Mary Elizabeth “Betty” Farrington emerged in the mid–1950s as the leading advocate for Hawaiian statehood, serving three years in the House as a territorial delegate. Her political partnership with her husband, Joe Farrington, another champion of statehood, spanned decades and prepared her to succeed him in Congress after his death in 1954. Years before she was elected to Congress, McCall’s magazine chose Farrington, publisher of the Honolulu Star–Bulletin and director of the National Federation of Republican Women’s Clubs, as one of “Washington’s 10 Most Powerful Women,” a list that included Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Chase Smith, and Bess Truman.1
Mary Elizabeth Pruett was born to American missionaries Robert Lee and Josie Baugh Pruett, native Tennesseans—on May 30, 1898, in the Tsukiji (foreign resident) section of Tokyo, Japan. She attended the Tokyo Foreign School before the family resettled in 1906 in Hollywood, California. After Mary Pruett graduated from Hollywood High School, she enrolled at the exclusive Ward–Belmont Women’s Junior College in Nashville, Tennessee. Two years later, she transferred to the University of Wisconsin at Madison and earned a journalism B.A. in 1918. During her studies, she met Joseph Farrington, son of Wallace R. Farrington, publisher of the Honolulu Star Bulletin, and an early advocate of Hawaiian annexation and statehood.2 They married in May 1920 and, three years later, when President Warren G. Harding appointed Wallace Farrington territorial governor of Hawaii, Joe and Mary returned to the islands to manage the Star Bulletin. The couple raised two adopted children, John and Beverly.3 In the early 1930s, Joe Farrington was elected to the Hawaii territorial senate and began a long political career in which he relied heavily on his wife for advice. “He didn’t make a move without talking to me,” Mary Farrington recalled.4 Joe Farrington soon succeeded his father as the newspaper’s general manager. By the mid–1940s, Betty Farrington assumed her husband’s duties as publisher and president of the Honolulu Star–Bulletin, a position she held until the 1960s.
In 1942, Joe Farrington, was elected to the first of six consecutive terms in the U.S. House as a Republican territorial delegate from Hawaii, propelling Betty Farrington into national politics, too. Throughout Joe Farrington’s dozen years in Washington, the Farringtons were frequent entertainers and popular on the capital’s society circuit.5 Betty Farrington immersed herself in party politics, serving as president of the District League of Republican Women from 1946 to 1948. On January 1, 1949, she became president of the National Federation of Women’s Republican Clubs (later named the National Federation of Republican Women), which included more than 500,000 members.6 Farrington energized the group by creating a school of politics in 1950 at which precinct workers received briefings on party history, current initiatives, and political techniques.7
Joe Farrington suffered from a heart ailment throughout his congressional service but remained dedicated to bringing Hawaii into the Union. In June 1954, while intensively lobbying colleagues to support a statehood bill, he collapsed and died in his office. Shortly afterward, the Washington Post predicted that Hawaiian statehood “will be Mr. Farrington’s monument.”8 Betty Farrington had just returned to Honolulu to orchestrate the funeral services when Governor Sam King, Joe Farrington’s friend and political ally, began pressing her to succeed her husband. She replied, “For heaven’s sake, no!” King relented but came back a week later, asking her to run “for Joe” and the cause of statehood. Betty Farrington agreed.
Being on the campaign trail was restorative for the widow Farrington. “I was just kind of numb, you know. I think it saved my life,” she recalled. “I was doing something for him; carrying on for him, you know.”9 Farrington won the GOP nomination to succeed her husband, and in the July 31 special election she defeated Democrat Delbert Metzger and independent Helene Hale by garnering 66 percent of the vote in a light turnout. She topped Metzger, her nearest competitor, by more than 20,000 votes.10
Farrington took the oath of office and joined the 83rd Congress (1953–1955) on August 4, 1954, to a standing ovation. She immediately moved to the well and addressed the 200 Members in attendance. “Someday, somehow, I hope that by action and deed I can prove to you how deeply I have appreciated the many expressions of sympathy during the past few weeks,” Farrington said. “It has given me the courage and the strength to carry on in the manner that I know Joe would have me do, in the manner that I know the people of Hawaii would have me do.”11 Parliamentarians could not remember a newly sworn–in Member ever having given such an address.12 Farrington got an immediate boost when she inherited her husband’s top–tier committee assignments on the Armed Services, the Agriculture, and the Interior and Insular Affairs committees. She retained these posts for the duration of her House tenure. Farrington’s service on the Agriculture Committee marked the first by a woman.
Delegate Farrington immediately got to work on the issue of statehood, which was the central and defining facet of her House career. The day after her swearing–in, longtime friend John Saylor, a Pennsylvania Representative and key member of the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, arranged a meeting with President Dwight Eisenhower to discuss statehood. During her Oval Office visit, Farrington pushed a plan for dual admittance: Hawaii and Alaska. In fact, she recalled that she spent more time pitching the concept of Alaskan statehood to President Eisenhower than that of Hawaii.13
Days after meeting with the President, Farrington took to the House Floor to push for debate for Hawaiian statehood. Critics objected that Hawaii was vulnerable to communist infiltration from Asian “subversives” and labor agitators in California. With World War II still a potent memory, opponents also doubted the loyalty of the large Japanese population living on the island. Farrington countered that a vote for statehood “would be an act of vision because, even at this late hour, it would tell the freedom–loving peoples of Asia, who are engaged in a great struggle against communism, that we Americans do practice what we preach.”14 The bill for Hawaiian statehood alone had passed the House in the 80th (1947–1949), 81st (1949–1951), and 83rd Congresses but had never been reconciled with the Senate version. In the 83rd Congress, the Senate added on an amendment that also sought statehood for Alaska. It was that version of the bill that the House Rules Committee refused to allow out onto the floor for debate. It lapsed at the end of the Congress.
Simultaneous with that development, Farrington contended with another electoral campaign. In the 1954 general election, she faced Democrat John A. “Jack” Burns, chairman of the Honolulu traffic safety commission, whom her husband had resoundingly defeated in 1948.15 Democrats in territorial and local offices, however, surged to power in the 1954 midterm elections, campaigning on a platform of better employment, higher taxes for social services, and better schools. For the first time in Hawaii’s 54 years as a territory, Democrats seized control of the legislature.16 Farrington, who had won by a 2–1 margin in the special election just three months earlier, barely defeated Burns, with a margin of 890 votes out of more than 138,000 cast.17
After returning to Washington, Farrington renewed her call for joint Hawaiian–Alaskan statehood. Still, powerful House leaders and the Rules Committee, despite the change in party control in the 84th Congress (1955–1957), opposed the proposal.18 Appearing before the Rules Committee, Farrington blasted redbaiting tactics as “extravagant, undocumented and unsupported” and as “an insult to the majority of Hawaii’s traditionally loyal population.”19 Eventually, after extensive hearings before the Rules Committee in which numerous allegations were made about communist influences in Hawaii, the bill came to the House Floor for sharply curtailed debate. The measure went down to defeat by a vote of 218 to 170 on May 10, 1955.
As a Delegate, Farrington could not vote on the House Floor, but she could participate in virtually every other capacity. Alliance building became critical to her success.20 She enjoyed a number of minor legislative victories for her district, including the creation of the Geophysics Institute at the University of Hawaii, the creation of the “City of Refuge” on the Island of Hawaii as a national historic park, the repeal of an expensive travel tax from the mainland to Hawaii that opponents believed hurt tourism, and the return of Fort Armstrong to the Territory of Hawaii. Farrington also managed to secure the reapportionment of the Territorial Legislature, allowing more equitable representation for the higher population areas.
Farrington ran for re–election in 1956, again facing Jack Burns and a groundswell of support for Democratic candidates. Voter discontent, spurred by the partisan actions of Governor King, who repeatedly used his veto to block Democratic legislative programs, helped bring about an abrupt end to Farrington’s congressional career. Burns campaigned on a simple platform—aimed as much at King as at Farrington. He called for the right of Hawaiians to elect their own governor if Congress again refused to grant statehood. He also suggested a congressional investigation of King’s practices was in order.21 Farrington garnered only 45 percent of the vote in an election which polled the largest turnout ever cast for a Hawaii Delegate. Her defeat sent a Democrat to the House for the first time since Hawaii was awarded a Delegate’s seat in 1932.
After leaving Congress, Farrington resumed her newspaper work, serving as president of the Star Bulletin until 1961. Farrington lived to see her husband’s dream of statehood for Hawaii realized in 1959. She was invited to the ceremony at which President Eisenhower signed the legislation that made Hawaii the 50th state to enter the Union.22 She also directed and chaired the Honolulu Lithograph Company, Ltd., from 1957 to 1961 and was president of the Hawaiian Broadcasting System, Ltd., from 1960 to 1963. In 1969, President Richard Nixon appointed Farrington Director of the Office of the Territories in the Department of the Interior. When the Department of the Interior abolished the post in 1971, she worked in the congressional liaison office until 1973. After retirement, Betty Farrington returned to Honolulu, where she lived until her death on July 21, 1984.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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