Early Congresswomen’s Backgrounds

A majority of the earliest women to serve in Congress were born in the 1880s and 1890s and came of age during the Progressive Era. Culturally, the first generation of women in Congress had several commonalities. They were all white; the first woman of color would not be elected until 1964. Most were raised Protestant, although there were several notable exceptions, including the first Catholic and the first Jewish women in Congress—Mae Nolan and Florence Kahn, respectively—who represented neighboring districts in San Francisco. Moreover, this generation of women pioneers were exceedingly well educated partly because many came from well-to-do families that could afford private schooling and post-secondary education. Many went to elite finishing schools. More than half (13) attended university or college, and several others graduated from trade schools. Before coming to Congress, many volunteered in civic groups and organized social welfare endeavors typical of Progressive Era reformers. These activities included suffrage and electoral reform, missionary and education work, public health, nursing, veterans’ affairs issues, legal aid, and childcare. Rankin, at age 36, was the youngest woman elected to Congress during this pioneer generation. Two other women (Mae Nolan and Katherine Gudger Langley of Kentucky) were in their late 30s as well. At the opposite end of the spectrum was 87-year-old Senator Rebecca Latimer Felton of Georgia. The median age of women elected to Congress through the mid-1930s was 50. By comparison, the median age of men entering Congress during the same period was about 46.70

Representative Mary Norton sits at her desk and talks on the phone/tiles/non-collection/E/Essay1_10_Norton_desk_PA2013_06_0002p-1.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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Mary T. Norton of New Jersey chaired the Committee on the District of Columbia in the 1930s and became known as the “Mayor of Washington.” Norton would later chair the Labor Committee and the Committee on House Administration.
Few women could draw on previous electoral experience. Mary Norton (a New Jersey county freeholder), Ruth Baker Pratt (a New York City alderman), and Kathryn O’Loughlin McCarthy (a Kansas state representative) were the only women in this era who had held public office before they came to Congress.71 Several other women had prominent careers as lobbyists, activists, or party officials. Rankin was widely known as an advocate for suffrage reform, and Edith Nourse Rogers was a national spokesperson for World War I veterans before she came to Congress.

Perhaps the most qualified candidate was Ruth Hanna McCormick, a suffrage lobbyist, GOP official, and the daughter of former Ohio Senator and Republican kingmaker Marcus Alonzo (Mark) Hanna. In 1918 McCormick was appointed head of the newly created Republican Women’s National Executive Committee (RWNEC), a group initially controlled by men which was eager to recruit women as enfranchisement became imminent. Initially, McCormick assured the Republican Party that women “do not want jobs, but want good men in office. They have come into politics with their knitting to stay.” Once in charge, McCormick removed male oversight by the Republican National Executive Committee (RNEC) and secured the power for the RWNEC to make its own appointments. In 1919 she admonished male RNEC colleagues, saying, “I marvel at the apprehension of some of you regarding our citizenship… . This is our country no less than yours, gentlemen.”72 On the whole, however, extensive experience in politics or public affairs was the exception rather than the rule among this group of pioneer Congresswomen.

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70Allan 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; figures on 291. Roughly 30 percent of men, however, were elected in their 30s.

71The term “freeholder” originated in colonial times—indicating that a person held property “free and clear” and was thus eligible to participate in county government. The position is equivalent to a seat on a county board of commissioners. Pratt was a member of the New York City board of alderman, forerunner of the city council.

72Melanie Susan Gustafson, Women and the Republican Party, 1854–1924 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2001): 179–180. See also Kristie Miller, Ruth Hanna McCormick: A Life in Politics, 1880–1944 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992).