Legislative Interests and Achievements

In the first half of the twentieth century, women were viewed as caregivers, educators, and consumers in large parts of American society, and most of the early women Members legislated in areas deemed to be gender appropriate. The pioneer women in Congress were scattered across more than 30 committees, most of which ranked as lower-tier panels. Not surprisingly, the largest number of House women (five) served on the Committee on Woman Suffrage before it was disbanded in December 1927. Other assignments given to women Members included committees such as Education (four); World War Veterans’ Legislation (four); Civil Service (four); Public Buildings and Grounds (four); and Indian Affairs (three).

There were exceptions to this trend. Several women obtained posts on powerful committees such as Appropriations (Kahn); Naval Affairs (McCormick); Banking and Currency (Pratt); Irrigation and Reclamation (Isabella Greenway of Arizona); and Foreign Affairs (Owen, Rogers, and Wingo).85 Two women, Mae Nolan and Mary Norton, chaired House committees during this period, Expenditures in the Post Office and District of Columbia, respectively. In the Senate, Hattie Caraway served on two important panels: Agriculture and Forestry; and Commerce, where she eventually rose to become second-ranking majority Member. From the 73rd Congress (1933–1935) through the 78th Congress (1943–1945), Caraway also chaired the Enrolled Bills Committee, a minor panel that ensured that the text of a bill passed by the House and Senate was identical and was delivered to the White House for the President’s signature.

Ruth Bryan Owen/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_Essay1_25_BryanOwenPhoto_HC.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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Known for her strenuous campaigning, commanding oratory, and devotion to her Florida constituents, Representative Ruth Bryan Owen became the first woman to serve on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
From their earliest days in Congress, women had a diverse array of legislative interests. Members’ agendas derived from unique political beliefs, personal ideologies, and individual constituencies, all of which shaped the contours of their legislative efforts. San Francisco’s Florence Kahn successfully promoted major Bay Area projects, securing funding to initiate construction of the Bay Bridge and procuring land for the development of the Alameda Naval Air Station. Edith Nourse Rogers, as chair of the hospitals subcommittee of the World War Veterans’ Legislation Committee, procured millions in funding for a national network of veterans’ hospitals. Ruth Owen authored legislation to combat the fruit fly, which threatened agricultural interests in her Florida district. From her seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, Owen also promoted American participation in international conferences; at the outset of the Great Depression, she advocated the creation of the “Department of Home and Child,” a Cabinet-level department to oversee the health and welfare of families and children. Even Rankin, who focused in her first term on women’s voting rights by successfully lobbying for the creation of (and then serving on) the Committee on Woman Suffrage, tended to the needs of miners in her district from her seat on Public Lands.

Given their numerous interest and agendas, women Members did not vote as a bloc or always agree on the viability of legislation and programs that directly affected American women. The stark differences between the first and second women in Congress, Rankin and Robertson, illustrate the diverse pathways taken by women on Capitol Hill.

Rankin, who was a former secretary of the NAWSA, focused on issues affecting women and children. “There are hundreds of men to care for the nation’s tariff and foreign policy and irrigation projects,” she told voters on the campaign trail. “But there isn’t a single woman to look after the nation’s greatest asset: its children.”86 Alongside her tireless efforts on behalf of the women’s suffrage amendment, Rankin sponsored a bill to create an education program on women’s health. That legislation came up in the House several years after Rankin left as part of the Sheppard–Towner Maternity and Infancy Protection Act, which allocated $1.25 million annually in federal money for prenatal, maternal, and infant health care education through public health nurses supervised by the Children’s Bureau. This marked one of the earliest efforts in U.S. history to secure federal funding for social welfare.87

Robertson had been the only woman in Congress when the Sheppard–Towner legislation was introduced in May 1921. A disciple of limited federal government, she refused to endorse the bill. She was also an avowed foe of the powerful advocacy groups that backed the measure, namely, the League of Women Voters and the National Woman’s Party (NWP). Congresswoman Robertson denounced the bill as an intrusion into women’s private lives. Nevertheless, Sheppard–Towner was signed into law on November 23, 1921, demonstrating the lobbying power and public relations savvy of women’s groups while simultaneously highlighting the glaring lack of women’s power within Congress. “If Members could have voted in the cloakroom it would have been killed,” recalled a male Representative.88

In fact, the legislation that most affected women in the 1920s was won primarily by the organized lobbying of voluntary associations at a time when very few women served in Congress. The Cable Act of 1922 granted married women U.S. citizenship independent of their husbands’ statuses and provided citizenship protection for women who married immigrants or who gained U.S. citizenship by marrying an American citizen. The Lehlbach Act of 1923 improved the merit system of the civil service, making it easier for women to secure federal jobs. After intense lobbying by women’s groups, Congress passed the Child Labor Amendment to the Constitution on June 2, 1924, which sought to achieve national uniformity for child labor standards. This amendment would have given Congress the power “to limit, regulate, and prohibit the labor of persons under 18 years of age,” but it was never ratified by the states. Finally, in 1923 the NWP pushed for and won the introduction of the Equal Rights Amendment on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention. The measure was reintroduced scores of times in subsequent Congresses, but it languished in committee for nearly 50 years. In the interwar years, women Members distanced themselves from the amendment because it was perceived as a threat to existing labor protections for women and because people mistrusted the NWP and its militant tactics.89

Florence Kahn/tiles/non-collection/E/Essay1_14_kahn_PA2014_01_0007b-1.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives Florence P. Kahn of California was known for her effectiveness and sparkling wit. While serving on the Appropriations Committee, she secured prominent infrastructure projects for her San Francisco district, including the Bay Bridge and a naval air station.
Several major public policy issues recurred during the first generation. One was the debate about Prohibition. Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment in December 1917, outlawing the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquor within or into the United States. The states ratified the amendment in January 1919. The passage of the Volstead Act that October over a presidential veto provided the mechanism that enforced the amendment. Lauded by “dry” temperance advocates and derided by “wet” opponents, Prohibition proved to be a divisive and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to regulate morality through federal legislation. It was eventually repealed in 1933 by the Twenty-first Amendment.90

For the women in Congress during this early period, Prohibition was a significant issue. Women had had prominent roles as temperance reformers since the early part of the nineteenth century, and some became influential Prohibition lobbyists.91 But, among the early women in Congress, there was no unified stance on the issue. Some backed the policy, while others opposed it. Among Prohibition’s supporters were Rogers, Owen, Pearl Oldfield of Arkansas, and McCormick. Rogers’s “dry” position, for instance, was an important factor in her initial special election. But after more than a decade of enforcement, Prohibition had grown increasingly unpopular, and opposition to it became politically expedient in the early 1930s when the debate shifted from morality to economics. Mary Norton offered the first bill to repeal Prohibition laws. Congresswomen Pratt, Virginia Ellis Jenckes of Indiana, and McCarthy also supported efforts to repeal the Volstead Act, arguing that it might help revive the flagging economy. Jenckes and McCarthy, who hailed from agricultural districts, argued that renewed production of grain-based spirits would benefit farmers. Owen’s Florida constituents, meanwhile, turned her out of office in 1932 when she was reluctant to support the repeal of Prohibition.

Another issue that affected women Members during this era was the decade-long argument concerning bonus payments to World War I veterans. The American Legion lobbied Congress shortly after World War I to fund a bonus for servicemen as compensation for the wages they lost when they left higher-paying civilian jobs to serve in uniform. Congress approved a bonus in 1922, but the bill was vetoed by President Warren Harding. In May 1924, over the veto of President Calvin Coolidge, Congress passed the Soldiers’ Bonus Act, which provided veterans a bonus of $1.25 for each day of overseas duty and $1 for each day of domestic service, payable in 1945. Veterans could borrow up to 25 percent of their total bonus amount from a fund created by the bill.92 By the early 1930s, with the country mired in a devastating economic depression, veterans organized a march on Washington, DC, to demand immediate payment of the bonus. The Bonus March on the capital in 1932 involved thousands of protesters and their families, who set up camp in the Anacostia Flats, a short distance from the U.S. Capitol. In June 1932, the House approved the bonus bill, but the Senate rejected it. When veterans demonstrated against the bill’s failure, the police shot and killed two bonus marchers. The Army later forcibly ejected the remaining protestors from their camp using tanks and tear gas.

With the development of a large female nursing corps in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women in Congress were widely recognized as experts on the care and welfare of America’s servicemen.93 Women Members used that authority to weigh in on both sides of the bonus bill debate. Congresswoman Robertson, an ally of servicemen during World War I, voted against the first bonus bill in 1922, angering so many constituents that they voted her out of office the following year. Congresswoman Nolan was an early advocate of a bonus and challenged the Coolidge administration to make it a higher priority than tax cuts for the wealthy. Willa McCord Blake Eslick of Tennessee was watching from the House Gallery in June 1932 when her husband, Edward Everett Eslick, collapsed and died of a heart attack in an impassioned speech supporting the bonus bill. At the urging of local servicemen, Eslick ran for her late husband’s seat and won election to a brief term that she dedicated to his legislative agenda. Isabella Greenway, long a patron of veterans, helped renew the debate for a bonus payment after she was elected to Congress in 1933. Greenway was an ally of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, but her relationship with the administration eventually cooled when the President’s Economy Act of 1933 called for cuts to servicemen’s pensions and denied a proposed $2 billion bonus. The debates over Prohibition and the soldiers’ bonus ultimately culminated with the onset of yet another challenge confronting women in Congress during this period: the Great Depression. The stock market crash in October 1929, preceded by years of rampant speculation and ineffectual federal regulation, spread economic ruin throughout the country. Staggering investment losses, sharply lower consumer spending, plummeting agricultural prices, and widespread runs on America’s banks sent the economy into a multi-year skid. By the winter of 1932–1933, more than 5,500 banks had been shut down, nearly one in four Americans was unemployed, and the gross national product had declined by nearly a third.94

The Great Depression decisively influenced the careers of this first generation of women in Congress. For Republicans, it proved to be disastrous. In 1930 growing disillusionment with the economic recovery policies of the Herbert Hoover administration undercut Ruth McCormick’s bid for the Senate. Two years later, Ruth Pratt fell victim to a similar trend when she lost her Manhattan House seat. Other once reliable Republican seats turned Democratic in the early 1930s. Democrats Kathryn O’Loughlin McCarthy and Virginia Ellis Jenckes were elected from traditionally Republican districts in 1932 by agricultural constituencies desperate for federal relief. Democrats had a different political calculous to consider. Isabella Greenway campaigned partly on her cachet as a friend of the Roosevelt family and partly on her ability to translate that influence into public works jobs for Arizonans. A trio of Democratic Arkansas widows—Oldfield, Wingo, and Caraway—focused on relief for their agricultural constituencies through a variety of federal measures. But even for Democratic supporters of the New Deal there were disagreements and perils. Kansas farmers revolted against the Agricultural Adjustment Act, a cornerstone of the early New Deal, and voted McCarthy out of office after only one term. While Jenckes and Greenway supported emergency government programs to prime the economic pump, they were much more skeptical about later New Deal programs that sought to establish a social welfare system including unemployment insurance and old-age pensions.

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85For committee attractiveness during this period, see Charles Stewart III, “Committee Hierarchies in the Modernizing House, 1875–1947,” American Journal of Political Science 36, no. 4 (November 1992): 835–856.

86Smith, Jeannette Rankin: 102.

87Theda Skocpol, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1992): especially 494–522.

88Quoted in William H. Chafe, The Paradox of Change: American Women in the 20th Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991): 27.

89Gertzog, Congressional Women: 148–152.

90For more on the temperance and Prohibition movement, see Ruth Bordin, Women and Temperance: The Quest for Power and Liberty, 1873–1900 (1981; repr., New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990), and Thomas R. Pegram, Battling Demon Rum: The Struggle for a Dry America, 1800–1933 (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee Publishers, 1998).

91For Willard’s role as a lobbyist, see Gaines M. Foster, Moral Reconstruction: Christian Lobbyists and the Federal Legislation of Morality, 1865–1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002): 84–91.

92Steven W. Stathis, Landmark Legislation, 1774–2002 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 2003): 185–186.

93See, for example, Susan M. Reverby, Ordered to Care: The Dilemma of American Nursing, 1850–1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

94For a thorough treatment of the Great Depression era, see David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear (New York: Oxford, 1999).