Ruth Thompson, a longtime lawyer and judge, became the first woman to represent Michigan in Congress and the first to serve on the House Judiciary Committee. Her legislative interests were eclectic, ranging from a proposal to create a Department of Peace to the establishment of a congressional Page academy. Representative Thompson’s career ended abruptly following a contentious fight over the development of a jet fighter base in her northwestern Michigan district.
Ruth Thompson was the first child born to Thomas and Bertha Thompson in Whitehall, Michigan, on September 15, 1887. She attended public schools and graduated from the Muskegon Business College in Muskegon, Michigan, in 1905. Beginning in 1918, she worked in a law office and studied law in night school for six years before she was admitted to the bar in 1924, becoming the first female lawyer in Muskegon County. She also served as the registrar of the county’s probate court for 18 years. Thompson was elected judge of probate in Muskegon County in 1925, a position she held for 12 years. In 1938 she won election to a term in the Michigan state house of representatives as the state’s first woman legislator. From 1941 to 1942, Thompson worked for the Social Security Board’s Old Age and Survivor’s Insurance Division in Washington, D.C. She then worked for three years in the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division. In 1945, Thompson went to Headquarters Command of U.S. occupation forces in Frankfurt, Germany, and Copenhagen, Denmark, where she worked on the adjutant general’s staff. A year later, she returned to private law practice in Michigan.
In 1950, when Michigan’s GOP Representative Albert J. Engel, a 16–year House veteran, declined to run for re–election to campaign for the governorship, Thompson entered the race to fill his vacant seat. In the Republican primary, she topped challenges from the Muskegon County GOP chairman and a former lieutenant governor, relying on grass–roots campaigning and her name recognition from years as a judge. “I started out in my car and stopped all over, ringing doorbells, visiting business places, talking with the people on the streets, and addressing countless gatherings,” Thompson recalled, traveling around the northwestern Michigan district. “Many of those whom I met were people I had known when I was probate judge—I’d handled their estates, helped them when they wanted to adopt children, or placed young wards of the court in their homes for boarding.”1 In the general election, she defeated Democrat Noel P. Fox, chairman of the state Labor Mediation Board, with 55 percent of the vote in the rural and Republican–leaning district bordering Lake Michigan. She won comfortable re–election campaigns in 1952 and 1954 with 60 and 56 percent of the vote, respectively. In the latter campaign, Thompson turned back a GOP primary challenge from Robert Engel, son of the former Representative from the district.2
When she took her seat in the 82nd Congress (1951– 1953) in January 1951, Thompson won a coveted spot on the House Judiciary Committee, becoming the first woman to serve on that panel. There was initial resistance to her appointment, but her work as a judge and as chair of the Michigan prison commission for women, from 1946 to 1950, helped override objections. Admired by colleagues for her work ethic, she remained on the Judiciary Committee throughout her House career, serving as a member of the subcommittees on Bankruptcy and Immigration and Naturalization. In the 84th Congress (1955–1957), Thompson also was appointed to the Joint Committee on Immigration and Nationality Policy.
A proponent of limited federal spending, Thompson opposed much of the Harry S. Truman administration’s domestic program. She voted to curtail housing construction provided for under the Public Housing Administration, supported a measure to shrink the size of the federal workforce, and joined other GOP Congresswomen in an effort to publicize how inflation limited the ability of housewives to buy groceries for their families.3 Thompson also was a critic of President Truman’s foreign policy. In the wake of military reverses in the protracted Korean War, she joined conservative Republicans in calling for the removal of Secretary of State Dean G. Acheson and, occasionally, voted against military and economic assistance to Western Europe. In 1953, Thompson proposed the creation of a Department of Peace, which would be represented in the presidential Cabinet. She explained, “All the guns, all the tanks, and all the bombs we are building during these hectic times are not going to save us from our enemies at home or abroad.” As a potential secretary for the department, Thompson proposed the evangelist Billy Graham.4
Thompson also played a major role in shaping a Capitol Hill institution by introducing a bill to establish a formal academy for House and Senate Pages which would have provided a central dormitory and adult supervision. The Pages, a group of about 75 blue–coated teenage boys who ran errands for Members in the chambers and the congressional offices, came to Washington on patronage appointments from around the country. In addition to their official duties, they took classes at the Library of Congress. But the Pages were responsible for securing their own room and board. “A boy 15 years old isn’t old enough to choose his own home and determine his own hours,” Thompson said.5 The reforms that Thompson proposed, however, were not enacted for another 30 years.6
Congresswoman Thompson generally preferred committee work to speechmaking. She spent little time on the House Floor and, when she did, it was normally to offer her succinct support for measures introduced by the Judiciary Committee. Thompson supported a “submerged lands” bill, which sought to retain state control from the federal government over coastal waters with oil and mineral deposits. She argued, in part, that if the states lost revenue from the development of these deposits, a principal revenue source for educational programs would decline. In 1953, based on her own experience in an accident with fireworks, she supported a measure by colleague Marguerite Stitt Church of Illinois seeking to restrict the sale of out–of–state, “bootleg” fireworks in jurisdictions in which they were illegal.8 As a member of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Naturalization, she supported a 1952 revision of immigration law that came out of her committee.9
Thompson’s congressional career began to unravel when the Air Force announced that it planned to build a new fighter–interceptor base outside her district, despite her private and public protest that Defense Department officials had originally promised her repeatedly that the base would be located inside her northwestern Michigan district. Thompson also revealed that she had been offered a $1,000 campaign bribe to agree to have the base built in Cadillac, Michigan, outside her congressional district. She had informed Harold E. Talbott, the Secretary of the Air Force, of the bribe and was assured that Cadillac would not be chosen under any circumstances. When that city was named in favor of two others, Thompson protested vigorously to Carl Vinson of Georgia, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Vinson sided with the Congresswoman, and the base was eventually built in Manistee, inside her district.10 But the political fallout resulting from the delay and additional construction costs, which totaled $5 million, created resentment among Thompson’s constituents. In August 1955 local Democratic leaders drew up a recall petition against Thompson, charging that she was “jeopardizing the safety of the nation by prolonging the jet base decision.”11 Though the recall drive failed, it demonstrated just how much the episode had roiled the district. In the August 1956 GOP primary, the 70–year–old Thompson lost narrowly to Robert P. Griffin (who won the general election and later went on to serve in the U.S. Senate).
After Congress, Thompson returned to Whitehall, Michigan. She died on April 5, 1970, in Allegan County, Michigan.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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