Vera Cahalan 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 John 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 Bushfield became involved in state politics
and eventually chaired the South Dakota GOP, guiding
the state 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 D. 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 (South Dakota) 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 schedule.3 The couple gained national
recognition when Harlan Bushfield was nominated as a
GOP presidential candidate during the 1940 Republican
National Convention, where Wendell Willkie, initially a
dark-horse candidate, eventually won the nomination on
the sixth ballot.
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 Earl 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,
DC, 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 into office in a traditional Senate
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.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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