GRANAHAN, Kathryn Elizabeth

GRANAHAN, Kathryn Elizabeth
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object


The widow of Philadelphia Democratic Congressman William Thomas Granahan, Kathryn Granahan succeeded her late husband and followed his example as a liberal New Dealer who supported workers’ rights, welfare legislation, and civil rights. From her post as chair of the Post Office and Civil Service Subcommittee on Postal Operations, however, Granahan embarked on a moral mission to halt the spread of pornography. “The peddling of smut to children is a heinous crime that must be stopped,” Granahan explained, noting that many parents and localities “are seemingly unaware of the size and seriousness of this problem.”During her congressional service, Granahan linked obscenities in literature and sexual content in movies to juvenile delinquency and even communism.2

On December 7, 1894, Kathryn Elizabeth O’Hay was born to James and Julia (Reily) O’Hay in Easton, Pennsylvania. She graduated from Easton High School and Mount St. Joseph Collegiate Institute (later Chestnut Hill College) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She became the supervisor of public assistance in the state auditor general’s department and liaison officer between that department and the department of public assistance, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, from 1940 to 1943. In that job, O’Hay met William Granahan, a World War I veteran, member of the state Democratic committee, Democratic ward leader in Philadelphia, and chief disbursing officer for the Pennsylvania treasury. In 1943 the couple married. A year later, William Granahan won election as a Democrat to a U.S. congressional district encompassing Philadelphia’s west end. He lost his bid for re-election in the national Republican sweep of 1946, but recaptured his seat from the incumbent, Robert Neill McGarvey, and returned to office in 1949. Congressman Granahan earned a reputation as a progressive liberal during his years of service as Ranking Member on the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee. He was an original sponsor of the Full Employment Act and also had been an author of a Fair Employment Practices Bill and other antidiscrimination legislation.3 Representative Granahan caused something of a stir when, in 1945, he broke with precedent and refused to resign his post as ward leader; he held the position throughout his House service. Having no children, the Granahans worked closely together on the needs of the district’s constituents. Kathryn assisted her husband both within the district and in his Washington office, residing with him in their Mayflower Hotel apartment for much of his decade of service.4 She also served as chair of the board of governors of the Women’s Democratic Club of Philadelphia and was a trustee of several other civic service associations.

Shortly after winning the 1956 primary, Congressman Granahan passed away unexpectedly on May 25, 1956. A week after his death, local committeemen elected Kathryn Granahan to succeed William Granahan as ward leader. Several days later Philadelphia’s Democratic powerbrokers chose her to run for her husband’s vacant seat in the House, both for the remainder of the 84th Congress (1955–1957) and for the full term in the 85th Congress (1957–1959).5 Granahan was a natural choice to replace her husband. She understood the needs of her community and was accustomed to commuting and working between Washington, DC, and the district. As the new political leader in western Philadelphia, Granahan sought to change the manner in which politics were conducted in the old Democratic ward. She eliminated the traditional beer barrel at political meetings and replaced it with tea and cookies. “I believe that only the highest type of people should be in politics—even in the lowest echelons,” Granahan declared.6 A self-proclaimed “mad hatter,” she campaigned wearing a lucky hat which she would not change until after her election. On November 6, 1956, Kathryn Granahan won the special election to the remainder of the 84th Congress and at the same time was elected to serve a full term for the 85th Congress, winning 62 percent of the vote against GOP candidate Robert Frankenfield. Her service began with the special election, thus giving her seniority over incoming freshmen in the 85th Congress. In 1958 and 1960, Granahan topped her Republican challengers by ever-wider margins—66 percent and 72 percent, respectively.7

Granahan made an unsuccessful bid to replace her late husband and become the first woman to serve on the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee. Instead, she received appointments to two committees: District of Columbia; and Post Office and Civil Service. After a year, she left the District of Columbia Committee to accept a seat on Government Operations. In 1959 she became chair of the Post Office and Civil Service Subcommittee on Postal Operations, where she served for the remainder of her House career. In 1960 she was selected as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention which nominated Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy as the party’s presidential candidate.

Granahan’s primary legislative undertaking was an effort to halt the spread of pornographic materials through the U.S. mail, specifically those which worked their way into the hands of children and teenagers. Legislating for public morality seemed to contradict her liberal credentials, but Granahan nevertheless pressed on with two months of hearings in 1959 that broadly addressed the dangers pornography presented in American society. “There are many things we don’t allow our juveniles to do,” she said. “We don’t allow them to drink, carry guns or drive vehicles. So why allow these filth merchants to sell youngsters material which is a contributing cause of juvenile delinquency?”8 In April 1959, using her clout as a subcommittee chair, she appealed to private citizens and organizations to help take the lead in crushing the pornography trade. Granahan charged that the Post Office Department had been “lax in halting the circulation of pornography” and called on Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield to appear as a witness before her committee.9 In August she introduced legislation requiring mandatory jail sentences for persons found guilty of operating pornographic mail order businesses. At the time, she told the Christian Science Monitor, “I don’t want to repeal the Constitution or deny a free press. It is a most difficult problem to solve.”10 Granahan also was a chief sponsor of a bill passed by the House in September 1959 that strengthened the post office’s power to impound mail addressed to recipients suspected of mailing pornographic materials.

In 1961 Congresswoman Granahan tried to counsel the Supreme Court to issue stricter guidelines to help authorities determine if publications were obscene. The high court eventually rendered a decision in Manual Enterprises, Inc. v. Day, a case in which the postmaster of Alexandria, Virginia, had determined that hundreds of magazines were unfit for delivery. The Justices ruled that post office officials could not arbitrate what constituted pornography. Granahan, disappointed by the finding, delivered a speech that lambasted the decision and implied that Congress itself must curtail the distribution of pornography. “It is my earnest hope that prompt and vigorous action will now be taken to strengthen the criminal laws and close the U.S. mails to muck merchants and vendors of pornography and propaganda of perverts,” she told colleagues.11 She also tried her best to link pornography to national security: “There is a campaign of filth and smut aimed at the nation’s youth,” she once warned, “that might well prove to be communist inspired.”12

Meanwhile, Representative Granahan also used her Postal Operations chair to wage a campaign to clean up motion pictures, an industry over which her panel had no jurisdiction, except as movies were often sent through the mails. Nevertheless, for three days in February 1960, her subcommittee interviewed witnesses. Granahan urged motion picture officials to follow a policy of “effective self-regulation.” She argued that the core question at stake was not one of “censorship, but of propriety,” that is, whether movie content was “degrading or objectionable when tested against the moral standards of the American public.”13

When the 1960 Census revealed that Pennsylvania would lose three of its House seats, a political fight erupted among state party officials. U.S. Representative William Joseph Green, who also served as the powerful Democratic chairman of Philadelphia, wanted to keep the city’s six seats in the House. But as part of a compromise plan, Green and other Democratic leaders chose Granahan’s seat for elimination. As the only woman among the Philadelphia Representatives and, moreover, the only potential woman candidate statewide for the 1962 election, Granahan and her supporters (including women’s groups) protested bitterly but kept their dissent within the confines of the party.14 Granahan eventually agreed to the plan and promised not to run against the incumbent whose new district would encompass her old one—Robert Nelson Cornelius Nix Sr., one of just a handful of African Americans then serving in Congress. As recompense, Green (who had orchestrated a huge voter turnout for John F. Kennedy in Philadelphia which helped him carry the state in 1960) convinced the President to appoint Kathryn Granahan Treasurer of the United States after the post was vacated in April 1962.

Granahan finished the House term for the 87th Congress (1961–1963) on January 3, 1963, and began her Cabinet appointment on January 9, 1963. Among her proposals as the fourth woman to head the Treasury was the return of the two-dollar bill to circulation. In May of 1965, Granahan underwent brain surgery for a blood clot caused by an accidental fall. While the surgery was successful, Granahan worked a reduced schedule and her capacity to serve as Treasurer eventually was called into question. On June 10, 1966, a Philadelphia judge set aside a petition to have her declared incompetent and to appoint a guardian to her estate. Four months later, Granahan submitted her resignation to Treasury Secretary Henry H. Fowler. Kathryn Granahan died in Norristown, Pennsylvania, on July 10, 1979.15


1“Pornography Scored: Nation-wide Drive Is Asked to ‘Smash’ Business,” 19 May 1959, New York Times: 18; “Moral Sabotage Seen: Church Leader Says Reds Use Pornography as Weapon,” 23 May 1959, New York Times: 25.

2Susan Tolchin, Women In Congress (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1976): 29.

3“Rep. Granahan Dies Serving Fifth Term,” 26 May 1956, Washington Post: 18; “W.T. Granahan, House Democrat,” 26 May 1956, New York Times: 17.

4“Granahan, Kathryn E.,” Current Biography, 1959 (New York: H.W. Wilson and Company, 1959): 157.

5“Mrs. Granahan Named,” 12 June 1956, New York Times: 18.

6George Dixon, “Washington Scene: A Sweet Ward Leader,” 16 April 1957, Washington Post: A19; George Dixon, “Washington Scene: A Gentlewoman Ward Leader,” 18 May 1957, Washington Post: A13.

7Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

8Joan Cook, “Kathryn O’Hay Granahan Dies; A Former Head of U.S. Treasury,” 13 July 1979, New York Times: A14.

9Richard Peason, “Kathryn Granahan, 82, U.S. Treasurer,” 13 July 1979, Washington Post: D7.

10“Study Urged to Rid Mails of Obscenity,” 28 August 1958, Christian Science Monitor: 2.

11370 U.S. 478 (1962); Congressional Record, House, 87th Cong., 2nd sess. (28 June 1962): 12119.

12Tolchin, Women In Congress: 29.

13Richard L. Lyons, “House Group Urges Less Sex in Movies, Film Ads,” 5 February 1960, Washington Post: A19.

14“Seat of Rep. Granahan Slated for Elimination,” 10 January 1962, Washington Post: A9; Kenneth G. Gehret, “Political Sparks Start in Key Year in Pennsylvania,” 24 January 1962, Christian Science Monitor: 3.

15Richard Pearson, “Kathryn Granahan, 82, U.S. Treasurer,” 13 July 1979, Washington Post: D7; Cook, “Kathryn O’Hay Granahan Dies; A Former Head of U.S. Treasury.”

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

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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Kathryn E. Granahan" 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.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - District of Columbia
  • House Committee - Government Operations
  • House Committee - Post Office and Civil Service
    • Postal Operations - Chair
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