Media Curiosities 

By virtue of their gender, the earliest women in Congress received considerable media attention. Part celebrities, part curiosities, they were chronicled, quoted, and scrutinized. Perhaps none received more attention than Rankin, whose 1916 election catapulted her into the national spotlight. Manufacturing companies sought her endorsement; cranks sent offers of marriage. She received large numbers of visitors and a mountain of mail—by one account, 300 letters a day.77 These demands required her to hire three secretaries to join her in her one-room office.78 Rankin agreed to write a monthly column for Chicago’s Sunday Herald, and she signed a lucrative contract ($500 per lecture) with a New York speakers bureau. “To be suddenly thrown into so much limelight was a great shock,” Rankin recalled. “It was very hard for me to understand, to realize that it made a difference what I did and didn’t do from then on.”79

Representative Alice Robertson sits on the rostrum in the House Chamber/tiles/non-collection/E/Essay1_12_Robertson_on_rostrum_LC-1.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Representative Alice Mary Robertson of Oklahoma, the second woman elected to the House and the first woman elected after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, served for one term—during the 67th Congress (1921–1923).
An eager press corps soon pegged Alice Mary Robertson, the second woman in Congress, as a font of colorful quotes. Shortly before assuming office in 1921, Robertson told a reporter that she intended to be a model first-term lawmaker, fastidious and silent. “I would rather be like a humble little light that shines a long distance across the prairies than a brilliant sky rocket that flashes in midair for a few seconds and then falls to the earth with a dull thud,” Robertson said. “If people think that I am going to do something sensational they are mistaken. I am a conservative. The platform upon which I was elected is: ‘I am a Christian. I am an American. I am a Republican.’” But her propensity to speak her mind made “Miss Alice” the object of intense press coverage. The matronly Congresswoman later declared that Members who wasted taxpayers’ money with verbose speeches and parliamentary stalling tactics ought to be “spanked good and plenty.”80

The spotlight landed on other women given their prominent political families. The New York Times and the Washington Post ran lengthy feature stories on two famous daughters whose fathers were avowed political enemies: Ruth Bryan Owen (the daughter of Democratic giant William Jennings Bryan) and Ruth Hanna McCormick (the daughter of Republican powerbroker Mark Hanna). During her 1928 campaign, McCormick became the first woman featured on the cover of Time magazine.81 Before an adoring press gallery, Owen and McCormick entered the House arm in arm on April 15, 1929, the first day of the 71st Congress, and were sworn in as new Representatives.82

Congresswomen uncomfortable with Washington society or reticent about the media glare received less charitable press coverage, which often focused on a Member’s mannerisms, attire, and physical appearance rather than on substantive legislative issues. Katherine Langley was singled out for her bold style. “She offends the squeamish by her unstinted display of gypsy colors on the floor and the conspicuousness with which she dresses her bushy blue-black hair,” wrote one reporter.83 Representative Mae Nolan was regularly misquoted and misrepresented. The press took unmerciful delight in noting that she had taken up golf to improve her health. Gradually, Nolan reportedly withdrew from the spotlight, eventually shunning floor speeches, lobbyists, and especially journalists. When she retired after a brief House career, the Washington Post declared “in Congress 2 years, she did no ‘talking.’”84

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Footnotes

77Smith, Jeannette Rankin: 115.

78Smith, Jeannette Rankin: 115. The House Office Building had opened in 1908 and was meant to accommodate all House Members and committees. By and large, each Member was assigned a one-room office.

79Quoted in Smith, Jeannette Rankin: 104. A highly unusual feature of the lecture contract was that if she voted against a war resolution, the contract could be terminated. Josephson, Jeannette Rankin: 57, 62–63, 67.

80“‘Miss Alice’ To Be Meek in Congress,” 26 February 1921, Washington Post: 10; “Spankings to Silence Talkative In House Advocated by Miss Alice,” 5 March 1923, Washington Post: 4.

81Miller, Ruth Hanna McCormick: A Life in Politics: 193. McCormick appeared in the 23 April 1928 edition, weeks after her Illinois primary victory. Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine appeared on a Time cover in 1959, marking the 40th anniversary of the suffrage amendment.

82Winifred Mallon, “Another Hanna Looks to the Senate,” 9 June 1929, New York Times: SM4.

83Hope Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress (New York: Praeger, 1973): 64.

84Constance Drexel, “Mrs. Nolan No ‘Crusader’; Mrs. Barrett Gains Note,” 24 February 1924, Washington Post: ES3; “In Congress 2 Years, She Did No ‘Talking,’” 5 March 1925, Washington Post: 9.