Change and Continuity
Compared with the pioneer generation, the women Members elected during this period had far more prior political experience. Half the women in the second generation (18) had served as public officeholders or as party officials. Six served in state legislatures or other statewide offices. Chase Going Woodhouse of Connecticut served two terms as a popular secretary of state. Four women held local political office, and 11 served as party officials at the state and national levels. The level of education of this group of Congresswomen mirrored that of the pioneer generation; two-thirds (24 of 36) had received some kind of postsecondary education. Political experience made women more attractive as candidates for national office. In 1934 Caroline O’Day of New York told campaign crowds that the “political apprenticeship” of women had come to an end. With 31 women running for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1934 and a record 38 in 1936 (12 of them nominated by the major parties), O’Day’s contention seemed validated.1
For the second generation, the median age at which women were elected to Congress was slightly lower at 49 years. This figure is important largely because it determines a Member’s ability to accrue the seniority requisite for leadership positions. By comparison, the average age of all House Members entering Congress from 1931 to 1950 was 45 years; nearly 30 percent of the men were 39 or younger. The median age at retirement during this era ranged from 53 to 57 years.2 During World War II, three women were elected in their 30s: Winifred Stanley of New York, 33, the youngest woman elected to Congress up to that date; Katharine Byron of Maryland, 37; and Clare Boothe Luce of Connecticut, 39. The oldest woman elected to Congress during this period was 66-year-old Hazel Abel of Nebraska, a distinguished state official who served a brief Senate term in 1954.
The Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) administration, through the direct and indirect efforts of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, helped boost the number of Democratic women in Congress. Many of the women who rose in the 1930s to prominent positions in the federal government had known the First Lady since the days when she worked in Greenwich Village settlement houses and registered women voters across New York State.3 In making these appointments, President Roosevelt broke with precedent: Frances Perkins was the first woman ever to serve in the presidential cabinet, Labor Secretary, former House Member Ruth Bryan Owen was the first woman to serve as a U.S. ambassador (to Sweden), and Florence Allen was the first woman judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals.
Connections to Eleanor Roosevelt proved to be influential in several Congresswomen’s careers. Caroline O’Day, for example, was among Eleanor Roosevelt’s confidantes. The pair had traversed New York in the 1920s, organizing women voters and working on Governor Al Smith’s 1928 presidential campaign. In the 1934 midterm elections, Roosevelt made campaign appearances on O’Day’s behalf, becoming the first First Lady to stump for a candidate. O’Day’s campaign was successful, and she remained in Congress for nearly a decade. Congresswoman Nan Wood Honeyman of Oregon, an unflagging supporter of FDR, had known Eleanor Roosevelt since their days at finishing school in New York City. Helen Gahagan Douglas of California conferred often with the First Lady. Eleanor Roosevelt campaigned for successful Democrats Katharine Byron and Chase Woodhouse, among others, and she inspired young women to consider political life. Coya Knutson of Minnesota recalled that a June 1942 radio address by Eleanor Roosevelt prodded her to become active in civic affairs. “It was as if the sun burned into me that day,” Knutson said.4
Impressive political résumés helped more women secure influential committee assignments particularly during and after the Second World War, when women were assigned to prominent panels such as Agriculture, Armed Services, Naval Affairs, Public Works, Rivers and Harbors, Merchant Marine and Fisheries, Judiciary, and Interior and Insular Affairs. Five women were assigned to the Foreign Affairs Committee, and four served on the Banking and Currency Committee during this era. Other assignments reinforced patterns set during the first generation of women in Congress, when women legislated on second- or third-tier panels such as Education, Veterans’ Affairs, Post Office and Civil Service, and Government Operations. Many of these committees dealt with issues that had long been considered part of a woman’s sphere.
Women served on more than 30 House committees during this era. In the Senate, where only two women served an entire term or longer, women won appointments to roughly 20 committees.5 A trailblazer, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, who began her career in the House and was later elected to the Senate, served as a member of the powerful Senate Appropriations and Armed Services panels. Four women chaired six congressional committees during the period from 1935 to 1954: Representative Mary Norton of New Jersey—District of Columbia (1935–1937), Labor (1937–1947), Memorials (1941), and House Administration (1949–1951); Representative Caroline O’Day—Election of the President, Vice President, and Representatives in Congress (1937–1943); Representative Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts—Veterans’ Affairs (1947–1949 and 1953–1955); and Senator Hattie Caraway of Arkansas—Enrolled Bills (1933–1945).
House leaders, particularly Speakers Joe Martin of Massachusetts and Sam Rayburn of Texas, promoted women to key positions. As Republican Minority Leader in 1943, Martin secured seats for Margaret Chase Smith and Clare Boothe Luce on Naval Affairs and Military Affairs, respectively, to recognize women’s contributions to the war effort and to bring “a woman’s viewpoint” to traditionally all-male committees.6 Rayburn steered several women onto important committees, including Chase Woodhouse, with whom he had a frank and warm relationship. “You get the same pay as we do, don’t you?” Rayburn once asked her. “Yes, sir, for a change,” Woodhouse replied. “And you worked three times as hard to get here as any of us did,” he said.7 Speaker Rayburn, who shared Woodhouse’s disdain for fundraising and admired her efforts to keep lobbyists at arm’s length, confided to her, “If I had twenty-four like you, I’d be happy.”8 Later in his Speakership, Rayburn helped persuade reluctant committee chairmen to accept Coya Knutson and Martha Griffiths of Michigan as members of powerful panels.
The widow’s mandate and familial connection remained prevalent in the second generation of women in Congress. Fourteen of the 36 women who were elected or appointed directly succeeded their husbands. Another woman, Leonor Sullivan of Missouri, won election in 1952 to the St. Louis district served by her late husband for much of the 1940s. Dixie Graves of Alabama was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1937 by her husband, Governor Bibb Graves. In all, 44 percent of the women from this generation came to Congress through familial connections. The persistence of this trend explains another statistic: Nearly half the women elected or appointed in this era (17) served one term or less. This was particularly true of southern widows such as Willa Fulmer of South Carolina, Florence Gibbs of Georgia, Elizabeth Gasque of South Carolina, Rose Long of Louisiana, and Clara McMillan of South Carolina, who were chosen by party leaders as temporary placeholders until a permanent male successor could be found. For the first time in both chambers, a woman succeeded a woman; Representative Stanley succeeded retiring Congresswoman O’Day in a New York At-Large seat in 1943, and Hazel Abel was elected Senator from Nebraska in 1954, succeeding Republican appointee Eva Bowring.
1“Mrs. O’Day Pledges Opposition to War,” 29 October 1934, New York Times: 4; “38 Women Run for House,” 3 November 1936, New York Times: 9.
2Allan G. Bogue, Jerome M. Clubb, Carroll R. McKibbin, and Santa A. Traugott, “Members of the House of Representatives and the Processes of Modernization, 1789–1960,” Journal of American History 63 (September 1976): 275–302.
3The standard biography of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt is Blanche Wiesen Cook’s Eleanor Roosevelt, two volumes (New York: Viking Press, 1992, 1999). For more on Roosevelt’s connections to prominent women activists and politicians, see Lillian Faderman, To Believe in Women (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999).
4Gretchen Urnes Beito, Coya Come Home: A Congresswoman’s Journey (Los Angeles and London: Pomegranate Press, Inc.): 65–66.
5Committee attractiveness during this period is based on Charles Stewart III, “Committee Hierarchies in the Modernizing House, 1875–1947,” American Journal of Political Science 36, no. 4 (November 1992): 835–856. At the beginning of this period, there were 47 House committees; the Senate had 33 standing committees (see, for example, committee listings in the Congressional Directory for the 75th Congress, 1st Session, 1937). The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 restructured the committee system. After its implementation in 1947, the number of standing House committees was reduced to 19 and standing Senate committees to 15. The process of streamlining was achieved by eliminating the number of panels altogether and by renaming, reconfiguring, or broadening the jurisdiction of others. Committee structure has been modified since 1947, with the addition of the Budget Committee in the early 1970s, and again after the Republicans came to power and enacted institutional reforms in 1995. Currently in the 114th Congress (2015–2017), the House and Senate have 20 and 16 permanent standing committees, respectively. The House also has the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. The Senate has four permanent select committees. In addition, House and Senate Members serve on four joint committees.
6“Military Affairs Mrs. Luce’s Post,” 19 January 1943, New York Times: 21; “Urge House Women on War Committees,” 15 January 1943, New York Times: 15.
7Chase Going Woodhouse, Oral History Interview, U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress (hereinafter USAFMOC), Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.: 225.
8Woodhouse, USAFMOC, Oral History Interview: 237.