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LUSK, Georgia Lee

LUSK, Georgia Lee
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
1893–1971

Biography

Georgia Lee Lusk was the first woman elected to the United States Congress from New Mexico. Representative Lusk entered the 80th Congress (1947–1949) determined to improve the education system, but as the mother of three World War II servicemen, one of whom was killed in action, she also fought for increased benefits for returning war veterans and supported the foreign policy of the Harry S. Truman administration.

On May 12, 1893, Georgia Lee Witt was born to George and Mary Isabel Witt in Carlsbad, New Mexico. In 1914, Georgia graduated from New Mexico State Teacher’s College after also attending New Mexico Highlands University and Colorado State Teacher’s College. She worked as a teacher for a year before marrying Dolph Lusk, a cattleman, in 1915. Dolph Lusk died in 1919, leaving Georgia with three young sons. While also running the family ranch, the young widow resumed her teaching career to support her family. In 1924, Lusk became school superintendent of Lea County, New Mexico. After an unsuccessful bid in 1928, she was elected state superintendent of public instruction in 1930, serving until 1935. A year later, she took on the superintendent position for rural Guadalupe County, before serving as New Mexico state superintendent again from 1944 until 1947. During her long tenure in school administration, Lusk often witnessed discouraging circumstances in New Mexico classrooms, such as severe book shortages and schoolroom overcrowding. A shrewd administrator, she found state funding, even during the Depression, to improve school conditions. Her eight years of leadership as state superintendent moved New Mexico from near the bottom of the nationwide school financing list to the top.1 After her children were grown, Lusk turned her sights on improving education on the national level. In 1944, she served as a delegate to the White House Conference on Rural Education.

Georgia Lusk’s political zeal led her to seek one of two At–Large seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, left open after Congressman Clinton Anderson resigned his seat when appointed Secretary of Agriculture in 1946. In the June primary, she led six other candidates, barely beating popular Lieutenant Governor J.B. Jones by fewer than 300 votes.2 In the general election, she garnered more statewide votes than the well–seasoned incumbent candidate, Congressman Antonio Fernandez, the other At–Large winner. In an election where the Republicans gained 55 seats and took control of the House of Representatives, Lusk, a staunch Democrat, also bucked a Republican trend when she took her seat in the 80th Congress in January 1947.3 She was one of seven women elected to that Congress.

Like any typical freshman, Lusk defended the interests of her constituents, weighing in on debates concerning copper mining and national policy on the maintenance of arid land, both economic concerns for New Mexico voters.4 However, her background as a teacher and superintendent inspired Lusk to use her national office to promote educational measures. She supported the establishment of a Cabinet–level department of education, remarking that, “If it’s important for the government to give financial assistance to transportation, why not to education?”5 In June, 1947, she lent her support to a bill necessitating the foreign broadcast of pro–American messages via “Voice of America” radio programs. Although opponents during the early Cold War Era were concerned about the reception of such “propaganda” broadcasts in budding communist regimes, Lusk argued that this plan was a peaceful form of education and outreach to other nations. Lusk also backed federal aid to education, including support for funding hot lunch programs in schools and defending teachers against salary cuts proposed by Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York, the Republican presidential candidate in 1948.6

Georgia Lusk’s support for educational measures was second only to her concern for veterans’ benefits and civil defense. Lusk’s sons—Virgil, Morgan, and Thomas Eugene—served in World War II; Virgil, a fighter pilot, was killed in action in North Africa.7 Because of her experience as the mother of veterans, Lusk was appointed to the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. She took her role on this committee very seriously, believing that with the recent end of hostilities, the Veterans’ Affairs Committee would likely touch more American lives than any other committee in Congress.8 Lusk introduced several bills increasing the benefits provided by the 1944 Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, popularly known as the G.I. Bill of Rights. Her legislation specifically called for a larger stipend for students under the bill’s jurisdiction, benefits for widows and dependents of servicemen who were killed or wounded in battle, and better housing benefits for returning veterans to accommodate the increased cost of living.9 Lusk also supported legislation to increase retirement benefits for servicemen and to provide on–the–job training to veterans returning to civilian life. Lusk worked closely with Republican Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers to obtain many of these increased benefits.

Despite cooperating with Rogers on veterans’ benefits, Lusk maintained her Democratic loyalties. She was a staunch backer of the Truman administration’s foreign policy proposals, voting in favor of financial and military aid for governments in Greece and Turkey and endorsing universal military training (UMT). Lusk saw UMT as an insurance policy on the country’s future, disagreeing with critics that training all young men for combat was an act of aggression. She stressed the educational component of UMT, claiming that it would teach discipline and fight provincialism, as it would allow young men to interact with others from different parts of the country.10 Lusk supported the majority of the Truman administration’s domestic programs, most significantly backing the President’s unpopular opposition to income tax reduction. She turned away from President Truman, however, when she voted in favor of the Taft–Hartley Act, a piece of anti–labor legislation, which passed over the President’s veto.

In the June 1948 Democratic primary, Georgia Lusk sought renomination for her At–Large seat but fell short in a three–way election split. Winner and former Governor John E. Miles, also an education reformer, went on to win the general election, serving one term in the 81st Congress (1949–1951).11 Incumbent colleague, Congressman Antonio Fernandez, won back his seat, to take the other At–Large bid. Lusk’s loss was by a narrow margin of only 2,451 votes, and rumors of an illegal move by a political machine–backed candidate led her to weigh demanding a recount.12 Lusk declined a recount, however, citing the financial obligation of the process, and later quipped, “I thought they’d only say ‘a woman can’t take a lickin.’”13 In September 1949, President Truman appointed her to the War Claims Commission, where she served with other Democratic appointees until their dismissal by President Eisenhower in 1953. Lusk returned to Albuquerque and continued her crusade for education, serving again as the state superintendent of public schools. Lusk retired from public service in 1960. She died on January 15, 1971, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Footnotes

1Hope Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress (New York: Praeger, 1973): 202.

2“Warren is Chosen By Both Primaries” 6 June 1946, New York Times: 15.

3Statistics taken from Kenneth C. Martis, The Historical Atlas of Political Parties in the United States Congress, 1789–1989 (New York: Macmillan, 1989).

4Congressional Record, House, 80th Cong., 1st sess. (12 March 1947): 1991; Congressional Record, House, 80th Cong., 2nd sess. (24 April 1947): 3995.

5Chamberlin, Minority of Members: 201.

6Congressional Record, House, 80th Cong., 2nd sess. (18 March 1948): 3102; Congressional Record, House, 80th Cong, 2nd sess. (28 July 1948): 9527.

7“7 Women on Rolls of New Congress,” 4 January 1947, New York Times: 3.

8Congressional Record, House, 80th Cong., 1st sess. (6 March 1947): 1743.

9Congressional Record, House, 80th Cong., 1st sess.: H.R.2172; H.R. 4754; 80th Cong., 2nd sess.: H.R. 5825, H.R. 5851.

10Congressional Record, House, 80th Cong., 1st sess. (13 June 1947): 6960–6961.

11Judith Boyce DeMark, “Lusk, George Lee Witt,” American National Biography 14 (New York: Oxford, 1999): 149–150; see also the entry for John Miles, Biographical Directory, http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=M000705

12Chamberlin, Minority of Members: 202.

13Ibid.

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

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External Research Collections

New Mexico State Records Center and Archives
Archives and Historical Services Division

Santa Fe, NM
Papers: 1931-1958, 6 linear feet and 10 volumes. The collection includes political and private papers of Georgia L. Lusk that relate to the 80th Congress (1947-1948), the Veterans' Affairs Committee (1947-1955), the War Claims Commission (1947-1953), and education in New Mexico (1931-1958). Also included are ten scrapbooks pertaining to her tenure as Superintendent of Public Instruction for New Mexico.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Georgia Lee Lusk" 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 - Veterans' Affairs
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