The first woman to represent Washington state in the U.S. House of Representatives, Catherine May, entered public service after her father insisted that she not repeat his example of avoiding the political arena. Congresswoman May established herself as a moderate. She advocated for the needs of her agrarian district, congressional ethics, and women’s rights, supporting such measures as the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and the inclusion of the sex discrimination clause in the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Catherine Dean Barnes was born on May, 18, 1914, in Yakima, Washington, to Charles H. Barnes, a deparment–store owner and real estate broker, and Pauline Van Loon Barnes. She attended Yakima Valley Junior College and, in 1936, graduated from the University of Washington with a B.A. in English and speech. Catherine Barnes taught high school English in Chehalis, Washington. In 1940, she pursued a radio broadcasting career in Tacoma and Seattle. On January 18, 1943, she married James O. May. The following year, while waiting for her husband to be discharged from the U.S. Army, Catherine May worked as a writer and assistant commentator for the National Broadcasting Company in New York City. The couple returned to Yakima in 1946, where James May established a real estate and insurance business while she worked as a women’s editor for a local radio station. The Mays raised a son and daughter, Jamie and Melinda. The couple became active in politics after Charles Barnes, whose department store went bankrupt in the Great Depression, revealed that his great regret in life was not participating in local government to address public problems.1 The Mays joined the Young Republicans and became active precinct workers. In 1952, at James’s urging, Catherine May ran for a seat as Yakima’s representative in the Washington legislature.2 Elected as a Republican, she served for six years.
When eight–term U.S. Representative Otis H. Holmes declined to seek re–election for his U.S. House seat in 1958, May entered the race against heavily favored Democrat Frank Le Roux (who had nearly unseated Holmes in 1956). The sprawling Washington state district was bordered by Idaho to the east, Oregon to the south, and the Cascade Mountain range to the west and extended into the Columbia River basin in the north. Running on a lean budget, May resorted to distributing handbills and going door–to–door to meet voters, while Le Roux bought billboards to reach the district’s thinly spread electorate. May turned LeRoux’s advertising against him, challenging him to a debate (which he declined) and delivering campaign speeches in which she declared: “Come out from behind those billboards.”3 May defeated Le Roux by a margin of 10,000 votes, tallying 54 percent of the total. That was the closest race Congresswoman May encountered in six successful campaigns, as she steadily increased her margins of victory: 59 percent in 1960, 65 percent in 1964, and 67 percent in 1968.4 The 1964 election was especially noteworthy since the strong turnout against Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater cost four incumbent Washington Republicans their House seats.
May entered the 86th Congress (1959–1961) as the first Washington woman ever to serve in the U.S. Congress. Part of her campaign pledge to the farmers and poultry producers had been that she could secure a seat on the prestigious House Agriculture Committee. May’s break came when Representative Katharine St. George of New York won a seat on the Republican Committee on Committees. As a committee member, St. George could cast her state delegation’s votes to select membership to various committees. For the Republicans, states were awarded a number of votes equal to the number of that delegation’s GOP representatives. Committee members typically reserved their votes for Members of their own state delegations; however, St. George made an exception for May. With the clout of the largest congressional delegation at the time—including 25 Republicans—St. George secured May one of just three openings on the Agriculture Committee, where she served throughout her career.5
May also served briefly on the Committee on the District of Columbia, earning appointment at the opening of the 91st Congress (1969–1971) in January 1969. She left the District of Columbia Committee after just six months when she was offered a seat on a panel she long had sought because of the important Hanford Nuclear Power Plant located in her district: the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. May established a record as a moderate Republican who generally backed the economic policies of the Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon administrations and sought to curb the Great Society programs of the Lyndon B. Johnson administration.6 In 1965, she was rewarded for her party loyalty with spots on the Republican Policy and Research Committee, which determined GOP positions on future legislation, and the Committee on Committees. Only on rare occasions, usually when agrarian and western power and utility issues were involved, did May break with her party.
Much of Congresswoman May’s agenda focused on her assignment to the Agriculture Committee, where she tended to her district’s farming interests. She championed domestic beet sugar production, a key agricultural industry in Washington. She favored establishment of a special fee on imported sugar and, in 1964, proposed a higher permanent quota for domestic beets. May cosponsored a joint resolution in 1967 to establish the U.S. World Food Study and Coordinating Commission, which examined the market structure of the food production industry. In addition, May also took an interest in using agricultural surpluses to help feed poor families and children. She amended the 1966 Child Nutrition Act to include children in overseas American–run schools in the school milk program. In 1970, Representative May sponsored the Nixon administration’s proposal to provide free food stamps to families with monthly incomes of less than 30 dollars.
Another focus for May was the Hanford Nuclear Plant located on the Columbia River in her district. Originally built in secret to provide plutonium for the Manhattan Project and subsequent weapons projects, the Hanford Plant was targeted as a facility to produce nuclear energy for Washington state. In the early 1960s, May sought to preserve the reactor from reduced output or deactivation—a move urged by environmentalists concerned about the effects on local aquatic life. May countered that it provided cost–effective electric power and jobs. The reactor remained open, though the plutonium reactor was eventually shut down (the creation of steam power from uranium continued). Eventually, opposition from coal power interests in Congress led the Nixon administration to deactivate the plant in the early 1970s.8
In the fall of 1966, May sponsored a measure to establish the House Select Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, serving on it briefly before it became a standing committee in early 1967. A series of congressional scandals—May specifically cited proceedings related to Representative Adam Clayton Powell’s misuse of congressional funds as “the tip of the iceberg”—and her own experience with lobbyists and outside interest groups convinced her that the House needed an ethics committee.9 “It concerned me,” May later recalled, “I certainly had no claim to morality, I didn’t feel superior, but I knew it was hurting Congress and that it was going to hurt the very institutions of freedom themselves.”10 Noting that the late 1960s was a time of social unrest in the United States, May emphasized that Americans needed to be able to trust their public officials: “The great danger was the people of America losing faith in their institutions—that is the beginning of the end of a nation.”11
May supported women’s rights legislation during her House career, noting after her first election that she had a “tremendous feeling of responsibility toward all women.”12 Nevertheless, she avoided defining herself as an activist. In part, she had to educate herself about discrimination at the national level. “I wondered what women were screaming about when I went to Congress, because we had had equal rights in the state of Washington for years,” May recalled, concluding, “Boy, I learned.”13 She became active in a legislative sense, fighting on behalf of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, and joined a group of women lawmakers who demanded access to the then–all–male House gym. May supported the insertion of Title VII in the 1964 Civil Rights Act that prohibited discrimination based on sex. She also backed the ERA, which remained bottled up in the Judiciary Committee for most of her House career. Asked if America was a “woman’s country” early in her career, May replied, “No, if it were a woman’s country, it would give priority to the humane side of problems that seem like details to men. But sometimes these details have big implications in regard to the safety, comfort, or health of the people.”14
Like other Washington state Republicans in the 1970 election, May faced voter discontent with the stagnant local economy and rising jobless rate for which Democrats successfully blamed the GOP and the Nixon administration. She lost her re–election bid to Democrat Mike McCormack, a former Hanford scientist, by a plurality of about 7,000 votes out of more than 125,000 cast, a 55 to 45 percent margin. Months before the election, May had divorced her husband after six years of legal separation. She married a management consultant, Donald Bedell, in November 1970. President Nixon appointed her as chair of the U.S. International Trade Commission, where she served from May 1971 to 1981. In 1982, the Ronald W. Reagan administration named May a special consultant to the President on the 50 States Project, an effort to weed out gender–discriminatory state laws. Catherine May Bedell passed away in Rancho Mirage, California, on May 28, 2004.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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