In many respects, Kansas Representative Martha 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 long–standing 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 A.B. 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 Hart, a campaign aide to presidential candidate George McGovern, 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. Though McGovern lost the state by a wide margin, Keys’s tact and organizational skills left a positive impression with many Democrats.1
In 1974, when Gary Hart launched his successful campaign for Colorado senator, Keys announced her intention to seek a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives vacated by Representative William Roy. The two–term Democratic incumbent left the House to challenge incumbent Robert 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.2 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.3” 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.” 4 Voters chose Keys by a 55 to 44 percent majority.5
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 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, becoming only the second woman, and one of only a handful of freshman Members in House history, who received an assignment on Ways and Means.6 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.
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.7 Undeterred, Keys and other women Members worked across party lines to pass the new provisions. In high schools alone, the number of women in sports programs increased dramatically over the next quarter century— from fewer than 300,000 in 1971 to more than 2.4 million in 1996.8
Keys used her Ways and Means seat to help broaden women’s economic base for equality. Along with Representative Don Fraser of Minnesota, 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.9 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.”10
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.11
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.”12 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.”13 Keys spoke frankly with voters: “Marriage isn’t a good reason to oppose me politically.”14 The couple maintained separate residences in their respective districts and shared a Washington, D.C., home. 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.15 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.16
In the 1978 election Keys was initially favored in her general election race against conservative Republican businessman and World War II veteran Jim 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.17 Keys lost 52 to 48 percent, as House Democrats lost 15 seats in the midterms. Shortly thereafter, she and Jacobs sought a divorce.18
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.19 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.”20
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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