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MCMILLAN, Clara Gooding

MCMILLAN, Clara Gooding
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress


A one-term Representative from South Carolina, Clara G. McMillan faced the growing menace of war in Europe from the perspective of being a recent widow and a mother of five young sons.

Clara E. Gooding was the second daughter born to William and Mary Gooding in Brunson, South Carolina, on August 17, 1894. She graduated from the public schools in her hometown and later attended the Confederate Home College in Charleston and the Flora McDonald College in Red Springs, North Carolina. She married Thomas Sanders McMillan, a lawyer who served in the South Carolina house of representatives from 1917 to 1924. During his last two years, he served as speaker of the South Carolina house. In 1924 he won election to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served eight terms and eventually became a high-ranking member of the Appropriations Committee. Throughout her husband’s congressional service, Clara McMillan remained in Charleston, South Carolina, raising their five sons: Thomas Jr., James, William, Edward, and Robert.1 From a distance, she nevertheless kept in “close contact and cooperation” with Thomas’s legislative policies.2

When Thomas McMillan died on September 29, 1939, South Carolina Democratic Party leaders chose Clara McMillan to run in the special election to fill her husband’s coastal Carolina seat. Like most southern states, South Carolina operated under a one-party system in the early twentieth century, wherein winning the Democratic nomination was tantamount to winning the general election. Less from a sense of chivalry toward a widow than the need to head off an intraparty fight among aspirants for the seat, local political leaders chose McMillan to fill out the remaining year of her husband’s term. Against two weak opponents, Shep Hutto of Dorchester and James De Fieville of Walterboro, she won election to the House with 79 percent of the vote on November 7, 1939, to represent a sprawling district that covered Charleston and nine adjacent low-country counties.3 Afterward, McMillan, who had campaigned on her familiarity with her husband’s work, said she “felt it would come out as it did” because “I told the voters I would carry on his work.”4 A group of Berkeley County voters filed a protest to invalidate the special election because, they argued, the secrecy of the ballot was not maintained.5 The South Carolina supreme court overruled the protest in late December, and McMillan took her seat in Congress at the opening of the third session of the 76th Congress (1939–1941) on January 3, 1940.

In a session that lasted a full year, McMillan served on the Committee on Patents; the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds; and the Committee on the Election of the President, Vice President, and Representatives in Congress. In addition to answering constituent requests, some minor work engaged her interests. She introduced legislation to provide for the designation of individual domiciles in income tax returns and to allow local police officers to mail firearms for repairs. But these were secondary considerations.

The threat of American involvement in the war in Europe dominated the business of the final session of the 76th Congress. World War II had erupted in Europe on September 1, 1939, with the German invasion of Poland. In advocating for military preparedness, McMillan, like many of her colleagues, insisted that federal resources be devoted to defensive measures. “Perhaps it is true that geographically we are so situated that a serious invasion by any one of the powers engaged in present world conflicts is virtually impossible,” McMillan told colleagues in a floor speech. “But conditions change rapidly … press, radio, and motion pictures bring us every day new and more striking evidence of the futility of invoking treaties, covenants, and moral sanctions against a well-prepared aggressor. He [Hitler] understands only one language and we must learn to speak that language well. I believe firmly in military and naval preparedness.”6

Conditions in Europe outpaced the push for preparedness in America. In the months following McMillan’s speech, the situation for the Allies grew grim as German troops invaded France and, within six weeks, occupied Paris and forced the capitulation of the French army. Berlin’s “blitzkrieg” warfare had swept resistance out of western Europe and isolated Great Britain, America’s closest traditional ally.

These developments forced McMillan and her colleagues to countenance not only how to create an effective deterrent force but how to raise an army to fight a war that, daily, America seemed less able to avoid. McMillan took to the House Floor and, in an impassioned speech that drew much applause, spoke in favor of the Burke–Wadsworth Selective Service Bill of 1940, which established the nation’s first peacetime draft. The concept of universal military training (“UMT,” as it was known at the time) marked a radical departure for many Americans. Looking to past traditions as well as modern totalitarian governments abroad, many had believed that domestic liberties could not coexist with a large standing army that might be used to quash internal dissent. McMillan disagreed for both political and personal reasons. She supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s foreign policy broadly and realized that Charleston, the district’s largest city, would have a major role to play as a center for naval operations. But there were other reasons, too, which compelled her support for UMT. “I have five sons. The oldest will come immediately under the operation of the bill and be subject to its provisions, as he is past 21 years,” McMillan told her colleagues. “My second son is almost 19 years old and is now taking military training in a school organized for that purpose. If and when my sons are needed for the defense of their country, I do not want them to go up against experienced soldiers, untrained and unskilled.”7 Three days later, the draft bill passed Congress and was signed into law.

Meanwhile, by the summer of 1940, South Carolina Democratic leaders had found their favored strong horse, Lucius Mendel Rivers, to replace McMillan. McMillan declined renomination for a full term when local politicos threw their support behind Rivers. Mendel Rivers, a young lawyer and South Carolina state representative from 1933 to 1936, went on to represent the district for nearly 30 years and eventually rose to chair the Committee on Armed Services. In the process he helped make Charleston the locus of one of the largest military establishments on the East Coast. When McMillan left Congress in 1941, she continued her government service with the National Youth Administration, the Office of Government Reports in the Office of War Information, and, from 1946 to 1957, as information liaison officer in the Department of State. Clara McMillan retired to Barnwell, South Carolina, where she died on November 8, 1976.


1Congressional Directory, 70th Cong., 2nd sess., 1929 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1929): 110.

2“Mrs. McMillan to Carry on Husband’s Work in Congress,” 9 November 1939, Washington Post: 2.

3Michael J. Dubin, United States Congressional Elections, 1788–1997 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company Publishing, Inc., Publishers, 1998): 529.

4“Mrs. McMillan to Carry on Husband’s Work in Congress.”

5“Court Upholds Mrs. McMillan’s Election to House,” 28 December 1939, Washington Post: 1.

6Congressional Record, House, 76th Cong., 3rd sess. (3 April 1940): 3954.

7Congressional Record, House, 76th Cong., 3rd sess. (4 September 1940): 11448–11449.

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

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External Research Collections

Stanford University
Hoover Institution Archives

Stanford, CA
Papers: In the Robert Charles Hill Papers, 1942-1978, 183 boxes, 29 scrapbooks, 73 envelopes, 4 oversize boxes, 9 motion picture film reels, and 4 phonotape reels. Correspondents include Clara McMillan.

University of South Carolina
South Carolina Political Collections

Columbia, SC
Papers: In the Thomas S. and Clara McMillan Papers, ca. 1870-1980, 1.25 linear feet. Collection includes general papers, speeches, photographs, clippings, and ephemera for Thomas S. and Clara G. McMillan, who represented South Carolina’s First Congressional District, 1925-1940. Of particular interest is correspondence from Clara McMillan to her son, Edward, after her retirement. There are also photographs documenting Clara McMillan’s “Mother of the Year” ceremonies in 1960, and dedication of the McMillan Memorial Highway in 1980. Further information and finding aid available at:
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Clara Gooding McMillan" 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 - Election of the President, Vice President, and Representatives in Congress
  • House Committee - Insular Affairs
  • House Committee - Patents
  • House Committee - Public Buildings and Grounds
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