Succeeding her husband, Florence Prag Kahn used charisma and humor to carve out her own political accomplishments as a California Representative. Going well beyond her husband’s service on the Hill, Kahn quickly earned the respect of her colleagues; according to one contemporary observer, “Congress treats her like a man, fears her, admires her, and listens to her.”1 Kahn used her successful career as an example of why the Republican leadership should encourage women to participate in party politics.
Florence Prag was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, on November 9, 1866. The daughter of Polish–Jewish immigrants Conrad and Mary Goldsmith Prag, Florence and her family relocated to San Francisco when her father’s business failed. Mary Prag served as an important influence on her daughter. As one of the first Jewish members of the San Francisco board of education, Mary Prag formed political connections with the city’s most prominent leaders—these ties invariably assisted her daughter in her future congressional career.2 After graduating from Girls’ High School in 1883, Florence enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley, where she graduated with an A.B. in 1887.3 Unable to pursue a law degree because she needed to help support her family, Florence Prag taught for more than a decade at Lowell High School in San Francisco.4 On March 19, 1899, she married Julius Kahn, a former Broadway actor, state legislator, and, at the time, a first–term U.S. Representative from San Francisco.5 The couple had two sons, Julius, Jr., and Conrad.6
For the next quarter century, Florence Kahn helped her husband manage his congressional workload. She acted as his aide and confidante, increasingly so as he fought a long illness late in his career while serving as chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs. Julius Kahn was re–elected in 1924 to the 69th Congress (1925–1927) but died on December 18, 1924. Local Republican Party leaders asked his widow to run for the vacant seat. Steeped in a tradition in which Jewish politicians from San Francisco typically aligned with the GOP, Kahn accepted the invitation to enter the special election because she felt she had already “carried on the work alone” during her husband’s prolonged sickness.7 As she noted, “I feel that through a sense of obligation and duty to my late husband I should accept the responsibility of continuing his work for the people of his district.”8 Kahn won the special election on February 17, 1925, for the San Francisco district, earning 48 percent of the vote against three opponents: Raymond Burr, H.W. Hutton, and Henry Claude Huck.9 At age 58, she became the first Jewish woman elected to Congress, and was re–elected with little opposition five times.10
Kahn had prestigious committee assignments during her House career, positions she received because of her insider’s knowledge of the institution, since her years as a political aide and adviser to her husband made her an unusually savvy freshman Member. “One of the things I learned during twenty–five years as the wife of a Congressman is not to meet the issues until they come up and not to talk too much,” Kahn told the International Herald Tribune. “So I am not going to say that I will do any particular things except to represent my district the best I am able.”11 She also knew enough to avoid being assigned to a committee that pertained little to her district’s needs. When first relegated to the Indian Affairs Committee (a fairly common committee for Congresswomen of the period), she protested publicly: “The only Indians in my district are in front of cigar stores.”12 Republican leaders relented, and in the 71st and 72nd Congresses (1929–1933), Kahn succeeded her late husband on the Military Affairs Committee, becoming the first woman to serve on the panel. In her first term, she was on three committees: Census, Coinage, Weights, and Measures; Education; and Expenditures in the War Department. She also served on the War Claims Committee in the 70th Congress (1927–1929). Finally, Kahn earned the distinction of being the first woman appointed to the influential Appropriations Committee, one of the two most desired committees during that era, serving on the panel in the 73rd and 74th Congresses (1933–1937).13
Pursuing her husband’s commitment to military preparedness, Kahn managed to secure expanded military installations in the Bay Area, including Hamilton Air Force Base and the Naval Air Depot in Alameda. A devout proponent of a strong military even in the face of a strengthening peace movement, Kahn defended her stance when she said, “Preparedness never caused a war, un–preparedness never prevented one.”14 While she served in Congress, her district was the site of two simultaneous bridge projects in the 1930s, the Golden Gate, connecting San Francisco with the Marin headlands to the north, and the Bay Bridge, which connected the city to Oakland and the East Bay. Kahn’s political skill in helping to garner the funds necessary to initiate construction of the Bay Bridge particularly, paved the way for a substantial boost to the economic development of San Francisco and the surrounding areas of northern California. Her support for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was so reliable that she became a personal friend of its director, J. Edgar Hoover, who nicknamed Kahn the “Mother of the F.B.I.”15 She also opposed the Volstead Act, which prohibited the production, sale, and possession of alcohol. Believing that the government should not attempt to legislate virtues, Kahn worked to ease Prohibition strictures by permitting the manufacture of beer and wine.
As one of only a handful of women in Congress, Kahn once remarked that “the woman in political office must remember her responsibility toward other women.” Heeding her own advice, Kahn worked to institute pensions for army nurses and establish a program honoring the mothers of fallen soldiers; she also publicly expressed concern about low wages for female government employees.16 Nonetheless, despite passionately believing that women should actively participate in politics, she never considered herself a feminist. “I am not specifically interested in so–called women’s questions as all national positions are sexless,” Kahn noted.17 More concerned with the welfare of the Republican Party than with promoting women’s rights, Kahn urged Republican leaders to recognize the potential of women (both as voters and as possible candidates) in party politics. Regardless of her motives, Kahn illustrated the significant role women could play in the government. Originally doubted by some colleagues because of her gender, her effective service revealed that women and, in particular, widows who succeeded their husbands, could leave a mark on Congress. “This is theoretically a government of the majority,” Kahn noted in a 1939 interview. “We can’t let the majority be so indifferent that we will be ruled by a minority. Women must be made to realize the importance of their voice.”
Much of Kahn’s effectiveness in the House resulted from a vibrant and witty personality that made her presence known from the earliest days of her term. When asked how she managed such a successful legislative record, Kahn snapped back, “Sex appeal!” She usually voted with the Republican leadership, but one line that circulated around the House was: “You always know how Florence Kahn is going to vote (Republican), but only God has the slightest inkling of what she’s going to say.”18 Once, New York Representative and future Mayor Fiorello La Guardia attacked her for being “nothing but a stand–patter following that reactionary Sen. [George H.] Moses,” a stalwart Republican from New Hampshire. Playing off her Jewish heritage, Kahn quipped, “Why shouldn’t I choose Moses as my leader? Haven’t my people been following him for ages?”19
Electoral shifts within Kahn’s district and national politics brought her House career to a close. From 1928 to 1932, the Democratic Party could not find a viable candidate and, thus, did not run any opposition against Kahn in the general election. In 1934, however, a strong challenge from Democrat Chauncy Tramutolo cut Kahn’s winning share of the vote to 48 percent. FDR’s 1936 re–election landslide swept congressional Democrats into office, and the San Francisco district was no exception to that trend. Progressive–Democrat Frank Havenner unseated Kahn by 58 percent to 40 percent of the vote.
In 1937, Kahn retired to San Francisco and her Nob Hill home was a gathering place for the city’s political elite. During the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition, she was named one of the 12 outstanding women in the state’s history. She remained active in civic affairs after she left Congress as a member of the National Council of Jewish Women and co–chair of the northern California chapter of the American Women’s Voluntary Service, a World War II citizen’s organization. Kahn continued her efforts to involve women in the political process and to assert their rights as citizens. “Women,” she argued, “must assume the responsibility of maintaining freedom of speech in this land. They must assume also the responsibility of the ballot through government study.”20 Kahn died in San Francisco, on November 16, 1948.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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