"Elaine S. Edwards," 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.
Senator Elaine Edwards of Louisiana came to Congress by way of her matrimonial connection, traveling a political path frequented by earlier southern women. Rather than succeeding her husband, however, Edwards was appointed to a U.S. Senate seat by her husband, Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards. Though not unprecedented, the move was controversial. Yet it allowed Governor Edwards to sidestep a thorny political problem in backing other aspirants to the seat. It also provided Elaine Edwards a chance to practice the political craft she first learned as a congressional spouse and the first lady of Louisiana. Though she served only three months during the frenetic end of the 92nd Congress (1971–1973), Edwards counted a number of admirers. Upon her retirement, Senator Mike Mansfield of Montana described her work as "quietly effective."1
Elaine Lucille Schwartzenburg was born on March 8, 1929, in Marksville, Louisiana, to Errol Schwartzenburg, a grocery store owner, and Myrl Dupuy Schwartzenburg. When she was nine years old, she contracted a bacterial bone infection in one leg, underwent several surgeries, and spent five years recuperating.2 She graduated from Marksville High School and, in 1949, she married her childhood sweetheart Edwin W. Edwards, a Marksville, Louisiana, native and a lawyer. They raised four children: Anna, Vicki, Stephen, and David. Edwin Edwards embarked on a long political career in which he served as a Crowley, Louisiana, city councilman and a state senator. In a 1965 special election, Edwards was elected as a Democrat to the first of four U.S. House terms as a Louisiana Representative. Elaine Edwards was active in her husband's political campaigns at the district and state level. She remained at the family home in Crowley while her husband was in the House of Representatives, but she answered phone calls at home on a second line, working with individual constituents to resolve Social Security and veterans' requests and relaying the information to Congressman Edwards's Washington office.3 As her husband's political career developed, Elaine Edwards participated in a variety of civic and philanthropic pursuits ranging from the Special Olympics to a project that raised $1 million for the Crippled Children's Hospital of New Orleans.4 Congressman Edwards left the House in May 1972 to serve as governor of Louisiana, where he remained for a total of four terms.
When longtime Louisiana Senator Allen Ellender died on July 27, 1972, Governor Edwards appointed his wife to fill the vacancy. The governor claimed that the appointment was a "meaningful, symbolic gesture" against decades of discrimination of women in politics.5 It was not the first time a woman had received a U.S. Senate seat in this manner. Almost exactly 35 years earlier, Alabama Governor Bibb Graves named his wife Dixie to fill Hugo Black's Senate seat after he was appointed to the Supreme Court. Principally, Edwards made the controversial decision in order to avoid the politically tricky endorsement of a successor to Ellender, a 35–year Senate veteran, and the difficulty of finding an interim candidate who would step down shortly after a full–term successor was elected. Among the contenders for the seat were three of his gubernatorial campaign's top backers and his two brothers.6
Elaine Edwards was initially reluctant to accept the post, admitting at one point, "I never wanted to be liberated from sewing, cooking, or even gardening." Critics charged that she was merely a "caretaker" or "seat–warmer" who represented the views of the Louisiana governor's mansion in the Senate by consulting Baton Rouge before each vote.7 The New York Times editors described it as a "hollow interim appointment" and also decried the fact that Edwards's "function…will be to represent other women by supinely taking orders—and from men at that." Edwards conceded, "I'm no U.S. Senator" and said she believed she would "get along fine" under the guidance of her state delegation and its dean, Senator Russell Long.8 After a brief meeting with President Richard Nixon in the White House, she took the oath of office on August 7, 1972. Asked if she was likely to vote against her husband's advice, Edwards replied, "I doubt it."9 She also pledged not to run for the full Senate term.
In Congress, Edwards served on the Agriculture and Forestry Committee and the Public Works Committee. She joined Senator Hubert Humphrey in introducing a bill to establish an educational fellowship in Senator Ellender's name that appropriated $500,000 in fellowships for low–income high school students and teachers. She also cosponsored an amendment to the Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act and another to increase the allowable amount of outside income for Social Security recipients. She took particular pride in securing federal funding for highways in Louisiana, including a 70/30 federally financed toll road. "My proudest moment was convincing members of the Public Works Committee to vote funds for a north–south highway to connect the two east–west interstates in Louisiana," Edwards said. "Now the prospects are very real that we can lure much–needed industry to the central part of the state."10 In her only floor speech, Edwards spoke on behalf of a motion to vote on the proposed Equal Education Opportunities Act, which would have restricted the use of busing to achieve school integration. Edwards described the bill as a "reasonable, just, and adequate remedy at law to help resolve the critical problems which have arisen from the excessive zeal and bad judgments of U.S. district court judges in the exercise of their discretionary powers."11 In late September 1972, Edwards voted with a slim majority composed of Republicans and southern Democrats to kill a proposed Vietnam War fund cutoff which would have halted all money for U.S. military expenditures.12 On October 3, Edwards presided over an evening Senate debate in which a heated confrontation occurred between two of the chamber's elder statesmen.13
The senatorial role seemed to suit Elaine Edwards. A month into her new job she told the Washington Post: "I like being a Senator very much. I would have liked to have been able to run and keep the seat this fall, had I not been the first lady of Louisiana.…But I am going to stay with Ed and do whatever he's doing."14 Acceding to her husband's wishes, Edwards resigned her seat on November 13, 1972, in order to provide Louisiana Senator–elect J. Bennett Johnston an edge in seniority by finishing the remainder of Ellender's term. As she prepared to retire, nine colleagues, including Henry "Scoop" Jackson of Washington and Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, delivered tributes to Edwards on the Senate Floor. "It is unfortunate that Mrs. Edwards will not be in the Senate for a longer period of time," Jackson said. "It is obvious, even during her short tenure, that she has the ability and capacity to become one of the more influential Members of this body."15 Elaine and Edwin Edwards divorced in 1989 after 40 years of marriage. Elaine Edwards retired to Baton Rouge, where she lived until her death on May 14, 2018.
1Congressional Record, Senate, 92nd Cong., 2nd sess. (17 October 1972): 36738.
2American Mothers Committee, Mothers of Achievement in American History, 1776–1976 (Rutland, VT: C.E. Tuttle & Co, 1976): 233–234.
3Hope Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress (New York: Praeger, 1973): 347.
4See, for instance, Mothers of Achievement: 233–234.
5"Lady From Louisiana," 4 August 1972, New York Times: 30; Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: 346.
6Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: 346–347.
7See, for instance, "Seatwarmers," 15 April 1982, Washington Post: A24.
8‘Liberated' quote in Karen Foerstel, Biographical Dictionary of Congressional Women (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999): 79; "Lady From Louisiana," 4 August 1972, New York Times: 30.
9"New Senator Sworn," 8 August 1972, New York Times: 39.
10Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: 348.
11Congressional Record, Senate, 92nd Cong., 2nd sess. (12 October 1972): 35329.
12Spencer Rich, "Senate Kills Viet Fund Cutoff," 27 September 1972, Washington Post: A1.
13"Angry Scene on the Senate Floor," 4 October 1972, New York Times: 94.
14Jeannette Smyth, "Louisiana Get–Together," 15 September 1972, Washington Post: B3.
15Congressional Record, Senate, 92nd Cong., 2nd sess. (18 October 1972): 37713–37714.