BUSHFIELD, Vera Cahalan

BUSHFIELD, Vera Cahalan
South Dakota State Historical Society
1889–1976

Biography

Vera Bushfield’s brief Senate service in the autumn of 1948 never brought her to the Capitol, where the 80th Congress (1947–1949) had recessed for the general elections. Instead, she stayed in her native South Dakota tending to constituent services after being appointed to the final weeks of the term of her late husband, Harlan J. Bushfield.

Vera Sarah Cahalan was born in Miller, South Dakota, on August 9, 1889, the year the state was admitted to the Union. Her parents, Maurice Francis Cahalan and Mary Ellen Conners Cahalan, were farmers who had recently resettled from Iowa. They raised three daughters and a son. Vera Cahalan grew up in Miller, attended the public schools, and, in 1912, graduated with a degree in domestic science from Stout Institute in Menominee, Wisconsin. She later attended Dakota Wesleyan University and the University of Minnesota. On April 15, 1912, Vera Cahalan married Harlan J. Bushfield, a lawyer born and raised in Miller. The Bushfields had three children: Mary, John, and Harlan, Jr.

Harlan Bushfield became involved in state politics and eventually chaired the South Dakota GOP, guiding it into Alf Landon’s win column during the 1936 presidential election. He later served as governor of South Dakota from 1939 to 1943. Elected to the U.S. Senate in November 1942, Bushfield served on the Rules and Finance committees, as well as the District of Columbia, the Agriculture and Forestry, and the Indian Affairs committees. Bushfield earned a reputation as a leading isolationist and an outspoken opponent of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs.1

During her husband’s political career, Vera Bushfield became a noted speaker throughout South Dakota, specialized in women’s and children’s issues, and was her husband’s most trusted adviser. She was a member of the Hand County (SD) child welfare commission. The Bushfields’ political ideologies were closely aligned.2 While governor, Harlan Bushfield reformed the state tax laws and sought to keep government small. A strong believer in small and decentralized government, Governor Bushfield cut the state budget by a quarter and put South Dakota on a pay–as–you–go basis.3 The couple gained national recognition when Harlan Bushfield was nominated as a GOP presidential candidate during the 1940 Republican National Convention. Wendell Willkie eventually won the nomination.

In early 1948, Harlan Bushfield announced that due to ill health, he would not seek re–election.4 On September 27, 1948, with Congress out of session, he passed away. The Republican Governor of South Dakota, George T. Mickleson, appointed Vera Bushfield to fill her husband’s unexpired term on October 6 to “permit the late Harlan J. Bushfield’s office to function normally and without interruption.” Mickleson added that the appointment was made “with the understanding that shortly before the 80th Congress reconvenes [Vera Bushfield] will resign.”5 Earlier in the year Karl E. Mundt, a five–term U.S. Representative, won the Republican nomination for the full term, beginning in the 81st Congress (1949–1951).6

Vera Bushfield’s qualifications as a political adviser to a prominent politician put her in good stead to tend to the needs of the people of her state. With the Senate in temporary recess, she chose to remain in South Dakota with a small staff in Pierre rather than relocate to Washington, D.C., for what she knew would be an abbreviated term. She noted that “I can serve the constituency best by making myself as accessible as possible,” but reportedly admitted that she had more interest in her grandchildren than in “political oratory.”7 Senator Bushfield received no committee assignments and made no floor speeches. She was not even sworn in to office in a traditional Senate Chamber ceremony.

When the Senate reconvened late in the year, Vera Bushfield tendered her resignation, effective December 26, 1948, to give a seniority edge to Senator–elect Mundt. She retired to her family and grandchildren and never sought elective office again. Asked years later about the role of women in politics, she observed that women in public service had inherent advantages over men. “On many occasions a woman is more conscious of the pulse of the people than a man,” Bushfield explained in 1971. “She has a better understanding of what life in the home is like. She is closer to the youth. With intelligence and effort, she can easily learn the fundamentals of government, especially nowadays when education is available to anyone who has the ambition to pursue it. More than ever the political odds are in a woman’s favor.”8 Vera Bushfield died in Fort Collins, Colorado, on April 16, 1976.

Footnotes

1Larry Pressler, U.S. Senators From the Prairie (Vermillion, SD: Dakota Press, 1982): 125–126; “Senator Bushfield of S. Dakota Dead,” 28 September 1948, New York Times: 27.

2Hope Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress (New York: Praeger): 197.

3“ Senator Bushfield of S. Dakota Dead”; see also Frank L. Perrin, “Bushfield Condemns Pessimism,” 11 September 1939, Christian Science Monitor:3.

4“Bushfield Quits S.D. Senatorial Primary Race,” 24 January 1948, Washington Post: 11.

5December 1948, Washington Post: M9.

6“Mundt Overwhelmingly Nominated to the Senate,” 3 June 1948, Washington Post: 4.

7Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: 197; “Mrs. Vera Bushfield,”

8Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: 199.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

South Dakota State Historical Society

Pierre, SD
Papers: Several letters (1848) in the Harlan Bushfield papers.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Vera Cahalan Bushfield," in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2006.

Pressler, Larry. "Vera Bushfield," in U.S. Senators from the Prairie, pp. 129-30. Vermillion, SD: Dakota Press, 1982.

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