Elizabeth Hawley Gasque, the first woman U.S. Representative from South Carolina, carried on a lifelong love affair with Washington’s social scene. The death of her husband, Representative Allard Gasque, briefly added a political dimension to her activities. “She was a Congressman’s wife 20 years and a Congressman’s widow,” one journalist wrote in 1939, “who wound up his affairs and took care of his district as though it were her life’s work.”1 Thereafter, she never broke her ties to the city.
She was born Elizabeth “Bessie” Mills Hawley near Blythewood, South Carolina, on February 26, 1886, daughter of John Meade and Emina Nelson Entzminger Hawley. Bessie Hawley was a member of the southern aristocracy and spent her childhood on the expansive “Rice Creek” plantation, which covered 4,000 acres.2 She attended the South Carolina Coeducational Institute in Edgefield, South Carolina, and graduated with a degree in expression (drama) from Greenville Female College (now Furman University) in 1907. She married Allard H. Gasque, a teacher and school administrator, in 1907, and they had four children: Elizabeth, Doris, John, and Thomas.3 Bessie Gasque became interested in politics through her social connections. Later she would boast that she had been personally acquainted with every President from Woodrow Wilson to Franklin Roosevelt.4 In 1923, Allard Gasque won election to the first of eight terms as a U.S. Representative from South Carolina, eventually becoming the chairman of the Committee on Pensions and a champion of war veterans and their dependents.5 It was during her husband’s congressional service that Bessie Gasque fell in love with Washington, plunging into the social scene. She became one of the regular hosts of an annual ball to raise funds to fight polio, held on President Franklin Roosevelt’s birthday. Washington became her “natural home.”6
Chairman Gasque entered Walter Reed Hospital in Washington in May 1938 and died there on June 17, the day after the 75th Congress (1937–1939) adjourned.7 At the time of his death, Gasque was unopposed for re–election. The district encompassed eight counties in northeastern South Carolina, including Gasque’s home county of Florence. State and local Democratic leaders persuaded Bessie Gasque to run for her husband’s unexpired term; even the filing fee was provided for her.8 In the perfunctory one–party special election of September 13, 1938, Elizabeth Gasque succeeded her late husband in little more than name. The election took place on the same day as that for her successor. John L. McMillan, a former secretary to Allard Gasque, was elected to the full term in the 76th Congress (1939–1941).9 The 75th Congress had already adjourned, and although there was always the possibility that the President would call for a special lame duck session, observers considered that highly unlikely.10 She captured 96 percent of the vote compared to a combined four percent by her two male Democratic opponents.
Following the election, Congresswoman Gasque returned to Washington. The fall races, however, went badly for the Democrats nationwide. Earlier that summer, President Roosevelt had led unsuccessful efforts to campaign against opponents of the New Deal in Democratic Party primaries. The failure of the highly public “purge,” along with losses for Roosevelt proponents in many northern races, signaled the beginning of the end of the New Deal.11 This chain of events also ended any possibility for a special lame duck session.
Gasque never received any committee assignments, and she was never sworn into office. She did, however, continue to be a presence on Washington’s social scene, attending a presidential reception held in honor of the new Secretary of Commerce, Harry Hopkins, in December 1938.12
After she left Congress in January 1939, Gasque returned to South Carolina. She maintained her social ties in Washington, remaining active largely through her membership in the Congressional Club. After former South Carolina Senator Nathaniel Dial died in Washington in 1940, Gasque shared a Washington home with Dial’s widow, who was noted for her parties. Locally, Gasque was active in dramatics and was an author and lecturer. At one point she served as the head of the Fine Arts Department of South Carolina’s Federation of Women’s Clubs. In her many travels, she was a constant booster of South Carolina as a vacation destination.13 She eventually married A.J. Van Exem. The couple lived at Cedar Tree Plantation in Ridgeway, South Carolina, where she became a master tree farmer. She died on November 2, 1989, at the age of 103.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
[ Top ]