The Widow and Familial Connections

More often than not, the first generation of 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 previous political office. But in these cases—in which special elections were called quickly 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 Kahn.

Edith Nourse Rogers Lapel Pin/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_intro_7_Rogerspin_HC.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts first came to Congress in 1925. In her subsequent 17 re-elections, she was returned to the House by increasingly large margins and rose through the ranks to chair the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
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.73 The prevailing expectation was that women would serve only 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 almost universally Democratic South, recruited widowed 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 Locke 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.”74

While most widows left Capitol Hill after filling out one brief, unexpired term, some, like Edith Nourse Rogers, enjoyed lengthy public careers that far eclipsed those of male colleagues. Rogers’s 35 years in the House made her the longest serving woman in that chamber for decades, until Marcy Kaptur of Ohio surpassed her in 2018.75Hattie 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.76

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 S. Huck of Illinois, Ruth Bryan Owen of Florida, Ruth Hanna McCormick, and Kathryn McCarthy). Huck, who had no experience in elective politics, directly succeeded her late father. In another twist, 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 selling alcohol. All told, more than half of these 20 pioneers drew upon precongressional experience as the wives or daughters of officeholders.

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73The 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.

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

75On March 17, 2012, Maryland’s Barbara A. 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. She held her seat until her retirement at the conclusion of the 114th Congress (2015–2017) after 40 combined years of service.

76Susan M. Hartmann, “Caraway, Hattie Ophelia,” American National Biography 4 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): 369–370.