Crafting an Identity

The passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 marked a great divide in the women’s rights movement in America. A central “paradox of change” for newly enfranchised women was embedded in the suffrage movement itself. Some reformers had sought to liberate women by making them politically equal to men, whereas others fought for the vote believing that women’s interests were inherently different from men’s and required special advocacy that could not be co-opted by existing institutions.95 This central question, in one form or another, remained unresolved through much of the twentieth century: Did women’s historical underrepresentation give these pioneer Congresswomen the responsibility to advocate for all women, even for those beyond the prescribed borders of their districts or states? Or could they best promote women’s political advancement by eschewing a narrow set of what society deemed “women’s issues”: workforce development, education, childcare, health care, and reproductive rights?

Five women in Congress hold hands as they walk down the hall/tiles/non-collection/E/Essay1_15_fivewomen_pn2016_11_0003_rutgers-1.xml Image courtesy of the Mary Norton Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries Virginia Ellis Jenckes of Indiana, Caroline O’Day of New York, Mary T. Norton of New Jersey, Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts, and Florence P. Kahn of California hold hands as they walk the halls of Congress c. 1936.
Congresswomen in this era favored the latter choice and tended to limit their support to legislation that addressed issues affecting women within the context of their traditional roles as wives, mothers, and dependents.96Ruth Baker Pratt refused to champion women’s special interests in Congress and, on one occasion, proclaimed that “sex had no place whatever in politics.”97 Nevertheless, she used her national profile to urge women to participate in local politics. Pearl Oldfield, the widow of a powerful Arkansas Congressman, agreed with Pratt’s assessment. After serving two years in the House, she retired, telling the New York Times, “No one should seek or expect public office simply because of her sex, but she has an equal right to appeal to the voters for support on the basis of her comparative ability to render public service.”98 The press reinforced these views. The Washington Post celebrated Ruth McCormick’s 1930 Senate bid because the Congresswoman “made a straightforward fight for the nomination without appealing for support on the ground that women are entitled to representation. If she wins, it will be on her own merit. If she should lose, she would nevertheless be credited with the most remarkable campaign ever conducted by a woman.”99

Mary Norton, adept at navigating power within the institution, captured that spirit most succinctly when she rebuffed a male colleague who referred to her as a “lady” during a debate. “I’m no lady, I’m a Member of Congress,” Norton replied, “and I’ll proceed on that basis.” Her remark encapsulated the belief shared by most of her female contemporaries on the Hill—Democrats and Republicans—that the surest way for women to attain power and influence in Congress was to work within the prescribed system to mitigate gender differences. That belief would be subsequently reevaluated and challenged.

Next Section: Onto the National Stage


95Chafe, The Paradox of Change: 23.

96Gertzog, Congressional Women: 148.

97Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: 78.

98“Mrs. Oldfield Decries Feminist in Politics,” 19 February 1931, New York Times: 3.

99“Ruth McCormick,” 10 April 1930, Washington Post: 6.