Sometime around 1916 or 1917, the exact date isn’t clear, a woman in her early 20s from Washington, DC, named Mildred Reeves took a job in the office of Congressman Nicholas Longworth, an up-and-coming Republican legislator from Ohio. Within just two years or so, Reeves had gone from a minor role handling the mail to becoming one of Longworth’s chief aides, responsible for running his office—a position equivalent to today’s chief of staff. As a widely read Washington newspaper put it, Reeves was “yet another Washington girl who has made good.”
In fact, by 1919 Reeves was one of a number of women serving in high-ranking jobs on Capitol Hill. At the time, women had not yet won the right to vote, but many were helping shape the policies and laws governing the United States. Reeves and her many women colleagues were undoubtedly in the vanguard of a movement, and it was a movement that had been building momentum.
In 1923, when Longworth became Majority Leader, Reeves joined him in leadership. And in 1925, when Longworth became Speaker, Reeves made history, becoming the first woman to ever run the Speaker’s office. “She is an expert on parliamentary procedure,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “She learned just about as much about practical and applied politics as her boss,” another newspaper observed years later. “Her mind was a human filing cabinet.”
Mildred Reeves, a native Washingtonian, was born on July 15, 1896, to Frederick W. and Alice Alderman Reeves. Her father, also born and raised in the District, enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 14 and reportedly saw action during the Boxer Rebellion in China. Eventually, Frederick settled down in the capital as a real estate agent and the family lived in the neighborhood surrounding Howard University. Mildred had two siblings: Marian and John, the latter of whom would serve in the Maryland house of delegates and as Maryland’s secretary of state.
After graduating from Roosevelt High School, Reeves cycled through a few jobs before landing as a stenographer in the office of Ohio’s Nick Longworth—a man with big ambitions, and a connected, urbane dealmaker who served on the Committee on Ways & Means, and was married to Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the daughter of Theodore Roosevelt (the indomitable 26th U.S. President). Initially, Reeves was to be employed for a six-month stint addressing envelopes, but the job quickly turned into something permanent and bigger.
For a young woman starting her Hill career a century ago, there were few female role models from whom to draw inspiration or ask for advice. Notably, though, at about the same time that Reeves took the job handling Longworth’s correspondence, Jeannette Rankin of Montana won election to the House and was sworn into office in April 1917 as the first woman in Congress.
Rankin’s service in the House, her efforts to champion women’s voting rights, and the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in May 1919 seemed to both catalyze institutional changes on Capitol Hill and draw attention to subtle shifts already underway.
Observers noted that a greater number of women were serving in staff positions—some of whom held influential posts. “Congress not only voted woman suffrage,” noted the Washington Evening Star in late 1919, “but it is practicing what it preached by employing women in the most important and confidential positions,” including Reeves.
How many women worked alongside Reeves in the House at the time is likely impossible to know. Precise statistics about the gender composition of congressional staff were difficult to track in the early decades of the twentieth century, and they remain elusive. Today, the Congressional Directory, alongside some independent publications, include the names and job descriptions of virtually all senior staff but that wasn’t the case in the 1900s and 1910s. Only in 1923 did the Directory begin to provide the names of chief aides working in the Senate; of the 96 Senators serving then at least a dozen employed women. The Directory didn’t designate equivalent House staffers until the early 1950s.
Still, a sea change began to unfold on Capitol Hill in the early twentieth century as greater numbers of women steadily joined the staff ranks in Member and committee offices. From time to time, a news report or a snippet account of House leadership staff showed that a handful of women held high places in the House. Stella Deffenbaugh, for instance, whom Frank Mondell of Wyoming hired initially as a stenographer, eventually ran his Capitol office when he ascended to Majority Leader in 1919. Women also held top staff positions on several prominent committees: Ways & Means; Appropriations; Patents; and Reform in the Civil Service.
When Mondell left the House to run unsuccessfully for the Senate, Longworth became Majority Leader in 1923, and Mildred Reeves moved over to his leadership office, where she managed correspondence. From Mondell, Longworth had inherited an aide named Frank Barrow, who had worked in Congress for 20 years and held the post of legislative clerk to Mondell. In Longworth’s Majority Leader office Barrow handled what then were called “secretarial duties”—which was equivalent to serving as his chief of staff today.
But in early December 1925, as Longworth ascended to the first of three terms as Speaker of the House, he did not bring Barrow with him and instead broke longstanding tradition by tapping Mildred Reeves to run his office. The appointment made national headlines. An Acme Newspictures photographer snapped photos of Reeves at her desk and wire services flashed word of her achievement across the country. “Mr. Longworth says she has been a very efficient aid to him and that he would not think of putting a man in her place just to conform to custom,” the Baltimore Sun reported.
When Reeves first ran the office in December 1925, Longworth employed seven staffers, including her. Reeves, as head of the office, oversaw two parliamentarians, two messengers, an attendant to the Speaker, and her own assistant. But as any modern chief of staff on the Hill can attest, job descriptions often fail to capture the spectrum of activities that fill most days. Reeves scrambled to douse the inevitable small political fires that flared each day. She placated the demands of various Members, acted as a polite but firm gatekeeper for anyone seeking an audience with Longworth, and juggled a variety of administrative tasks. In an era before press secretaries, she often spoke on Longworth’s behalf. Reeves kept a low profile but occasionally showed up in print, as in late 1930 when thieves ransacked the Speaker’s office and filched some items, including a trusty stopwatch which Longworth used on the House Floor to time Member’s speeches. “Now the members can speak as long as they desire,” Reeves threatened, “unless a new stop watch is produced.”
The Washington Sunday Star ranked Reeves as one of the “indispensable specialists” who served Congress, noting that she was studying law in part to improve her familiarity with House procedure—undoubtedly, a requirement given that she oversaw the House Parliamentarians. And so it was that Reeves, after three years of night classes and summer sessions, all while leading the Speaker’s office, earned a juris doctorate from National University Law School (which later merged into the George Washington University School of Law). In August 1928, Reeves was one of 193 people (just 14 of whom were women) to pass the DC bar exam.
And it was Reeves who took the phone call from the White House in April 1931 which broke the news to Capitol Hill of Longworth’s untimely death of pneumonia while on vacation in South Carolina. Reeves became the point person for the deluge of press calls, and at the instruction of Alice Longworth, made the arrangements to transport the Speaker’s body back to Cincinnati, helped to organize the memorial service there, and sat in the front pews with Alice and other family and friends.
After Longworth died, Reeves left the House but remained active in politics and held a variety of federal positions. Later in 1931, her peers in the Women’s Bar Association elected her to the group’s executive committee. She took a job in what was then known as the Bureau of Internal Revenue (forerunner of the Internal Revenue Service), where she served as counsel in the office of the general accountant. But within two years, when Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Democratic administration came to power, Reeves was one of about 50 attorneys (“most of us were Republicans”) who were summarily dismissed. “President Roosevelt launched his one and only economy program,” Reeves quipped about the fact that she was fired from her job even as FDR greatly expanded the size of the federal government. She subsequently went into private practice in Washington, joined a major law firm, and was admitted to practice before the federal Court of Claims, the U.S. Court of Military Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court.
At the 1936 Republican National Convention that nominated Kansas Governor Alf Landon as its presidential candidate, Reeves made national headlines again when she became the first woman to serve on the Republican platform committee—joining 51 men from the various states and territories. As the convention delegates gathered in Cleveland, Ohio, Reeves was one of three attendees representing the District of Columbia. She pressed the resolutions committee to expand the convention representation from U.S. territories, and championed an unsuccessful plank backing congressional representation for the nation’s capital. While her request to expand territorial representation was initially approved by a wide majority, it was later reversed on the convention floor.
In attaining the honor of serving on the platform committee, Reeves edged out other contenders including former Congresswoman Ruth Hanna McCormick of Illinois and Longworth’s widow, Alice. The Los Angeles Times observed that hers was “the most important political honor to be attained by any woman in the [national Republican] organization thus far.” (The paper couldn’t resist also pointing out that it was a bit of a pyrrhic honor—Reeves was “one of a tiny delegation of three from the politically insignificant, voteless District of Columbia.” Only later, in 1964, did DC win a voice in the Electoral College).
After her time with Longworth, Reeves kept a connection to Ohio politics. In the late 1930s, she worked for two years for Senator Robert A. Taft, helping him set up his office shortly after his first election. While she soon returned to private practice, she remained active in DC city politics and a range of civic organizations. Reeves also helped out on Taft’s subsequent Senate re-election campaigns and his 1948 and 1952 runs for the Republican presidential nomination. A year after he defeated Taft for the GOP nomination, President Dwight D. Eisenhower made Reeves his first female judicial appointment, naming her to serve as a judge on the District of Columbia Municipal Court (now known as the Superior Court of the District of Columbia). In 1950s America, when expectations of domesticity contained the career aspirations of so many women, the appointment of a female judge made national news.
Reeves’ Capitol Hill experience no doubt readied her for the bench. She weighed cases that ranged from the serious—homicides and drunk driving—to the sublime: an intoxicated man with a ferocious pet skunk; a pair of 18-year-olds atop the Taft Bridge mooning passersby; an exotic dancer engaging in a performance “too unseemly to meet the standards set by the courts”; and the occasional juror napping during a trial.
As a sign of Reeves’ steady temperament and level-headed rulings, the chief judge later tapped her to what was billed as an “experimental six-month term” as the first full-time judge in the city’s newly-reconfigured traffic court. By the end of the 1950s, Reeves was the seventh highest-paid women in the U.S. government—along with her two female colleagues on the District of Columbia municipal court, Reeves earned $17,500 a year as an associate judge. At the end of her 10-year term in 1963 she retired. At the time, the chief judge of the court told a news reporter, “She’s been a conscientious, hard working Judge and deserves an accolade.”
Retired and in her mid-60s, Mildred Reeves married Dennis Sherman, a native Ohioan, in Cincinnati on December 2, 1963. The newlyweds moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, where Dennis died a few years later. Reeves died of cancer on July 15, 1973, and was interred in a family plot at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington a few miles north of the Capitol. Her grave is but a short walk from that of Alice Longworth’s.
Even as Reeves and other pioneers like Jeannette Rankin (who died in May 1973) left the scene, the women’s rights movement of the latter twentieth century was fully underway. But the arc of Mildred Reeves’ career suggests that not all revolutions represent hard breaks with the past. Sometimes change is measured in incremental milestones—first to head a congressional office, or to earn a law degree, to draw up a party agenda, to rule from the bench. In such a manner, as Nick Longworth once put it, arises a new order no longer bound by the need to “conform to custom.”
Sources: Congressional Directory, various editions; Stacey A. Cordery, Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from White House Princess to Washington Power Broker (New York: Viking, 2007); Baltimore Sun (6 December 1925, 11 June 1936); Christian Science Monitor (12 June 1936); Fort Worth Star Telegram (26 June 1936); Los Angeles Times (18 January 1926, 10 April 1931, 10 June 1936); New York Times (11 June 1936); Sacramento Bee (24 December 1930); Washington Evening Star (1 September 1919, 30 November 1923, 26 June 1953, 3 July 1953, 19 April 1963); Washington Post (3 December 1925, 17 August 1928, 21 May 1931; 10 June 1936; 26 October 1948, 8 February 1953, 26 March 1953, 27 November 1956, 19 September 1957, 9 August 1958, 17 August 1958, 1 January 1959, 6 September 1962, 17 September 1963, 1 October 1963, 6 December 1963, 15 July 1965, 24 July 1973); Washington Sunday Star (4 December 1927, 9 April 1931).Follow @USHouseHistory