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KAHN, Florence Prag

KAHN, Florence Prag
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object


Succeeding her husband, Florence P. Kahn used charisma and humor to carve out her own political accomplishments as a California Representative. Going well beyond her husband’s service on the Hill, Kahn quickly earned the respect of her colleagues; according to one contemporary observer, “Congress treats her like a man, fears her, admires her, and listens to her.”1 Kahn used her successful career as an example of why the Republican leadership should encourage women to participate in party politics.

Florence Prag was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, on November 9, 1866. The daughter of Polish-Jewish immigrants Conrad and Mary Goldsmith Prag, Florence and her family relocated to San Francisco when her father’s business failed. Mary Prag served as an important influence on her daughter. As one of the first Jewish members of the San Francisco board of education, Mary Prag formed political connections with the city’s most prominent leaders—these ties invariably assisted her daughter in her future congressional career.2 After graduating from Girls’ High School in 1883, Florence enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley, where she graduated with an AB in 1887.3 Unable to pursue a law degree because she needed to help support her family, Florence Prag taught for more than a decade at Lowell High School in San Francisco.4 On March 19, 1899, she married Julius Kahn, a former Broadway actor, state legislator, and, at the time, a first-term U.S. Representative from San Francisco.5 The couple had two sons, Julius Jr. and Conrad.6

For the next quarter century, Florence Kahn helped her husband manage his congressional workload. She acted as his aide and confidante, increasingly so as he fought a long illness late in his career while serving as chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs. Julius Kahn was re-elected in 1924 to the 69th Congress (1925–1927) but died on December 18, 1924. Local Republican Party leaders asked his widow to run for the vacant seat. Steeped in a tradition in which Jewish politicians from San Francisco typically aligned with the GOP, Kahn accepted the invitation to enter the special election because she felt she had already “carried on the work alone” during her husband’s prolonged sickness.7 As she noted, “I feel that through a sense of obligation and duty to my late husband I should accept the responsibility of continuing his work for the people of his district.”8 Kahn won the special election on February 17, 1925, for the San Francisco district, earning 48 percent of the vote against three opponents: Raymond Burr, H. W. Hutton, and Henry Claude Huck.9 At age 58, she became the first Jewish woman elected to Congress, and was re-elected with little opposition five times.10

Kahn had prestigious committee assignments during her House career, positions she earned because of her insider’s knowledge of the institution, after her years as a political aide and adviser to her husband made her an unusually savvy freshman Member. “One of the things I learned during twenty-five years as the wife of a Congressman is not to meet the issues until they come up and not to talk too much,” Kahn told the International Herald Tribune. “So I am not going to say that I will do any particular things except to represent my district the best I am able.”11 She also knew enough to avoid being assigned to a committee that pertained little to her district’s needs. When first relegated to the Indian Affairs Committee (a fairly common committee for Congresswomen of the period), she protested publicly: “The only Indians in my district are in front of cigar stores,” a reference to wooden statues common at the time that depicted indigenous people in discriminatory stereotypes.12 Republican leaders relented, and in the 71st and 72nd Congresses (1929–1933), Kahn succeeded her late husband on the Military Affairs Committee, becoming the first woman to serve on the panel. In her first term, she was on three committees: Census, Coinage, Weights, and Measures; Education; and Expenditures in the War Department. She also served on the War Claims Committee in the 70th Congress (1927–1929). Finally, Kahn earned the distinction of being the first woman appointed to the influential Appropriations Committee, one of the two most desired committees during that era, serving on the panel in the 73rd and 74th Congresses (1933–1937).13

Pursuing her husband’s commitment to defense preparedness, Kahn managed to secure expanded military installations in the Bay Area, including Hamilton Air Force Base and the Naval Air Depot in Alameda. A devout proponent of a strong military even in the face of a strengthening peace movement, Kahn defended her stance when she said, “Preparedness never caused a war, un-preparedness never prevented one.”14 While she served in Congress, her district was the site of two simultaneous bridge projects in the 1930s, the Golden Gate, connecting San Francisco with the Marin headlands to the north, and the Bay Bridge, which connected the city to Oakland and the East Bay. Kahn’s political skill in helping to garner the funds necessary to initiate construction of the Bay Bridge particularly paved the way for a substantial boost to the economic development of San Francisco and the surrounding areas of northern California. Her support for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was so reliable that she became a personal friend of its director, J. Edgar Hoover, who nicknamed Kahn the “Mother of the F.B.I.”15 She also opposed the Volstead Act, which prohibited the production, sale, and possession of alcohol. Believing that the government should not attempt to legislate virtues, Kahn worked to ease Prohibition strictures by permitting the manufacture of beer and wine.

As one of only a handful of women in Congress, Kahn once remarked that “the woman in political office must remember her responsibility toward other women.” Heeding her own advice, Kahn worked to institute pensions for army nurses and establish a program honoring the mothers of fallen soldiers; she also publicly expressed concern about low wages for female government employees.16 Nonetheless, despite passionately believing that women should actively participate in politics, she never considered herself a feminist. “I am not specifically interested in so-called women’s questions as all national positions are sexless,” Kahn noted.17 More concerned with the welfare of the Republican Party than with promoting women’s rights, Kahn urged Republican leaders to recognize the potential of women (both as voters and as possible candidates) in party politics. Regardless of her motives, Kahn illustrated the significant role women could play in the government. Originally doubted by some colleagues because of her gender, Kahn revealed through her effective service that women, and, in particular, widows who succeeded their husbands, could leave a mark on Congress. “This is theoretically a government of the majority,” Kahn noted in a 1939 interview. “We can’t let the majority be so indifferent that we will be ruled by a minority. Women must be made to realize the importance of their voice.”

Much of Kahn’s effectiveness in the House resulted from a vibrant and witty personality that made her presence known from the earliest days of her term. When asked how she managed such a successful legislative record, Kahn replied, “Sex appeal!” She usually voted with the Republican leadership, but one line that circulated around the House was: “You always know how Florence Kahn is going to vote (Republican), but only God has the slightest inkling of what she’s going to say.”18 Once, New York Representative and future mayor Fiorello Henry La Guardia attacked her for being “nothing but a stand-patter following that reactionary Sen. [George H.] Moses,” a stalwart Republican from New Hampshire. Playing off her Jewish heritage, Kahn quipped, “Why shouldn’t I choose Moses as my leader? Haven’t my people been following him for ages?”19

Electoral shifts within Kahn’s district and national politics brought her House career to a close. From 1928 to 1932, the Democratic Party could not find a viable candidate and, thus, did not run any opposition against Kahn in the general election. In 1934, however, a strong challenge from Democrat Chauncy Tramutolo cut Kahn’s winning share of the vote to 48 percent. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1936 re-election landslide swept congressional Democrats into office, and the San Francisco district was no exception to that trend. Progressive-Democrat Franck Roberts Havenner unseated Kahn by 58 percent to 40 percent of the vote.20

In 1937 Kahn retired to San Francisco, and her Nob Hill home was a gathering place for the city’s political elite. During the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition, she was named one of the 12 outstanding women in the state’s history. She remained active in civic affairs after she left Congress as a member of the National Council of Jewish Women and co-chair of the northern California chapter of the American Women’s Voluntary Service, a World War II citizen’s organization. Kahn continued her efforts to involve women in the political process and to assert their rights as citizens. “Women,” she argued, “must assume the responsibility of maintaining freedom of speech in this land. They must assume also the responsibility of the ballot through government study.”21 Kahn died in San Francisco, on November 16, 1948.


1For a video documentary on Florence Kahn’s early life and congressional career, see Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Florence Kahn: Congressional Widow to Trailblazing Lawmaker”; quotation from “Pictorial Review” used in Hope Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress (New York: Praeger, 1973): 50.

2Glenna Matthews, “‘There Is No Sex in Citizenship ’: The Career of Congresswoman Florence Prag Kahn,” in We Have Come to Stay: American Women and Political Parties, 1880–1960 (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1999): 132, 134.

3Matthews, “There Is No Sex in Citizenship”: 131–132.

4Suzanne Pullen, “First Female California Representatives from the City; In 20’s, Two Women Succeeded Their Husbands in the House,” 10 November 2000, San Francisco Examiner: A7.

5Dorothy M. Brown, “Kahn, Florence Prag,” American National Biography 12 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): 334–335.

6“Julius Kahn Dies; Was Ill for a Year,” 19 December 1924, New York Times: 19.

7David G. Dalin, “Jewish and Non–Partisan Republicanism in San Francisco, 1911–1963,” American Jewish History 68 (1978): 492–495. In his article, Dalin argues that San Francisco Jews flocked to the Republican Party out of an interest to curb machine politics and because Jewish politicians had a history of holding prominent political positions in the region. He also contends that Jews of German descent such as Julius Kahn had a strong tradition of supporting the GOP.

8Matthews, “There Is No Sex in Citizenship”: 134–135.

9Michael J. Dubin, United States Congressional Elections, 1788–1997 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1998): 458; Matthews, “There Is No Sex in Citizenship”: 134–135; “Mrs. Kahn Elected to Seat in House,” 18 February 1925, Washington Post: 1.

10Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

11“In Our Pages 100, 75 and 50 Years Ago: 1925: Female Politician,” 3 March 2000, International Herald Tribune: opinion section, 6.

12Susan Tolchin, Women in Congress (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1976): 41; between the 67th and 76th Congresses (1921–1941), five women served on the Indian Affairs Committee.

13Charles Stewart III, “Committee Hierarchies in the Modernizing House, 1875–1947,” American Journal of Political Science 36 (No. 4, November 1992): 835–856.

14Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: 50.

15Brown, “Kahn, Florence Prag": 334-335.

16Matthews, “There Is No Sex in Citizenship”: 137.

17Frances Parkinson Keyes, “Seven Successful Women,” Delineator (July 1928): 16.

18Carolyn Anspacher, “Florence Kahn Dies,” 17 November 1948, San Francisco Chronicle: 1; “Mrs. Julius Kahn, Served in House,” 17 November 1948, New York Times: 27; Brown, “Kahn, Florence Prag”: 335.

19Pullen, “First Female California Representatives from the City.”

20“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

21Crete Cage, “Attack on Press Held Way to End Career,” 9 February 1939, Los Angeles Times: A7.

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

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External Research Collections

University of California, Berkeley
The Bancroft Library

Berkeley, CA
Papers: In the papers of Julius and Florence (Prag) Kahn, 1852-1948, 1.5 linear feet. The collection contains documents, photographs, drawings, speeches, biographical information, and articles about Julius and Florence Kahn. A finding aid is available online. The collection had previously been at the Western Jewish History Center.
Papers: In the making of a congresswoman: the biography of Florence Prag Kahn and related material, 1931-1984, 2 folders. Collection includes correspondence, clippings, and programs concerning the life and activities of Florence Kahn, prepared for a University of California-Berkeley history course.
Papers: In the records of the San Francisco chapter of Hadassah, 1917-1984, 36 items. Correspondents include Florence Prag Kahn.
Papers: In the papers of Nellie Van de Grift Sanchez, 1930-1932, 73 pages. Collection includes a scrapbook concerning Yerba Buena Island. Other authors include Florence P. Kahn.
Papers: In the personal papers of Rosalie Meyer Stern, 1867-1996, 7 linear feet. Correspondents include Florence Prag Kahn.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Florence Prag Kahn" 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.

Hansen, Harriet. "Woman Enters Politics: San Francisco's Pioneer Congresswoman, Florence Prag Kahn." M. A. Thesis, San Francisco State College, 1969.

Matthews, Glenna. "'There Is No Sex in Citizenship': The Career of Congresswoman Florence Prag Kahn." In We Have Come to Stay: American Women and Political Parties, 1880-1960. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.

Office of History & Preservation, Office of the Clerk, U. S. House of Representatives, Florence Kahn: Congressional Widow to Trailblazing Lawmaker.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Appropriations
  • House Committee - Census
  • House Committee - Coinage, Weights, and Measures
  • House Committee - Education
  • House Committee - Expenditures in the War Department
  • House Committee - Military Affairs
  • House Committee - War Claims
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