KEYS, Martha Elizabeth

KEYS, Martha Elizabeth
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives


In many respects, Kansas Representative Martha Elizabeth Keys’s two-term House career provides a window on a transitional moment in the story of women in Congress. As a freshman in 1975, Keys benefited from significant institutional changes that helped land her a plum assignment on one of the House’s most powerful committees. Simultaneously, however, her divorce from her husband of 25 years (and marriage to a House colleague) tested the limits of public aversion to turmoil in the personal lives of their elected officials and highlighted longstanding social double standards to which women were held.

On August 10, 1930, Martha Elizabeth Ludwig was born to S. T. and Clara Krey Ludwig in Hutchinson, Kansas. Martha Ludwig graduated from Paseo High School in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1945. She attended Olivet College in Kankakee, Illinois, from 1946 to 1948. Ludwig received her AB in music from the University of Missouri in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1951. In 1949 Martha Ludwig married Sam Keys, a university professor and later the dean of education at Kansas State University, and they raised four children: Carol, Bryan, Dana, and Scott. In 1973 Keys served as co-chair of the Manhattan-Riley (Kansas) County United Way campaign and also was appointed to a special committee that examined the city’s recreational needs. Keys’s brother-in-law, Gary Warren Hart, a campaign aide to presidential candidate Senator George Stanley McGovern of South Dakota, persuaded her to join the McGovern campaign in 1972. Then a 42-year-old housewife with limited political experience—as a volunteer coordinator in the 1964 and 1968 presidential campaigns—Martha Keys eventually ran the McGovern campaign in Kansas. “We managed to get quite a lot of delegates for McGovern out of Kansas, which was amazing because Kansas was not a state that was going to ever vote for McGovern,” Keys recalled. “But it was quite rewarding. I ran the state for him on purely a voluntary position.”1 Though McGovern lost the state by a wide margin, Keys’s tact and organizational skills left a positive impression with many Democrats.2

In 1974, when Gary Hart launched his successful campaign for a Colorado U.S. Senate seat, Keys announced her intention to seek a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives vacated by Representative William Robert Roy. The two-term Democratic incumbent left the House to challenge incumbent Robert Joseph Dole for a U.S. Senate seat. The district was traditionally Republican-leaning, and the GOP considered the seat to be highly competitive. Only once since the Civil War had the district’s voters sent a Democrat to Congress for more than one term, and that was Congressman Roy.3 Keys credited Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder of Colorado with inspiring her run for Congress. “And I got out there, and in the milieu of meeting and talking, and Pat was encouraging me, ‘You should be running for that office.’”4

On a shoestring budget, Keys defeated four men in the Democratic primary. “You have to overcome the woman thing,” she told a reporter during the campaign. “I think being a woman is basically beneficial in this campaign. It helps you get the attention you need. It’s up to you to keep it.”5 In the general election, Keys faced a 26-year-old GOP state legislator, John C. Peterson. The candidates conducted a series of debates on inflation, campaign reform, and government spending. Keys, while supporting social programs, also stressed federal fiscal responsibility. In particular, she tried to connect with ordinary housewives. Both candidates stuck to the issues and avoided personal attacks, and Keys spent only $75,000 total for her operations. One reporter for a national newspaper described the campaign as “a model of what American campaigning could be—but rarely is.”6 Voters chose Keys by a 55-to-44 percent majority.7

Keys entered Congress at a time when a series of post- Watergate institutional reforms re-ordered many of the traditions and power structures within the House. When Democrats gathered just before the start of the 94th Congress (1975–1977), they agreed to name two freshmen to the Ways and Means and the Appropriations committees. Longtime Ways and Means Chairman Wilbur Daigh Mills of Arkansas stepped down, and the committee lost its role of assigning Democrats to committees to the Steering and Policy Committee. Keys directly benefited from these changes. Upon the advice of House colleague Donald MacKay Fraser of Minnesota, and his politically-active wife Arvonne, Keys campaigned for a spot on the Ways and Means Committee, distributing letters to Democratic Members outlining her qualifications for the influential committee.8 Keys’s efforts paid off—she became only the second woman, and one of only a handful of freshman Members in House history, who received an assignment on Ways and Means.9 Keys served on two of its subcommittees: Health and Unemployment Compensation. Ways and Means was her only assignment, and she retained it for the duration of her House career. The Kansas Representative later recalled the influence of the Democratic freshmen elected in 1974 (dubbed the “Watergate Babies”) on the institution. “It was a time when you felt all things were possible,” Keys observed. “Everyone felt very good about the things that we achieved, the congressional reforms and all that was achieved during our efforts in that class.”10

During her first term, Keys was a strong supporter of the Title IX Amendment to create equal opportunities for female athletes at both the high school and college level. Title IX prohibited institutions that received federal funding from practicing gender discrimination in educational programs or activities. Although Congress had approved the basis for Title IX legislation in 1972 and President Richard M. Nixon signed it into law in 1973, lawmakers needed several more years to hammer out the details. After a trial period in which suggested modifications were incorporated, President Gerald R. Ford submitted revised regulations to Congress in May 1975. When she arrived in Washington in 1975, Keys recalled, there was “the heavy lobbying going on” and “it was very dramatic.” She remembered being lobbied by major college sports coaches for a variety of men’s teams who opposed the bill on the basis that it would drain money from men’s programs.11 Undeterred, Keys and other women Members worked across party lines to pass the new provisions. In high schools alone, the number of young women in sports programs increased dramatically over the next 40 years—from fewer than 300,000 in 1971 to roughly 2.5 million by the mid-1990s and more than 3.1 million by 2012.12

Keys used her Ways and Means seat to help broaden women’s economic base for equality. Along with Representative Fraser, Keys sponsored a measure that provided Social Security coverage for women who had spent their lives working in the home rather than in paying jobs.13 The bill stipulated that in determining Social Security credits, all earnings should be split between husband and wife and credited to separate old-age pension accounts, specifically seeking special protections for women following a divorce. Keys observed that “the structure of the [Social Security] system was based upon a different time and a different era. It is based upon the idea that most workers are male and most workers support women and children. In today’s life that is no longer true . . . these needs should be recognized in a restructuring of our system.”14

During her first term, Keys’s personal life made national headlines when she divorced her husband Sam and married Democratic Congressman Andrew Jacobs Jr. of Indiana. Keys and Jacobs had met on the Ways and Means Committee. After Keys’s divorce became official in July 1975, the couple announced their engagement and were married a year later. Their union marked the first time in history that two Members of Congress married while serving together.15 The newlyweds approached their public life carefully, keeping separate residences in their respective districts (they did share a home in Washington, DC), distinct finances, and even keeping their own names. “We both understood our responsibilities to our work in Washington and to our district, and there was never any disharmony about anything,” Keys explained. However, she admitted that despite their efforts to demonstrate independence, many colleagues had reservations about the couple serving together on Ways and Means.16

Some observers expected the 1976 election to be a referendum on Keys’s divorce and Middle America’s attitude toward the personal problems of elected officials. One prominent Kansas Republican openly worried, “I don’t think Kansas wants a Representative who lives in Washington and is married to an Indianan.”17 Keys maintained there was a double standard at work: No one expressed similar concerns about her husband’s ability to carry out his duties. “Our voting records are very different,” she pointed out. “We are both totally committed in our own way to the public interest.”18 Keys spoke frankly with voters: “Marriage isn’t a good reason to oppose me politically.”19 Keys’s GOP opponent, Ross Freeman, an attorney and insurance company executive, insisted that he would not make a campaign issue of the “tragedy of divorce.” Freeman prominently displayed pictures of his family on campaign literature, however, and made frequent indirect references to Keys’s marital problems by advertising his “deep family ties to Kansas.” He also campaigned on a platform that called for curbing social programs, balancing the federal budget, and boosting defense spending.20 The incumbent carried the district, but not by much—fewer than 6,000 votes out of 150,000 cast, for a 52-to-48 percent edge.21

In the 1978 election, Keys was initially favored in her general election race against conservative Republican businessman and World War II veteran James Edmund Jeffries. But Jeffries ran an aggressive campaign that focused on Keys’s liberal voting record and suggested that she was no longer in tune with the district’s voters. He also raised and spent more than his Democratic opponent, producing radio ads in which a New York resident offered a “thank you” to Keys for voting with other Democrats to give millions of dollars in loan guarantees to New York City.22 Keys lost 52 to 48 percent, as House Democrats lost 15 seats in the midterms. Shortly thereafter, she and Jacobs sought a divorce.23

After Keys left Congress in January 1979, President Jimmy Carter appointed her as special adviser to the Secretary of Education and Welfare from 1979 to 1980. She served from June 1980 to January 1981 as assistant secretary of education. During the balance of the 1980s and 1990s, Keys remained involved with education issues as a consultant with several Washington-based firms.24 In 1990 she and several other former Members of Congress created the Council for the National Interest, a nonprofit that sought to highlight issues important to Palestinians. Martha Keys remained invested in the social development of young women. More than two decades after helping to extend Title IX legislation, she observed, “It’s exciting to see the opportunities girls and women have now. I see my own granddaughter involved in all kinds of sports.”25


1“The Honorable Martha Elizabeth Keys Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (14 June 2016): 3. The interview transcript is available online.

2Lou Cannon, “Campaign ‘74: A Model Race in Kansas,” 27 October 1974, Washington Post: C4.

3June Kronholz, “For Congresswoman, Issue in Kansas Race Is a ‘Messy‘ Divorce,” 7 October 1976, Wall Street Journal: 1.

4“Keys Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 5.

5Cannon, “Campaign ‘74.”

6Cannon, “Campaign ’74”; “Keys Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 7–8.

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

8“Keys Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 26–27.

9Mary Russell, “Rep. Mills Gives Up Hill Post,” 11 December 1974, Washington Post: A1; Richard D. Lyons, “Ways and Means in Liberal Shift,” 12 December 1974, New York Times: 38; Eileen Shanahan, “Ways and Means Panel Enters a New and Open Era,” 11 February 1975, New York Times: 1.

10“Keys Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 13.

11Pete Goering, “Keys to the Future,” Topeka Capital–Journal, March 17, 2002.

12U.S. Department of Education, “Title IX: A Sea Change in Gender Equity in Education,” accessed 4 December 2003,; Goering, “Keys to the Future”; Haley Samsel, “Title IX Turns 45 Today: Its Impact Goes Beyond Women and Playing Sports,” 23 June 2017, USA Today,

13Spencer Rich, “Social Security Sex ‘Reform’ Seen Costly,” 12 March 1978, Washington Post: A13; Congressional Record, House, 95th Cong., 2nd sess. (25 July 1978): 22622–22623.

14Congressional Record, House, 95th Cong., 1st sess. (26 October 1977): 35261–35262.

15Ruth Hanna McCormick of Illinois had served in Congress with her future husband, Albert Gallatin Simms of New Mexico. They married after McCormick left the House. Emily Taft Douglas, an Illinois Representative, served in the House several years prior to her husband’s election to the Senate. In the 1990s, Susan Molinari and Bill Paxon, both of New York, became the second couple to wed while serving together in the same Congress.

16“Keys Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 34.

17Kronholz, “For Congresswoman, Issue in Kansas Race Is a ‘Messy’ Divorce.”

18Myra McPherson, “Careers and Conflicts: Perspective on the Dilemma of Political Spouses,” 28 January 1976, Washington Post: C1.

19Kronholz, “For Congresswoman, Issue in Kansas Race Is a ‘Messy’ Divorce.”

20Kronholz, “For Congresswoman, Issue in Kansas Race Is a ‘Messy’ Divorce.”

21“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

22Billy Curry and Ward Sinclair, “GOP Turns in Strong Showing,” Washington Post: A21.

23“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present”; J. McIvor Weatherford, “Capitol Hill ‘Clans,’” 13 December 1981, New York Times: 29.

24“Hart Asking Supporters to Help Found Think Tank,” 20 April 1985, Associated Press.

25Goering, “Keys to the Future.”

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

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External Research Collections

Kansas State University
Richard L.D. and Marjorie J. Morse Department of Special Collections

Manhattan, KS
Papers: ca. 1975-1979, 90 linear feet. The papers of Martha Elizabeth Keys contain legislative papers and casework files. The casework papers are sealed for 50 years, until 2029.
Papers: In the papers of James C. Carey, 1948-1981, 3 linear feet. Correspondents include Martha Keys.

Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University
Schlesinger Library

Cambridge, MA
Papers: In the Candidates for Public Office Campaign Materials, 1966-1976, 0.5 linear foot. Subjects include Martha Elizabeth Keys.

Western Historical Manuscript Collection-Columbia

Columbia, MO
Papers: In the papers of Jerry L. Litton, 1960-1976. Collection includes a digitized 30 minute interview with Martha Keys on "Dialogue with Litton," November 17, 1974.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Martha Elizabeth Keys" 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 - Ways and Means
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Related Media

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