Legislative Interests and Achievements
Between 1933 and 1938, Congress passed the sweeping package of regulatory and economic recovery policies, collectively known as the New Deal, to alleviate the effects of the Great Depression. These changes reached into nearly every corner of American life: transportation, banking, stock market regulation, agricultural practices, labor practices (including the minimum wage, the maximum length of the workday, and collective bargaining), public works, and even the arts. Many of President Franklin Roosevelt’s proposals were approved by Congress in the first 100 days of his term, including the Emergency Banking Relief Act, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the Federal Emergency Relief Act, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the National Recovery Act.9
A “second” New Deal began in 1935 as the focus on shoring up the economy shifted to providing a long-term economic safety net for all Americans. In 1935 congressional passage of the Social Security Act created unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, and public assistance programs such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children.10 These programs helped the American family and were particularly critical to women, who often silently bore the brunt of the Great Depression. Unmarried women, single mothers, and wives in need of jobs to support their families were disadvantaged not only by the scarcity of employment, but also by the widespread belief that a woman’s place was at home tending to the family.11 As chair of the Labor Committee, starting in 1937, Representative Mary Norton shaped late New Deal legislation, particularly the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which she personally shepherded through committee and onto the House Floor for a vote. The act provided for a 40-hour workweek, outlawed child labor, and set a minimum wage of 25 cents per hour. Norton later helped establish a permanent Fair Employment Practice Committee to prevent racial and gender discrimination in hiring and helped secure pensions for elective and executive offices by expanding the retirement system for federal employees.
After his overwhelming re-election victory in 1936, President Roosevelt hatched an aggressive legislative plan to place as many as six additional Justices on the Supreme Court. Made public in February 1937, FDR’s proposal was a thinly disguised effort to add Justices favoring his economic policies to the high court, which had recently nullified key New Deal programs such as the National Recovery Administration and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration. Public controversy ensued, and Congress refused to restructure the judiciary.12 The court-packing episode is widely viewed as the beginning of the end of the New Deal reforms, as southern Democrats aligned with Republicans to block the administration’s initiatives and to forge a durable “conservative coalition” in Congress that lasted for decades.13 First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes stumped in Congresswoman Honeyman’s Portland district during her 1938 re-election campaign, which she lost largely because of her unflagging support for FDR. During the next three elections, Republican women critics of the New Deal won election to Congress: Jessie Sumner of Illinois (1938), Frances Bolton of Ohio (1940), Smith (1940), Luce (1942), and Stanley (1942).
Intervention versus Isolation
By the late 1930s, with European countries arming for war and tensions increasing due to Japanese expansion in the Pacific, Congress shifted its focus to preparing for war and to America’s role in world affairs. In the years after World War I, a strong isolationist movement spearheaded by Members of Congress from midwestern states gripped the country. The isolationists believed that the Woodrow Wilson administration’s pro-Allied slant and big business interests had drawn the United States into World War I, and they were committed to avoiding American involvement in another global conflict. From 1935 to 1937, Congress passed a series of neutrality acts that incrementally banned arms trade with belligerent countries, the extension of credit to them, travel on belligerent ships, and the arming of American merchant ships. The final bill, the Neutrality Act of 1937, provided that, at the President’s discretion, warring countries could purchase nonembargoed goods on a “cash-and-carry” basis, that is, the goods would be paid for when they were purchased and transported on that country’s own vessels.
Opposition to American intervention in a potential world war centered in the late 1930s around two groups, pacifists and isolationists. In addition to monitoring the growing fascist threat in Europe and Asia, the FDR administration waged a protracted battle at home with a core group of isolationists in Congress who resisted increasing pressure to provide economic and military support for America’s traditional partners in the Atlantic Alliance.14 Congresswoman Sumner epitomized the isolationist perspective. Elected to the first of four terms in 1938, Sumner was especially critical of American foreign policy in the months immediately after war broke out in Europe in September 1939 with the German invasion of Poland. She lashed out at the Roosevelt administration for what she viewed as a pro-British bias, insisting, “Our historical experience warns us that we cannot safely become an arsenal for belligerents.”15
Caroline O’Day, a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in the 1920s, was the most significant congressional female voice for pacifism in the late 1930s. As longstanding American allies Britain and France were plunged into the Second World War, O’Day opposed the amendment of earlier neutrality acts that prohibited selling arms or extending credit to belligerent nations. Joining isolationists like Sumner, she also voted against the 1940 Selective Service Act, the nation’s first peacetime draft, saying, “As women whose sons would be obliged to go to war; as women who, with the children, would remain at home to be the victims of air raids and bombing of cities, we should have the right to vote against it, and express our desire for peace.”16 However, O’Day ultimately supported the war effort when she learned about the nature of the Nazi atrocities in Europe. “We as individuals and as a nation must consent to play our proper role in world affairs,” said O’Day, who was, at heart, more an internationalist than an isolationist.17
Congress eventually voted to repeal the arms embargo against countries fighting Nazi Germany and, for the first time, allowed American merchant ships to convoy arms and equipment to Great Britain. The majority of the women in Congress supported the FDR administration’s foreign policy. Clara McMillan of South Carolina, a mother of five young sons, reasoned that preparing for America’s seemingly imminent entry into the war would best preserve her sons’ safety. Congresswoman Rogers broke with fellow Republicans to vote against the neutrality acts and for the 1940 Selective Service Act, citing the danger posed by Adolf Hitler’s Germany. The Selective Service measure passed Congress and was extended by a narrow margin a year later. Between 1940 and 1947, more than 10 million conscripts served in the U.S. military.
Japan’s surprise attack against the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, unified the country for war. More than 2,400 persons were killed, and 19 U.S. Navy ships were sunk or disabled. An anticlimactic, but oft-celebrated, event in the pacifist crusade occurred the next day when Jeannette Rankin of Montana cast the lone vote against declaring war on Japan. During her previous term in 1917, Rankin had voted against U.S. entry into World War I. A devoted pacifist, she served in a variety of peace organizations before being re-elected to Congress in 1940. Rankin’s vote against war on Japan effectively ended her House career. “When in a hundred years from now, courage, sheer courage based upon moral indignation is celebrated in this country,” editor William Allen White observed, “the name of Jeannette Rankin, who stood firm in folly for her faith, will be written in monumental bronze, not for what she did but for the way she did it.”18
Expanding Women’s Responsibilities in Wartime
Once the nation was committed to war, women in Congress legislated to make available unprecedented opportunities for women as members and supporters of the U.S. armed services. Congresswoman Rogers authored the May 1942 Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) Act, which created up to 150,000 noncombat positions (primarily in nursing) for women in the U.S. Army. Nearly 350,000 women eventually served as WACs and in similar groups in other branches of the military, including the navy (WAVES), the coast guard (SPAR), and the marines (MCWR). Another 1,000 women became Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs).19Frances Bolton, a moderate isolationist before the war, soon embraced military preparedness. She authored the Bolton Act of 1943, creating the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps, which was responsible for training nearly 125,000 women as military nurses. Bolton later toured Europe to observe these women at work in field hospitals. After the war, she advocated a greater role for women in the military and even suggested they be made eligible for future drafts.
Congresswomen also played a part in helping veterans make the transition to peacetime and tried to ensure that the new wartime roles played by women became permanent. Representative Rogers shaped the landmark Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (commonly known as the GI Bill of Rights), which authorized the Veterans’ Administration to help servicemen adjust to civilian life by providing financial aid for school and job training, employment programs, federal housing loans, and medical care. Margaret Chase Smith also strongly supported women’s participation in the military. Her landmark Women’s Armed Forces Integration Act, passed in 1948, ensured the permanent inclusion of women in the military.
The war provided new opportunities for some groups of American women. By 1942, so many men had been taken out of the economy to fill the military ranks that women were recruited to make up for the “manpower” shortage. The War Manpower Commission created an enduring image of the era with its “Rosie the Riveter” campaign, which aimed to bring women—single and married—into the workforce. Posters of Rosie’s muscular, can-do image as a production line worker at an armaments plant projected an unconventional image of women as a source of physical strength. Between 1941 and 1945, some 6 million new women entered the workforce, swelling their ranks to about 19 million and a then-all-time high of 36 percent of the U.S. workforce.20
Labor Committee Chairwoman Mary T. Norton urged women not to retreat into the home when the men returned from war. “This is the time for women everywhere to prove that they appreciate the responsibility they have been given,” Norton said at the war’s end. “Women can’t be Sitting-Room Sarahs or Kitchen Katies. They have homes to keep up, food to prepare, families to clothe . . . but they have their world to make. . . . American women today stand on the threshold of a glorious future . . . . They can grasp it . . . or they can let it slide.” Norton spoke passionately about the pressure on women from industry and labor unions to vacate jobs for GIs seeking employment: “Women are going to be pushed into a corner, and very soon at that.” It would be, she predicted, a “heartbreaking” setback.21
Shaping the Postwar Peace
Women Members were involved not only in preparing for and waging war, but also in creating the framework for a lasting peace. In 1944 women rode a wave of internationalist sentiment to Congress, partially signaling the triumph of FDR’s foreign policy over the prewar isolationists. Three prominent internationalists—Emily Taft Douglas of Illinois, Chase Going Woodhouse, and Helen Gahagan Douglas—were elected to the House of Representatives. Emily Douglas was a forceful and articulate advocate for the implementation of the Dumbarton Oaks accords that created a postwar United Nations. From her seat on the Banking and Currency Committee, Woodhouse helped execute the Bretton Woods Agreement, which created the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Helen Douglas, a former Hollywood actress, enthusiastically endorsed postwar U.S. reconstruction aid to Europe and supported the creation of the Atomic Energy Commission to ensure that civilians as well as the military would have some control over atomic technology. At the opposite end of the spectrum, isolationist Jessie Sumner retired from the House in 1947, citing her frustration with the President’s power to set an expansive global U.S. foreign policy.
The social and economic dislocation that resulted from the Second World War reopened a long-running debate about civil rights in America.22 Reformers believed that the African-American contributions to the war effort underscored the moral imperative of repealing segregationist laws in the United States. Frances Bolton challenged her colleagues on this point during a debate on outlawing the poll tax used to disenfranchise African Americans: “Even at painful cost, America must be true to her own vision, to her own soul, to her responsibility to tomorrow’s world. We talk so much of democracy, of freedom. Can we have either so long as great sections of our land withhold freedom?”23
Congresswomen took highly public and often-conflicting positions on civil rights. In the late 1930s, Senator Dixie Bibb Graves received national press attention as an opponent of federal action against lynching; she insisted that the practice was in decline and that federal statute would intrude on states’ rights. Her colleague Hattie Caraway agreed and later opposed efforts to outlaw poll taxes. Representative O’Day supported antilynching laws. Marguerite Stitt Church of Illinois and Helen Douglas challenged segregationist dining policies in the Capitol. Representative Helen Mankin of Georgia, elected to an abbreviated term in 1946, was an outspoken opponent of the politics of Governor Eugene Talmadge and of Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised southern blacks. Widely popular with the black community in her Atlanta-based district, Mankin was unseated in the fall 1946 elections, when Talmadge officials altered the rules for the Democratic primary. At the very end of this period, Iris Blitch of Georgia, a Talmadge protégé, won election to the first of four House terms and signed the “Southern Manifesto,” opposing federal efforts to end racial segregation in the South.
The Cold War and McCarthyism
As the Second World War ended, the victorious alliance between Washington and Moscow began to weaken. Soviet forces, which had broken the backbone of the German Army, occupied virtually every Eastern European capital. Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin believed Russian security interests required control of western invasion routes used by the Germans to invade his homeland twice during his lifetime. Rather than withdraw from Eastern Europe and East Germany, the Soviet Red Army tightened Moscow’s grip and installed pliant communist regimes. A war of words and mutual suspicions developed. By 1947 officials in Washington had decided to try to contain communism by economic and military means, implementing the Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe and West Germany and helping countries plagued by communist insurgencies. The first Soviet test of an atomic bomb in 1949, the founding of the communist People’s Republic of China the same year, and communist North Korea’s invasion of South Korea in June 1950 seemed to confirm Americans’ worst fears about the expansion of international communism.24
Several women in Congress were vocal advocates of a hard-line American policy toward the Soviet Union. Sumner raised concerns early on about the nature of Stalinist foreign policy, arguing that Americans should beware of supporting postwar international organizations because, she believed, they would be co-opted by communist powers. Congresswoman Luce also criticized Soviet motives, especially in regard to Polish sovereignty and, along with other Members of Congress, accused the Roosevelt administration of capitulating to Stalin’s demands for a Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. Congresswoman Edna Kelly of New York, elected to the House in 1949, was an ardent anticommunist who gained the influential post of head of the European Affairs Subcommittee on the Foreign Affairs panel. Kelly and others, such as Woodhouse, backed the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949, a largely military alliance that aimed to counter the Soviet military threat, supported the Marshall Plan, and advocated large foreign-aid packages to help governments resist communist insurgents.
The restructuring of U.S. national security policy and the billions of dollars spent on the global war on communism changed America’s international role. Not all Congresswomen agreed that such expenditures were in the best interests of the American people. Maude Kee of West Virginia questioned the urgency of giving multibillion-dollar aid packages to foreign countries when residents of her rural Appalachian district suffered from high unemployment and a low standard of living. Vera Buchanan of Pennsylvania publicly raised concerns about the threats of officials in the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration to annihilate the Soviet Union, using nuclear weapons in “massive retaliation” for military provocation. Marguerite Church of Illinois questioned expenditures of vast sums on military hardware for foreign countries instead of on job training and economic programs for women in developing countries. Other women from this period, such as Woodhouse (and later in the Cold War, Edith Green of Oregon and Coya Knutson) brought a domestic perspective to the national security debate, arguing that improved economic and educational opportunities would best protect Americans’ freedom. Helen Douglas linked U.S. civil rights reforms with Cold War national security objectives. Winning the support of potential allies in the global struggle against communism required fundamental changes at home. Racial segregation in America, Douglas said on the House Floor, “raises the question among the colonial peoples of the earth . . . as to whether or not we are really their friends, whether or not we will ever understand their longing and right for self-determination.”25
Indeed, the domestic consequences of the Cold War were profound. American officials had to garner public support for huge outlays for the containment policy and, in making their case about the dangers of communism abroad, stoked fears of communist infiltration at home. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which held numerous high-profile public hearings, became a soapbox from which anticommunist Members of Congress called attention to the “red menace.”26
During its 37-year history, no woman served on HUAC (later renamed the Internal Security Committee), though several, including Edith Nourse Rogers and Edna Kelly, supported its usefulness. Both Helen Douglas and Emily Douglas attacked HUAC for its brusque tactics, which included publicizing unsubstantiated rumors. “No men are pure and unbiased enough to have this immense power to discredit, accuse and denounce which this committee wields,” Helen Douglas declared. “It is un-American in-itself to be condemned in the press or before the public without trial or hearing.”27 In a speech entitled “My Democratic Credo,” Douglas identified the real dangers to democracy as demagoguery and repressive domestic controls justified in the name of national security.28 “Have we talked about communists so much that we have begun to imitate them?” she asked.29 In a 1950 campaign for one of California’s seats in the U.S. Senate, Representative Richard Nixon, a member of HUAC, successfully employed smear tactics to defeat Congresswoman Douglas, whom he labeled a communist sympathizer. Representative Reva Bosone of Utah, formerly a Salt Lake City judge, was turned out of office two years later, partly because her opponent attacked her for opposing a bill granting wide-ranging powers to the newly created Central Intelligence Agency.
In the U.S. Senate, Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin made the shocking claim in a February 1950 speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, that he possessed a list of 205 communists employed at the State Department. He then labeled World War II hero and Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall a traitor and rebuked President Harry Truman and Secretary of State Dean G. Acheson for being “soft” on communism. As chairman of the Government Operations Committee’s Subcommittee on Investigations in the 83rd Congress, McCarthy commenced hearings to root out “subversive activities” in the federal government. His tactics received widespread attention from the press, but ferreted out no communists. However, many of the government employees and private citizens who were called before his committee had their careers and reputations ruined.30
Few of his contemporaries publicly countered McCarthy’s unsubstantiated charges, but some Congresswomen spoke out. Representative Woodhouse told the New York Times, “It is the job of every balanced, conscientious person to steer us away from the dangers of hysteria and to label as traitors those in public positions who attempt to gain personal benefit from playing on the fears of the masses of the people.”31 Margaret Chase Smith, a freshman Senator, directly challenged McCarthy in a Senate Floor speech that demonstrated great moral courage. In an address she later called her “Declaration of Conscience,” Senator Smith said, “Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism . . . are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism—the right to criticize; the right to hold unpopular beliefs; the right to protest; the right of independent thought.” Although she did not mention McCarthy by name, her meaning was unmistakable. She also took her colleagues to task for condoning the permissive context in which McCarthyism was allowed to flourish and in which Senate debate had been “debased to the level of a forum of hate and character assassination.”32 McCarthy’s downfall came in the spring of 1954, when he investigated the U.S. Army in televised hearings; his ruthless and exaggerated tactics were broadcast to millions of viewers. In December 1954, the Senate censured McCarthy. Voting with the majority were his Republican colleagues Senator Smith and Senator Abel.
9A standard history of the period is David Kennedy, Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). For a concise treatment of the Great Depression and New Deal, see Eric Rauchway, The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
10The New Deal policies enacted in the 1930s by the Roosevelt administration and Congress dominated American political life and were, in some measure, a culmination of the welfare and social work efforts that had engaged women for a century. Many New Deal programs benefited from the experience of women reformers of the Progressive Era. The professionalization and institutionalization of “1920s” women’s reform groups, such as the League of Women Voters and the Women’s Bureau in the Labor Department, prepared women for having a voice within the administration. See, for example, Robyn Muncy, Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform, 1890–1935 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).
11Sara M. Evans, Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America (New York: Free Press, 1989): 202.
12See, for example, William E. Leuchtenburg, “Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Supreme Court ‘Packing’ Plan,” in Essays on the New Deal, Harold M. Hollingsworth and William F. Holmes, eds. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1969): 69–115.
13For a standard work on the formation of the conservative coalition in Congress’ see James T. Patterson, Congressional Conservatism and the New Deal: The Growth of the Conservative Coalition in Congress, 1933–1939 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1967). In the 1938 midterm elections, President Roosevelt’s effort to purge the Democratic Party of conservatives opposed to his plans further helped to cement the conservative coalition; see Susan Dunn, Roosevelt’s Purge: How FDR Fought to Change the Democratic Party (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010): especially 236–277.
14See, for example, Wayne Cole, Roosevelt and the Isolationists, 1932–1945 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983).
15Jessie Sumner, “We Are Right To Be Safe,” Address to the Republican League of Women, 2 October 1939, reprinted in the Congressional Record, House, 76th Cong., 2nd sess. (2 October 1939): A 91–92.
16Jessie Ash Arndt, “Rep. O’Day Offers Plan Against War,” 15 July 1937, Washington Post: 19.
17Congressional Record, House, 77th Cong., 1st sess. (11 December 1941): A 5565.
18Norma Smith, Jeannette Rankin: America’s Conscience (Helena: Montana Historical Society, 2002): 185.
19Kennedy, Freedom From Fear: 776.
20These rising wartime employment statistics masked surprisingly resilient traditional views of women’s place in society. The surge appears far less dramatic in light of the fact that about half these women had recently graduated from school and would have soon joined the workforce anyway. By 1947, moreover, women’s participation in the national workforce had decreased to 28 percent. In addition, “Rosie the Riveter” was atypical; most women had secretarial or clerical jobs. While defense plants employed some two million women, the vast majority (95 percent) held unskilled positions. Ironically, few were riveters, since this position required specialized skills, and employers were hesitant to train women they expected to be temporary employees. Indeed, government propagandists and business made it abundantly clear to women that their employment would end when the men returned from war. See Kennedy, Freedom From Fear: 776–782; Alice Kessler-Harris, Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982): 276–277; 294; Rosalind Rosenberg, Divided Lives: American Women in the Twentieth Century (New York: Hill and Wag, 1992).
21Annabel Paxton, Women in Congress (Richmond, VA: Deitz Press, 1945): 37; see also Norton’s obituary from the 1959 Current Biography.
22Kennedy, Freedom From Fear: 857–858. For a comprehensive discussion of the African-American experience and the civil rights struggle, see John Hope Franklin and Alfred Moss, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, 8th edition (New York: Knopf, 2000): 475–504. For more context on the emergence of the civil rights movement in the postwar era, see Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–1963 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989).
23Congressional Record, House, 79th Cong., 1st sess. (24 October 1945): 10036.
24For more on the origins of the Cold War and American foreign policy during this era, see Melvyn P. Leffler, The Specter of Communism: The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1917–1953 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1994) and John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy during the Cold War, revised and expanded edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
25Congressional Record, House, 79th Cong., 1st sess. (8 June 1945): 5810.
26For more on HUAC, see Walter Goodman, The Committee: The Extraordinary Career of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1968).
27Congressional Record, House, 79th Cong., 1st sess. (24 October 1945): 10036.
28Congressional Record, House, 79th Cong., 2nd sess. (29 March 1946): 2856–2859; quote on 2857.
29Congressional Record, House, 80th Cong., 2nd sess. (18 May 1948): 6030–6031.
30For more on McCarthy and “McCarthyism”—the term coined by Washington Post cartoonist Herblock to describe his red-baiting tactics—see David M. Oshinsky, A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy (New York: Free Press, 1983). See also the Executive Sessions of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations, Volumes I–V, edited by Donald A. Ritchie and Elizabeth Bolling (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2003).
31“Smear Campaigns Laid to ‘Traitors,’” 19 November 1950, New York Times: 38.
32Congressional Record, Senate, 81st Cong., 2nd sess. (1 June 1950): 7894–7895. For an account of the episode and its effect on Smith’s career, see Janann Sherman, No Place for a Woman: A Life of Senator Margaret Chase Smith (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000): 104–126.