DWYER, Florence Price

Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress
DWYER, Florence Price
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives, Jim Oliver Collection
About this object
1902–1976

Biography

Florence Price Dwyer, a New Jersey Representative who described herself as a "progressive" Republican, pushed for civil rights legislation, consumer protection measures, and institutional reform during her 16–year House career. Though she did not consider herself a feminist, Dwyer was a consistent champion of women's rights who supported the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and an "equal pay for equal work" bill modeled after one she had initially steered through the New Jersey state assembly.

Florence "Flo" Louise Price was born on July 4, 1902, in Reading, Pennsylvania. Educated in the public schools of Reading and Toledo, Ohio, she briefly attended college at the University of Toledo. Price left college to marry M. Joseph Dwyer, the Toledo football coach and, later, an industrial relations executive. The couple raised a son, Michael, and moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey. Florence Dwyer's role as a member of the local Parent Teacher Association initiated her interest in politics. She joined the Republican Club in Elizabeth in the 1930s: "At the time women were used to lick envelopes and take messages," she recalled.1 A delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1944, Dwyer subsequently worked as a lobbyist in Trenton, the state capital, for the New Jersey Business and Professional Women's Clubs. State Assemblyman Joseph Brescher, who served as majority leader and speaker, hired Dwyer as his secretary. When Brescher retired in 1949, Dwyer succeeded him, serving from 1949 to 1957 and eventually rising to the assistant majority leader post.

In 1956, at the urging of New Jersey Senator Clifford Case, Dwyer entered the Republican primary for a U.S. House district just south of Newark. The district coincided with the Union County boundaries and encompassed the most industrialized part of the state. Dwyer's chief competitor was Irene T. Griffin, a former assemblywoman. But Dwyer's name recognition, her support across the party from moderates to conservatives, and her longtime base of support in Elizabeth, which sat in the eastern section of the district, helped her secure the nomination.2 She faced a two–term incumbent Democrat, Harrison A. "Pete" Williams, Jr., in the general election. Historically a Republican stronghold, beginning in 1951, factionalism within the party had weakened the GOP's grip on the district. The 1956 campaign quickly became a contest over which of the candidates could best court the voters who supported President Dwight Eisenhower. Dwyer centered her campaign on domestic issues such as more funding for education and pressing for an equal–pay bill in Congress.3 Vice President Richard Nixon campaigned for Dwyer, while Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson stumped for Williams. Dwyer's campaign literature read: "Ike Wants Flo" and "A Vote for Flo Is a Vote for Ike."4 The incumbent President carried the district by nearly 80,000 votes, while Dwyer edged out Williams by a little more than 4,000. (Williams would go on to serve in the U.S. Senate for more than two decades.)

Dwyer quickly proved she could get votes on her own.5 In her next four campaigns, she won increasingly by larger margins, garnering between 51 and 59 percent of the vote. Redistricting in 1966 cost Dwyer her traditional Elizabeth base, so she sought re–election in another newly realigned district, which included part of Union County and eastern Essex County to the north.6In the middle–class, suburban district, she crushed her opponents by margins of 33 to 50 percentage points.7 In all, Dwyer won eight consecutive terms in the House. Throughout her career, she described herself to voters as a "moderate or progressive Republican" who did not follow the party line "unless the measure benefits the people I represent and the national interest."8 The Congresswoman was not afraid to stand apart from other Republicans. She once told House Minority Leader Charlie Halleck of Indiana, "When you see me walk on the floor wearing pink, you'll know I'm going to step to the left and vote with the Democrats. But if I'm wearing black or white, you'll know I'm with the Republicans."9

Dwyer served on the Committee on Government Operations throughout her term in the House. She particularly concerned herself with institutional reforms. In 1961, Dwyer gained notoriety as the leader of the "saintly seven," a group of GOP Members who voted with House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas and the Democrats to increase the membership of the Rules Committee, which controlled the flow of legislation on the House Floor.10 The episode involved a bitter power struggle between Speaker Rayburn and Rules Committee Chairman Howard Smith of Virginia. The "saintly seven" were actually part of a group of 22 northern Republicans who supported the reform and declared their intention to "repudiate" a GOP alliance with southern Democrats "to attempt to narrow the base of our party, to dull its conscience, to transform it into a negative weapon of obstruction.…"11 By a margin of 217 to 212, Rayburn prevailed. The vote changed House rules and undercut the power of a coalition of southern Democrats and conservative Republicans who used their influence on the committee to prevent major social legislation—including civil rights measures—from reaching the House Floor. In 1965, Dwyer authored legislation that called for a four–year term for Members of the House. A longer term "could greatly improve the quality of representation," Dwyer told the New York Times. "Under the present two–year system, most House Members must spend an excessive amount of time politicking and campaigning—simply to survive. A term of three or four years would give us time to think and plan and produce a more consistent and constructive legislative program.12" During consideration of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970, she was author of an amendment requiring the recording of individual teller votes. Prior to that rule change, Members merely walked down the aisle and were counted, but their names were not recorded.

Congresswoman Dwyer was an early supporter of civil rights reform. Just a month into her first term in 1957, she introduced a version of the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration's Civil Rights Bill.13 The measure called for, among other things, the creation of a bipartisan Commission on Civil Rights to secure voting rights for African Americans in the South. It also provided for an assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice, tasked solely to civil rights issues. The New Jersey Congresswoman supported a constitutional amendment to outlaw the poll tax, which discriminated against African–American and poor white voters in the South. In 1960, Dwyer introduced a bill to create a "Commission on Equal Job Opportunity Under Government Contracts," which aimed at providing for fair contract award processes for minority businesses and individuals.14 She often cast the necessity for civil rights reforms at home against the backdrop of the Cold War abroad. "If freedom has any meaning at all, if our opposition to world communism is at all justifiable, then we have no alternative but to make secure for all Americans—regardless of race or color or religion or national origin or economic status—the practice and opportunity of full freedom," she said on the House Floor. Equal opportunity in voting, education, work, and housing were essential, she argued.15

Dwyer championed women's issues in Congress in a consistent but unadorned manner. True to her initial campaign promise, she pursued a pay equity bill for women during her first term in the House. In March 1957, Representative Dwyer and colleague Cecil Harden of Indiana introduced "Equal Pay for Equal Work" legislation. "The need for equal pay is a matter of simple justice," Dwyer said. "Women are contributing more and more to the economic life of our country. And yet they are expected to accept a second–class role as far as wages are concerned."16 Dwyer also was a firm and early supporter of the ERA, endorsing it during her first term in office on the observance of Susan B. Anthony Day.17 Nevertheless, she refused to run her campaigns by appealing to her gender. "I am campaigning on my record," Dwyer once told group of New Jersey women. "I have never campaigned as a woman; if I can't take on any man running against me, I don't deserve to represent the women and men of the county."18 When Republican Richard Nixon became President in 1969, she and four other GOP women from the House urged him to appoint more women to federal office. "None of us are feminists," Dwyer told Nixon. "We do not ask for special privileges.…Our sole purpose is to suggest ways and means by which women's rights as citizens and human beings may be better protected, discrimination against women be eliminated and women's ability to contribute to the economic, social and political life of the Nation be recognized."19

Dwyer decided not to run for re–election in 1972 to the 93rd Congress (1973–1975). Health issues, her age (she was 70), and yet another reconfiguration of her district convinced her to leave the House "with some reluctance."20 Dwyer maintained, "The time has come to rearrange my priorities—to spend more time with my family and to devote myself to a number of matters which have not received my attention during my years in Congress."21Dwyer retired as Ranking Republican on the Government Operations and Banking and Currency committees. In the 1972 elections she campaigned actively for Republican candidate and State Senator Matthew J. Rinaldo, who won the seat to succeed her. Dwyer retired to Elizabeth, New Jersey, where she resided until her death on February 29, 1976.

Footnotes

1"Jersey Honors Representative Dwyer," 24 September 1972, New York Times: 48.

2George Cable Wright, "G.O.P. Split Spurs Two Jersey Races," 13 April 1956, New York Times: 15.

3Edith Evans Asbury, "Close Race Seen as Woman Acts to Oust Democrat in 6th," 11 October 1956, New York Times: 34.

4Asbury, "Close Race Seen as Woman Acts to Oust Democrat in 6th."

5Hope Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress (New York: Praeger, 1973): 269.

6Martin Arnold, "Congresswoman Is the Favorite Over Professor Allen," 10 October, 1966, New York Times: 44.

7Michael J. Dubin et al., United States Congressional Elections, 1788–1997 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Publishing, Inc., 1998); "Election Statistics, 1920 to Present," http://clerk.house.gov/member_info/electionInfo/index.aspx.

8Milton Honig, "Mrs. Dwyer, G.O.P., Opposed in 6th by Mrs. Egolf," 10 October 1962, New York Times: 43.

9Patricia Camp, "Florence Price Dwyer Dies, Supported Women's Rights," 1 March 1976, Washington Post: C6.

10Marie Smith, "Ladybird Likes to Drive–No Limousine for Her," 26 February 1961, Washington Post: F2. Other members of the "saintly seven": Thomas B. Curtis of Missouri, John V. Lindsay of New York, Silvio O. Conte of Massachusetts, Perkins Bass of New Hampshire, Seymour Halpern of New York, and William T. Cahill of New Jersey.

11Julian E. Zelizer, On Capitol Hill: The Struggle to Reform Congress and Its Consequences, 1948–2000 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004): 56–60.

12William V. Shannon, "Reforming the House—A Four Year Term?" 10 January 1965, New York Times: SM22.

13"Rep. Dwyer Introduces Civil Rights Bill," 7 February 1957, Washington Post: C17.

14Congressional Record, House, 87th Cong., 2nd sess. (27 August 1962): 17663; Congressional Record, House, 86th Cong., 2nd sess. (28 April 1960): 8932–8933.

15Congressional Record, House, 86th Cong., 2nd sess. (11 March 1960): 5316.

16Congressional Record, House, 85th Cong., 1st sess (25 March 1957): 4347–4348.

17Congressional Record, House, 85th Cong., 1st sess. (19 July 1957) : 12238.

18Marybeth Weston, "Ladies' Day on the Hustings," 19 October 1958, New York Times: SM32.

19Marie Smith, "Nixon Eyes Women," 9 July 1969, Washington Post: D1.

20"Representative Dwyer to Retire After Her 8th Term in House," 15 April 1972, New York Times: 12; Ronald Sullivan, "G.O.P. Is Aided By Districting," 16 April 1972, New York Times: 71.

21"Representative Dwyer to Retire After Her 8th Term in House."

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

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External Research Collections

Kean University
Nancy Thompson Library

Union, NJ
Papers: 1955-1972. 362 cubic feet. Congressional papers, including correspondence, bills, speeches, photographs, radio broadcasts, campaign records, and memorabilia.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Florence P. Dwyer" 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: Government Printing Office, 2006.

Tomlinson, Barbara J. "Making Their Way: A Study of New Jersey Congresswomen, 1924-1994." Ph.D. diss., Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey - New Brunswick, 1996.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Banking and Currency
  • House Committee - Government Operations
  • House Committee - Veterans' Affairs
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