bolton of Ohio shed the comfortable life of a trust fund beneficiary to enter the political arena. Her cosmopolitan upbringing and range of interests—from public health to Buddhism to economic development in sub–Saharan Africa—shaped much of her long career in Congress. From her seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Bolton influenced American foreign policy from World War II to the Vietnam War.
Frances Payne Bingham was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on March 29, 1885, to Charles W. Bingham and Mary Perry Payne Bingham. Her family’s ties to the Standard Oil fortune permitted them to travel widely and to provide schooling for Frances at elite finishing schools and with private tutors. Her family also had a long history of public service. Mary Bingham’s father, Henry B. Payne, served as an Ohio Representative and Senator in the late 1800s. On September 14, 1907, Frances Bingham married attorney Chester Castle Bolton. Mrs. Frances Bolton later became involved with a visiting nurses’ program in Cleveland’s tenements. During World War I, the couple and their three sons—Charles, Kenyon, and Oliver—moved to Washington, where Chester Bolton served on the War Industries Board and his wife worked with various nursing groups. During the war, she also inherited a trust fund established by her uncle, Oliver Hazard Payne, a founder of Standard Oil. The bequest made Bolton one of the world’s wealthiest women and allowed her to establish the Payne Fund, which eventually distributed grants into areas of particular interest to her. In 1919, Bolton and her newborn daughter fell victim to a worldwide influenza epidemic. The baby died, and she barely survived, adopting a strict regimen of yoga exercises to aid her recovery. She also acquired an interest in eastern religions, shaping her spiritual life around Buddhism.1
While in Washington, Chester Bolton established himself as a powerful politician. From 1923 to 1928, he served in the Ohio state senate before winning election in 1928 to the first of five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from a district representing outlying Cleveland. The family lived in Washington until his defeat in the 1936 elections and returned to Ohio, where Frances Bolton served on the state Republican Central Committee. Though in poor health, Chester Bolton regained his House seat in 1938 and again relocated the family to Washington for the opening of the 76th Congress (1939–1941) in January 1939. On October 29 of that year, Chester Bolton died. When Frances Bolton decided to seek her late husband’s House seat, the Ohio GOP gave her a muted reception but eventually backed the nomination out of a sense of obligation to Chester Bolton’s memory. “A few of [the party leaders] opposed my nomination,” Bolton recalled, “but most of them thought it would be a graceful gesture which would do them no harm since they were sure I would get tired of politics in a few months, and flit on to something else.”2 Her deep pockets, both for her own campaign and the party’s statewide effort, factored into her initial 1940 campaign success. She won the February 27, 1940, special election by a 2–1 margin, a greater plurality than her husband had enjoyed in any of his campaigns. Later, in the fall of 1940, Bolton defeated her Democratic challenger with 57 percent of the vote, polling more total votes than any other House candidate in the state. Bolton was never seriously challenged in her subsequent 13 re–elections in her district, the largest by population in the country, boasting a mix of shipbuilding, foreign–born residents as well as long–standing, wealthy inhabitants.3 The first woman elected from Ohio, she also became the only mother to serve simultaneously with her son, Oliver H. Bolton, when he represented a district east of his mother’s for three terms in the 1950s.
As a Member of the 76th Congress, Bolton served on the Committee on Indian Affairs; the Committee on Expenditures in the Executive Departments; and the Committee on Election of the President, Vice President and Representatives. After her re–election to the succeeding Congress, the well–traveled Bolton resigned those minor assignments for a better seat on the Committee on Foreign Affairs, where she served throughout her tenure in the House. Eventually, Bolton rose to the Ranking Minority Member post of Foreign Affairs. In addition to her standing committee assignments, Bolton served from 1955 to 1965 on the House Republican Policy Committee, which determined committee assignments and party positions on issues before the House.
Bolton entered the House in March 1940, little more than six months into the Second World War. Though starting as a moderate isolationist, she slowly came to support military preparedness. Yet, she held out late hope that America could avoid intervention. With some reservation, she supported the Lend–Lease program to sell weapons and warships and to provide monetary aid to the Allies in 1940. She opposed revision of the 1939 Neutrality Act, arguing that while she supported making America the “arsenal of Hitler’s foes,” President Roosevelt was obliged to “make no move to precipitate us into war.”4 As late as November 1941, Bolton still was reluctant to commit American forces to the conflict. “I beg you, think most carefully before you commit this land of ours … to go into a war [to] which most of her people are opposed, and to do so secretly under the cover of promises of peace,” she appealed to her colleagues. “I can follow the President a long way, and I have done my best to help him keep his word to … our people that we shall not go into war.”5 The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor moved Bolton firmly into the internationalist camp. “I have not agreed with the foreign policies of the administration,” Bolton admitted. “But all that is past. We are at war and there is no place in our lives for anything that will not build our strength and power, and build it quickly.”6 So complete was her turn that by June 1943, Bolton took to the House Floor to voice her support for the Fulbright Resolution, which passed the House and declared America’s intention to participate in postwar international organizations.7
Bolton’s primary wartime focus was in the realm of health care, a subject that had interested her since World War I. As early as May 1940, she had broached the idea of an army school of nursing on the House Floor.8 In 1943, she authored the $5 million Bolton Act, creating a U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps, which one year later, had trained some 124,000 nurses. In exchange for the education, these nurses committed to a tour of duty in the armed services or in an essential civilian posts for a period of time after their training. The Bolton Act also demonstrated the Congresswoman’s sympathy for African–American civil rights, as it stipulated that funding be allocated without regard to race or ethnicity. “What we see is that America cannot be less than herself once she awakens to the realization that freedom does not mean license and that license can be the keeping of others from sharing that freedom,”9 Bolton noted. In 1944, Bolton traveled to Europe to observe firsthand the military hospitals and the nurses she helped to put in place. Her efforts to bring women into greater positions of responsibility in the military extended into the 1950s. Bolton’s belief in war preparedness led her to conclude that women should be drafted into noncombat roles. “I am afraid that gallantry is sorely out of date, and as a woman I find it rather stupid,” she said. “Women’s place includes defending the home.”10
Bolton’s work on Foreign Affairs consumed much of her postwar career and allowed her a series of firsts. At the invitation of the Soviet Ambassador, she became the first committee member to travel to the Soviet Union. On her initiative as part of the 1946 Legislative Reorganization Act, the full committee reorganized into five permanent subcommittees, corresponding with the State Department’s divisions of the globe. As the chair of the Near East and Africa Subcommittee of Foreign Affairs, she became the first woman to lead a congressional delegation overseas in 1947. Bolton’s frequent trips to the African continent (paid out of her own pocket) led the press to dub her the “African Queen”—a reference to the 1951 film.11 In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower appointed her as the first woman congressional Delegate to the United Nations.12 In the last three months of 1955, at the age of 70, Bolton undertook her longest journey to Africa. She survived an attempted charge on her car by a bull elephant, hiked up mountains, and visited remote native villages.13 She was not distracted from serious aspects to the trip: the development of health care programs and food and aid distribution. After meetings with high–ranking South African officials in Johannesburg, Bolton denounced that nation’s system of racial apartheid, which she described as “contrary to the universal law of evolution.”14 The South African foreign minister claimed that Bolton had delivered a “distorted picture” of apartheid and added, “A more flagrant intrusion into the political affairs of another country… would be difficult to imagine.”15 Bolton, undeterred, continued to press her case in Congress.
Her interest in African issues, particularly the effects of decolonization in Africa, reinforced her own convictions about the need to dismantle segregation in America. Bolton persisted in her core belief that for the United States to wage the Cold War effectively, it had to live up to its democratic rhetoric to attract developing nations to its cause. It was, moreover, a matter of personal principle and conviction. In 1954 Bolton delivered an address before the U.N. General Assembly, attacking the apartheid practices in South Africa and, again, alluding to America’s failure to live up to its rhetoric of democracy. “Prejudice [must be put down] wherever it raises its head, whether we are victims or not,” Bolton declared. “[An] attack on any group endangers everyone’s freedom.”16
Bolton’s sense of adventure was matched by her humor, work ethic, and loyalty to women colleagues. She earned accolades for supporting her women colleagues, regardless of party affiliation. With the death of Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts in 1960, Bolton became the dean of women Members in the House; she remains to this day, one of the longest-serving women in House history.
In her final campaign in 1968, Bolton was caught in a redistricting battle. Democratic Congressman Charles Vanik, first elected to the House to represent another Cleveland seat in 1954, challenged Bolton in her newly redrawn, majority–Democratic district. Vanik defeated the 83–year–old Bolton with 55 percent of the vote. After the election, the Richard M. Nixon administration considered rewarding her long career with an ambassadorship. Bolton demurred, “No … I’m retired. Now I can do what I please.”17 She returned to Lyndhurst, Ohio, where she resided until her death on March 9, 1977, shortly before her 92nd birthday.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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