BOWRING, Eva Kelly

Image Courtesy of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Library, Washington, D.C.
1892–1985

Biography

In 1954, Eva Bowring arrived in the Senate with the vocabulary of a witty cattle wrangler and impressive credentials as a state political figure and prosperous businesswoman. Appointed to fill the vacancy resulting from the death of Senator Dwight Griswold of Nebraska, Bowring had become one of Nebraska’s wealthiest women through her ranching enterprises and was a leading GOP figure in the state. Her transition from riding the range on her sprawling ranch to the U.S. Senate Chamber was abrupt and somewhat unexpected. “I’m going to have to ride the fence a while until I find where the gates are,” Bowring told a reporter shortly after arriving at the Capitol.1

Eva Kelly was born on January 9, 1892, in Nevada, Missouri. She attended school in Kansas City, Missouri. In 1911, at age 19, she married Theodore Forester, a grain and feed salesman, and the Foresters settled in Kansas City. When Theodore Forester died in 1924, Eva was left to raise the couple’s three young sons: Frank, Harold, and Donald.

2 To support her family, Eva moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, and took up Theodore’s work selling livestock feed; she drove as many as 40,000 miles a year around rural Nebraska roads in an unreliable old car. Once, near Merriman, Nebraska, the car broke down. A homesteader named Art Bowring happened to be driving by and stopped to help. In 1928, Eva married Bowring, who had served as county commissioner and went on to win election as a representative and senator in the state legislature. The family settled on Art Bowring’s ranch, the Barr–99, near Merriman in the Sand Hill Country of Cherry County. The couple expanded their land–holdings and eventually managed a prosperous 13,000–acre operation. After Arthur’s death in 1944, Eva Bowring operated the Barr–99, becoming the first woman to chair the Nebraska Stockgrowers Association Brand Committee. In her capacity as a rancher, Bowring became involved with Nebraska Republican politics, eventually serving as the state’s first woman county GOP chair. From 1946 to 1954, Bowring served as vice chair of the Nebraska Republican Central Committee and as its director of women’s activities.

Bowring’s transition to public office was sudden. Governor Robert B. Crosby appointed Bowring on April 16, 1954, to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Senator Dwight Palmer Griswold. Bowring, who described herself as a “forward looking Republican,” refused the offer initially. She was reluctant to leave her 1,200 head of cattle and the calving and branding work that she still enjoyed and actively participated in at age 62. “This is one cross I don’t think I have to bear, Bob,” Bowring told the governor. But Crosby was persuasive. After a private meeting with the governor, Bowring emerged from the office to tell reporters she accepted the appointment. She explained that after years of exhorting GOP women into politics, she could not now reverse course herself, noting that, “when a job is offered to you, take it. Men can refuse but women are increasingly important in political life.”3 Bowring was sworn in as the first Nebraska woman to serve in Congress on April 26, 1954, for the term that would end, according to state law, at the next general election. In November 1954 a candidate would be selected to finish out the final two months of Griswold’s term, as well as a successor to the full six–year term starting in the 84th Congress (1955–1957). At the time of her appointment, Bowring joined the Senate’s only other woman Member, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine. Smith wrote that Bowring’s appointment “did the women of America as well as the women of Nebraska a great honor.”4 For her part, Bowring expressed hope that her Senate colleagues would “remember I’m just a girl from cow country.”5 Her guiding philosophy was succinct: “I’ve not been one who thought the Lord should make life easy; I’ve just asked Him to make me strong.”6 According to custom, the state’s senior Senator, Hugh Butler, accompanied her to the front of the chamber for the swearing in. Vice President Richard Nixon, presiding over the ceremony, relayed a message from Butler to viewers in the gallery: “The senior Senator from Nebraska has asked the chair to announce that no implication should be drawn from the fact that the senior Senator from Nebraska is a widower and the junior Senator from Nebraska is a widow.”7

Bowring was appointed to three committees: Interstate and Foreign Commerce, Labor and Public Welfare, and Post Office and the Civil Service. The needs of Nebraska’s agricultural constituents were familiar to Bowring and were the focus of her only two major floor speeches. Bowring declared her backing for a program of flexible agricultural price supports proposed by the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration to reduce production fluctuations that often resulted in surplus food staples. She argued that the measure would “cushion farmers against wide breaks in the market on basic commodities,” economize land use, and produce a more stable market. “In the long run, rigid price supports take from the farmer more than he receives,” Bowring concluded. “They encourage him to deplete his soil. They saddle the markets with surpluses which give him no opportunity to realize full parity. They destroy the normal relationship of feed and livestock prices…They place the farmers in such a position that they lose much of their freedom to make management decisions.” A number of her colleagues who attended the speech, including Prescott Bush of Connecticut and Albert Gore, Sr., of Tennessee, praised her “incisiveness” and “intimate grasp” of the workings of the agriculture market.8 In addition to the commodities pricing bill, Bowring and Senator Butler introduced a measure for the construction of the Red Willow Dam and Reservoir as part of the Missouri River Basin Project. Bowring also sponsored legislation providing for flood control works in the Gering Valley of Nebraska. On August 18, 1954, Bowring had the distinction of joining a select handful of women who presided over the Senate when she was named acting president pro tempore for the day’s debates.9

In June 1954, Bowring announced that she would not seek election to the full six–year term or the short term to follow the November general election. After Hugh Butler’s death on July 1, 1954, she became Nebraska’s senior Senator. On November 8, she was succeeded by another woman, Republican Hazel Abel, whom she presented before the Senate. After leaving office, Bowring returned to her Barr–99 ranch and later served on the national advisory council of the National Institutes of Health from 1954 to 1958 and from 1960 to 1961. President Dwight Eisenhower also appointed Bowring to the Board of Parole at the Department of Justice, where she served from 1956 to 1964. Eva Bowring died on January 8, 1985, in Gordon, Nebraska.

Footnotes

1Evelyn Simpson, “Senator in a Hustle: She’ll Probably Put Her Brand on Congress,” 25 April 1954, Washington Post: S1; Josephine Ripley, “Senator’s in New Saddle: Nebraskan Doubles Distaff Strength,” 3 May 1954, Christian Science Monitor: 12.

2Boys identified in: Ripley, “Senator’s in New Saddle: Nebraskan Doubles Distaff Strength.”

3“Nebraska Woman Named to Griswold Senate Seat,” 17 April 1954, New York Times: 1; Simpson, “Senator in a Hustle: She’ll Probably Put Her Brand on Congress.”

4Hope Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress (New York: Praeger, 1973): 240.

5“Woman Joins Senate Today,” 26 April 1954, New York Times: 27; “Nebraska’s Senator Is Sworn In,” 27 April 1954, New York Times: 27.

6“Nebraska Woman Named to Griswold Senate Seat.”

7“Random Notes from Washington,” 2 May 1954, New York Times: 16.

8Congressional Record, Senate, 83rd Cong., 2nd sess. (24 June 1954): 8836–8838; Aubrey Graves, “Ike to Press Farm Fight on Floors of Congress,” 25 June 1954, Washington Post: 1; see also, Congressional Record, Senate, 83rd Cong., 2nd sess. (6 August 1954): 13554–13555.

9Congressional Record, Senate, 83rd Cong., 2nd sess. (18 August 1954): 14921.

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

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External Research Collections

Nebraska State Historical Society

Lincoln, NE
Papers: Scrapbook of clippings about her career in the Paul Riley scrapbook collection; and photographs.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Eva Kelly Bowring," 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.

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