The Widow and Familial Connections

Edith Nourse Rogers Portrait/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_Essay1_18_RogersPortrait_HC.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts was already a legendary Member of Congress and supporter of former soldiers when veterans donated this portrait in 1950 to honor her service as chair of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
More often than not, the pioneer women in Congress gained experience in public affairs as political confidantes and campaign surrogates for the Congressmen to whom they were married or otherwise related. Ironically, it was personal tragedy rather than a shared interest in reform that provided political entrée for most early women in Congress. Beginning with Representative Mae Nolan in 1923, eight of the women who followed Rankin into Congress between 1917 and 1934 were widows who succeeded their late husbands. None had held political office. But in these cases in which special elections were called to fill the vacancies, leaving little time for campaigning, party leaders believed in the value of having the same familiar last name on the ballot. Several of these women, however, shared much more than a last name with their predecessors: they were among their husbands’ most trusted political advisers, particularly Edith Nourse Rogers and Florence Prag Kahn.

Florence Kahn, John P. Hill, and Mary Norton/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_Essay1_17_Kahn_Norton_LC.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress In this January 1926 photo, Congresswomen Florence Kahn of California (left) and Mary Norton of New Jersey flank Representative John P. Hill of Maryland. The three Members sought to modify the Volstead Act, which enforced the 18th Amendment (ratified in 1919) that prohibited the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol inside the United States as well as its importation into the country. Prohibition ended with the repeal of the 18th Amendment in late 1933.
So prevalent was the practice of wives succeeding husbands in this and later generations that political scientists eventually coined the term “widow’s mandate” or “widow’s succession” to explain it.17 The prevailing expectation was that the women would serve briefly and provide a seamless transition by carrying forward the legislative business and district interests of their deceased husbands. Local party officials, especially in the one-party South, recruited widow candidates for reasons of political expediency: to hold the seat while awaiting a male successor or to avoid a protracted intraparty fight for an open seat. Media stereotypes reinforced this limited role. Marking the retirement of congressional widow Effiegene Wingo of Arkansas in 1932, the Washington Post reflected on the phenomenon of widow’s succession. “Some of the women who have inherited a seat in Congress have demonstrated their individual ability,” the Post observed, “but of most of them it can be said that they submitted with dignity and good taste to a false code of chivalry, served unostentatiously and departed the Capitol quietly, wondering what the men who invented the term-by-inheritance thought they were doing.”18

Katherine Langley for Congress Campaign Card/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_Essay1_19_LangleyCampaignCard_HC.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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Congressional work was a family tradition for Kentucky’s Katherine Langley. She served as secretary to her father, North Carolina Representative James Madison Gudger, Jr., and to her husband, John Langley of Kentucky during his 10 terms of service. Then in 1926, Langley ran for the U.S. House seat formerly held by her husband.
While most widows left Capitol Hill after filling out a brief, unexpired term, some, like Edith Nourse Rogers, whose 35 years in the House makes her one of the longest-serving woman in that chamber, enjoyed public careers that far eclipsed those of their male predecessors.19Hattie Wyatt Caraway also rejected the convention that widows were mere placeholders. As the second woman appointed to the Senate (and later elected to fill out the remaining 10 months of her husband’s term), Caraway shocked the Arkansas political establishment in May 1932 when she announced her candidacy for a full term. “The time has passed when a woman should be placed in a position and kept there only while someone else is being groomed for the job,” she told reporters en route to an election victory and a 12-year Senate career.20

Another dimension to this phenomenon may be described more properly as the familial connection. Four women from this era drew upon the experience of fathers who were established politicians (Winnifred Huck of Illinois, Ruth Bryan Owen of Florida, McCormick, and McCarthy). Huck directly succeeded her late father and had no experience in elective politics. In still another twist on the familial connection, Katherine Langley won election to succeed her husband, Kentucky Representative John Wesley Langley, after he was convicted and sent to prison for violating Prohibition, the federal ban on alcohol. Even Rankin had a familial connection of sorts: her wealthy brother Wellington helped to fund her political campaigns. All told, more than half of these 20 pioneers drew upon precongressional experience as the wives or daughters of officeholders.

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17The importance of the widow’s mandate is discussed in the introduction to this book. For a full treatment of this phenomenon, see Irwin N. Gertzog, Congressional Women: Their Recruitment, Integration, and Behavior (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995): 17–36.

18“Pro and Con,” 18 June 1932, Washington Post: 6.

19On March 17, 2012, Maryland’s Barbara Mikulski, based on her combined service in the House and Senate, surpassed Rogers to become the longest serving woman in the history of Congress. First elected to the House in 1976, Mikulski won election to the Senate a decade later in 1986, and served until her retirement at the conclusion of the 114th Congress (2015–2017).

20Susan M. Hartmann, “Caraway, Hattie Ophelia,” American National Biography  4 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): 369–370.