Edith Nourse Rogers’s Committee on Veterans’ Affairs chairman portrait was unveiled on July 27, 1950. The portrait was commissioned by the Massachusetts American Legion, and it still hangs in the Veterans’ Affairs Committee rooms in the Cannon House Office Building. The portrait shows Rogers as she appeared in the later part of her 35-year career—white-haired and dignified, set in a vague, dark, impressionistic space. It closely resembles artist Howard Chandler Christy’s other portraits of House Members, which include two Speakers of the House and two other committee chairs. Contrary to the business-as-usual appearance of her commemoration, Rogers was exceptional in many ways. She was only the second woman—after her colleague Mary Norton of New Jersey—to have a chairman portrait hung in the House. Moreover, by the time the portrait was painted, Rogers had served in Congress for a quarter of a century, chalking up major victories on behalf of veterans and military personnel.
Republican Leader and fellow Massachusetts Representative Joe Martin spoke about Rogers at the portrait unveiling:
“I know her wonderful heart and generous impulses, and a desire to make the veterans and their dependents a little better off, and in her service to our common country no one has given more of her real self to her country than Mrs. Rogers has.”
The chairman portrait served as a gesture to honor her hard work, but a look at the objects and photographs in the House Collection that preceded this portrait illustrate a fuller story of this “real self,” and Rogers’s tireless, decades-long commitment to veterans’ issues. Artifacts reveal who she was, how she worked, and what she meant to the institution.
Starting at the beginning—or close to it—there is a handbill made in support of Rogers’s second campaign in 1926. Before her election to represent a Massachusetts district, she worked as a nurse overseas during World War I, and later with the American Red Cross at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. Rogers acted on her commitment to veterans immediately once in Congress. This handbill details her accomplishments during her first term, leading off with securing a hospital for veterans in Bedford, Massachusetts. The handbill also highlights the respect Rogers earned from her colleagues. Edgar Howard of Nebraska posited that “if every state in the Union should send one or more women of the Edith Nourse Rogers type to Congress the welfare of the American people would be safeguarded.”
Like the other women in the small cadre who won seats in Congress in the decades following Jeannette Rankin’s election as the first woman Representative in 1916, Rogers appeared frequently in the news. This photograph from 1929 is amusing and novel, but also reinforces an image of the Congresswoman as capable and bold. Shown in a plane, wearing goggles and the requisite leather helmet, the article reported that Rogers preferred to fly on her journeys—both because it saved time and she enjoyed it.
A few years later, in 1931, Rogers was captured participating in the demonstration of the “world’s fastest tank” at the Capitol. Like her fondness for airplanes, her interest in the latest equipment played up her connection to the military. Although her work focused more on the people of the armed services than the machines they used, her understanding of the entirety of the military experience is a recurring theme among news images of her.
With World War II, Rogers’s support of the military evolved and deepened, with the passage of her Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps Act (WAAC)in 1942, establishing a means for women to volunteer in the Army in noncombat capacities. Rogers said her efforts gave “women a chance to volunteer to serve their country in a patriotic way,” taking on roles as medical professionals, clerical workers, or in hundreds of other capacities. A 1943 photo shows Rogers, along with fellow Representatives Winifred Stanley of New York and Frances Bolton of Ohio, hosting a lunch for the WAAC recruiting staff at the Capitol. Just months after this photo was taken, the WAAC Act was supplanted by Rogers’s updated Women’s Army Corp Bill, granting official military status to the women volunteers, now part of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) within the Army, an early step in the progress of women’s professional engagement in the military.
Shortly after creating the WACs, as Ranking Member on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, she sponsored what became known as the “GI Bill of Rights,” passed in 1944. In providing college tuition benefits and low-interest mortgages for veterans, this bill had wide-reaching effects on economic mobility in the mid-20th century. In 1947, Republicans briefly held the majority, and Rogers’s years of groundbreaking work on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee were rewarded with a turn in the chairman’s seat. She took the role again for another single Congress in 1953.
Whether the woman taking part in the demonstration of the latest tank or the serene and dignified leader depicted in her chairman portrait, Rogers was, in the words of her fellow committee member Leonard Allen, a “most gallant lady from Massachusetts” who looked “after those fine boys” in the military “as a devoted mother,” all the while reframing what their service meant to the nation through her unceasing support.
Sources: "Presentation of the Portrait of Honorable Edith Nourse Rogers to the Committee on Veterans' Affairs House of Representatives," June 27, 1950, United States Government Printing Office Washington, DC: 1950.
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