Early Congresswomen’s Backgrounds

Alice Robertson, Mae Ella Nolan, and Winnifred Mason Huck/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_Essay1_14_Robertson_Nolan_Huck_LC.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Left to right: Alice Robertson of Oklahoma, Mae Ella Nolan of California, and Winnifred Mason Huck of Illinois pose on the House steps of the U.S. Capitol, February 15, 1923.

A majority of the early congressional women 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 non-Caucasian woman would not be elected until nearly half a century after Jeannette Rankin entered Congress. 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, these 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 participated as volunteers and organizers in civic organizations and the 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 Langley of Kentucky) were in their late 30s as well. At the opposite end of the spectrum was 87-year-old Senator Rebecca Felton. The median age of the women elected to Congress through the mid-1930s was 50. By contrast, the median age of the men entering Congress during the same period was about 46.14

Winnifred Mason Huck Golfing/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_Essay1_15_Huck_golfing_LC.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress In 1922 Winnifred Mason Huck of Illinois practices her golf game at the Potomac Park Links in Washington, D.C., with the Washington Monument in the background. Golf was an increasingly popular sport in the 1920s, driven partly by the success of its first bona fide U.S. superstar, Bobby Jones. Huck and later women in Congress took up the sport, in part to interact with male colleagues, who often used the links as an informal forum for transacting legislative business.
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. 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 of Massachusetts was a national spokesperson for World War I veterans before she came to Congress.15

Ruth Hanna McCormick and Ruth Bryan Owen/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_Essay1_16_McCormickBryanOwen_HC.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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Ruth Hanna McCormick of Illinois and Ruth Bryan Owen of Florida came to Congress with a wealth of political knowledge gained from their fathers, Ohio Senator Mark Hanna and Nebraska Representative William Jennings Bryan.
Perhaps the most qualified candidate was Ruth Hanna McCormick, a suffrage lobbyist and GOP official and the daughter of former Ohio Senator and Republican kingmaker Mark Hanna. In 1918 McCormick was appointed head of the newly created Republican Women’s National Executive Committee (RWNEC), a group created and initially controlled by men in the party eager to recruit women as enfranchisement became imminent. Initially, McCormick assured GOP men that women “do not want jobs, but want good men in office. They have come into politics with their knitting to stay.” Subsequently, McCormick worked to remove 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.”16 However, extensive precongressional experience in politics or public affairs was the exception rather than the rule among this group of pioneers.

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14Allan G. Borgue, 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.

15The term “freeholder” originated in colonial times—indicating that an individual held his 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.

16Gustafson, Women and the Republican Party, 1854–1924: 179–180; see also Kristie Miller, Ruth Hanna McCormick: A Life in Politics, 1880–1944 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994).