Cecil M. Harden rose through the ranks of the Republican Party in her state and nationally before winning her first campaign for elective office to the House of Representatives. Harden eventually served five terms, making her one of the longest–serving women at the time of her retirement in 1959. “There is no game more fascinating, no game more important, than the great game of politics as we play it here in America,” Harden said early in her public career. “The more interest you take in politics, the more you meet your responsibilities as a citizen.”1
Cecil Murray was born November 21, 1894, in Covington, Indiana, daughter of Timothy J. Murray, a real estate broker and longtime local Democratic leader, and Jennie Clotfelter Murray. She attended public schools in Covington and entered Indiana University. Later that year she left to teach school in Troy Township, Indiana, and in the public schools in Covington. On December 22, 1914, she married Frost Revere Harden, who eventually became a Covington automobile dealer. They had one son, Murray.
Cecil Harden took an active interest in politics after President Herbert Hoover appointed her husband postmaster of Covington. A year later, when the new President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, appointed a Democrat to the position, she became involved in the local Republican committee, which often held its meetings in the hall above her husband’s automobile showroom.2 In 1932, Harden was elected the Republican precinct vice chairman, a position she held until 1940. In 1938, she won the vice chairmanship of the Fountain County GOP (which she held until 1950) and was made vice chair of an Indiana congressional district. She became a member of the Republican National Speakers Bureau in 1940. From 1944 to 1959, Harden served as a Republican National Committeewoman from Indiana. She was an At–Large delegate to the Republican National Conventions in 1948, 1952, 1956, and 1968. In 1949, GOP National Chairman Hugh Scott named Harden to a special steering group to map Republican strategy in between regular meetings of the whole committee.3 “I believe that the American people are basically opposed to the trend our domestic affairs has been taking,” Harden said, reflecting on 16 years of Democratic Party rule in the White House. “I am confident that once the Republican Party advances a concrete program for a revision of this trend toward socialism, the American people will rally behind us in overwhelming numbers.”4
When western Indiana GOP Representative Noble J. Johnson resigned in July 1948 to accept a federal judgeship, Harden won the Republican nomination for the general election that fall. The vacant seat—which stretched west of Indianapolis and south to include Terre Haute—had been held by Johnson since he defeated three–term Democrat Virginia Jenckes in 1938. Harden’s Democratic opponent, Jack J. O’Grady, had been campaigning a full three months before she ever entered the race. Despite years of work behind the scenes in the Republican Party, Harden was little–known by the public. She decided to canvass the district in her station wagon on a seven–day–a–week speaking tour and to buy space on roadside billboards.5 Harden stuck to generalities and laid out few specific initiatives in her platform. She spoke about the dangers of communism and the importance of balancing the federal budget.6 In what proved to be an unusually close race, Harden prevailed with a margin of just 483 votes out of more than 132,000 cast, with O’Grady taking his hometown of Terre Haute but Harden winning the surrounding rural counties. A third–party Prohibition candidate captured about twice Harden’s plurality. In the ensuing four elections, Harden won slightly more comfortable margins of victory ranging from 52 to 56 percent.7
When Harden was sworn in as a freshman Representative in January 1949, she was appointed to the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. She transferred to the Committee on Expenditures in Executive Departments (later Government Operations) in the following term and served on the Committee on the Post Office and Civil Service in the 83rd through the 85th Congresses (1953–1959). In the 83rd Congress, while the GOP briefly held the majority, Harden chaired the Inter–Governmental Relations subcommittee of Government Operations. Her responsibilities on the Republican National Committee also required a great deal of travel. In Washington, she took up residence in the Congressional Hotel (later named the O’Neill House Office Building), while her husband, Frost, remained in Covington. Though supportive of his wife’s work, he kept his distance from it. “I have nothing whatever to do with my wife’s congressional office,” Frost Harden once told reporters. “I used to dabble in politics once, myself. When my wife got in, she passed me fast.”8
Harden was an early advocate of women’s rights. At a time of GOP recriminations over losing the 1948 presidential election, she teamed with Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine and Representative Frances Bolton of Ohio to criticize the “male dominance” of the Republican Party. The group proposed a voter education program, and Harden called for “better salesmanship for Republicanism and Americanism,” urging the party to promote women’s issues in its future platforms.9 In 1957, along with Representative Florence Dwyer of New Jersey, Harden offered a bill to provide equal pay for women, one of a series of proposals that women had championed starting with Winifred Stanley of New York in 1943.10 Harden believed women had an important part to play in politics, particularly in local organizations and volunteer groups, which would provide the kind of experience they needed to move into higher offices. “It cannot be denied that there is prejudice in varying degrees on the part of men toward women in high positions of governmental or party authority,” Harden observed in 1949. But “before we women start making any real progress in politics, we must somehow develop a genuine conviction of our own worth to the world…we must feel in our hearts that women are as competent to assess problems and meet situations as men.”11
Congresswoman Harden represented the district in much the same manner as Virginia Jenckes had during the 1930s, by paying close attention to its economic needs. Harden promoted flood control for the Wabash Valley and secured funding for a dam and recreational facility. She criticized the Defense Department’s 1956 plan to close the Atomic Energy Commission’s heavy water plant in Dana, Indiana, claiming that 900 people would lose jobs and be added to her district’s already long unemployment rolls. As a member of the Committee on Expenditures in Executive Departments, she toured military supply installations in the U.S. and Asia to study ways of improving the armed forces’ procurement procedures.12 As chair of the Intergovernmental Relations Subcommittee of the Government Operations Committee, Harden pushed to have the armed forces and other government branches stop performing work that could be outsourced to private companies. All this was related to a bigger push by the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration to trim the military budget and the overall federal budget. “The Department of Defense,” Harden said, echoing a statement by Defense Secretary Charles E. Wilson, “supports the basic principle that free competitive enterprise should be fostered by the government.”13 She also authored legislation which repealed the excise tax on leather goods and took an interest in traffic safety and legislation to provide for a uniform national system of highway signage and signals.14
Like so many other Republican politicians during the 1950s, Harden’s political fortunes were hitched to the wagon of popular war hero and two–term GOP President Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower. As a GOP national committeewoman she had supported Senator Robert Taft of Ohio for the nomination at the contentious 1952 Republican Convention, but also had played an active part as a member of the credentials committee in allowing the pro–Eisenhower delegates to be seated. She aligned herself closely with Eisenhower once he took office.15 One political commentator noted that Harden had come to Congress by campaigning and assuring her constituents that she “has always been a forthright woman with a mind of her own.” The commentator observed that “now all she seems to want [voters] to know is that she stands all right with the man in the White House. Ike and his personal popularity have taken the temper out of her steel.”16
That strategy could cut both ways, as Harden found out in 1958. The election was something of a referendum on President Eisenhower’s economic policies and an expression of voter frustration with an economic recession. Her district, with industry centralized in Terre Haute, was particularly hard hit by unemployment. Harden lost her campaign for re–election in a tight race to Democrat Fred Wampler, a Terre Haute high school football coach, who prevailed by little more than two percent of the vote. She was one of seven Indiana Republican incumbents who lost in a national Democratic sweep which cost the GOP 47 House seats that fall. Overnight, Indiana’s House delegation swung from a 9–2 GOP advantage to a 9–2 Democratic advantage.
Two months after leaving office in January 1959, Harden was appointed special assistant for women’s affairs to Postmaster General Arthur E. Summerfield and served until March 1961.17 In August 1970 President Richard M. Nixon appointed her to the National Advisory Committee for the White House Conference on Aging. Afterward, she retired to her home in Covington. Cecil Harden died on December 5, 1984, in a nursing home in Lafayette, Indiana.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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