MEYNER, Helen Stevenson

MEYNER, Helen Stevenson
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
1929–1997

Biography

Politically connected by both birth and marriage, Helen Stevenson Meyner entered elective politics for the first time to serve New Jersey for two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. Congresswoman Meyner developed a reputation as a thoughtful internationalist and advocate of human rights issues. She also became a well–respected charter member of the Congresswomen’s Caucus during her short tenure in the House.

Helen Day Stevenson was born on March 5, 1929, to William E. and Eleanor B. Stevenson. She had one sister, Priscilla. The Stevensons worked for the American Red Cross, establishing units in Europe and Africa during World War I. William Stevenson later served as the president of Oberlin College in Ohio and also as U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines. After graduating from Rosemary Hall High School in Greenwich, Connecticut, in 1946, Helen Stevenson earned her bachelor’s degree from Colorado College in 1950. Immediately following graduation, she served as a field worker for the Red Cross in Korea from 1950 to 1952 and then as a tour guide at the United Nations. From 1953 to 1956 she was hired by a major airline to travel around the globe on a promotional tour under the name Mary Gordon. In 1956, Stevenson volunteered for the presidential campaign for her mother’s distant cousin, Adlai Stevenson. During the campaign, she met New Jersey Governor Robert Meyner, and they married in 1957. In 1970, Meyner lost a baby in childbirth, and the couple had no other children. After Robert Meyner left office in 1962, Helen Meyner began writing a twice–weekly column for the Newark Star–Ledger, which she continued until 1969. She also hosted a New York–New Jersey television interview program from 1965 to 1968. Beginning in 1971, Meyner was appointed to the New Jersey rehabilitation commission.

Admittedly more comfortable in the role of politician’s wife, Meyner began her improbable political career in July 1972.1 The Democratic nominee for a northeastern New Jersey congressional district, Irish immigrant Joseph O’Dougherty withdrew from the race because he had failed to meet the U.S. Constitution’s seven–year citizenship criterion. The state Democratic committee convinced Meyner, who was at the time working on a biography of writer Katherine Mansfield, to enter the race as the new Democratic nominee in the heavily Republican district. Despite her experience in politics, she admitted that, “in the beginning, the adjustment to stand on my own and projecting myself in public was very difficult.”2 Initially overshadowed by accusations that she supported an expensive dam project because it benefited her own investments, Meyner lost to Republican Joseph J. Maraziti by a margin of 56 to 43 percent in the general election.

Two years later, Meyner challenged Maraziti again. In 1974, her GOP opponent was compromised by revelations that he kept a woman who did not work in his office on his congressional payroll.3 This, coupled with the backlash resulting from the Watergate investigation, gave Meyner the edge. She defeated Maraziti, reversing the 1972 results for a seat in the 94th Congress (1975–1977). Following her victory, Meyner discussed the demands of a grueling campaign: “They [the Democratic Party] package a candidate like they’re selling some underarm deodorant. Now I feel like I’m re–entering life after a long stay in a hospital or prison.”4 Nevertheless, Representative Meyner fought another close battle in 1976, barely holding off Republican challenger William F. Schluter in the general election. In a four–way race, Meyner emerged with 50 percent of the vote to Schluter’s 48 percent. She quickly accustomed herself to her position as politician, rather than politician’s wife. “I was always on the back stage like most every other politician’s wife. And I was always introduced as ‘Bob Meyner’s lovely wife, Helen,’” she admitted to reporters. “I am still waiting, incidentally, for someone to introduce my husband and me as ‘Helen Meyner and her lovely husband, Bob.’”5

During her two terms in the House, Meyner served on the Committee on the District of Columbia, the Committee on Foreign Affairs, and the Select Committee on Aging. She also was appointed to a relatively ceremonial position on the House Beauty Shop Committee. In order to take the seat on the prestigious Foreign Affairs Committee (later International Relations), Meyner turned down an assignment on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, as the latter required Members to resign all other assignments.6 While serving on the Foreign Affairs Committee, Meyner criticized the nuclear arms race and, most memorably, opposed attempts by nonaligned nations to suspend or expel Israel from the United Nations. She condemned the 1975 U.N. resolution that equated Zionism with racism; however, she argued against using the incident as a pretext for U.S. withdrawal from the world organization.7 Meyner voted in favor of forming a State Department board to oversee the creation of a center for conflict resolution. She amended an aid bill to the Philippines which cut about $5 million in assistance to punish Ferdinand Marcos’s authoritarian regime for human rights abuses. Meyner told House colleagues in a floor speech, “I believe that it is very important that we send a concrete signal, and this would only be a signal, of our concern for the serious human rights situation in the Philippines. Words do not seem to have any effect. We must show our concern in a more substantive way.”8

Meyner also used her seat on Foreign Affairs to tend to New Jersey’s economic needs. She worked with her Garden State colleagues to save her district’s Picatinny Arsenal from closure; soon after, it was designated as the headquarters for the Army’s Armament Research and Development Command. She also sought to sustain New Jersey’s ailing textile industry in the face of competition from foreign imports. In late 1976, Meyner lobbied Democrats in the New Jersey senate, urging them not to rescind the state’s endorsement of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. She subsequently participated in the 1978 Select Committee on Aging hearings on poor conditions in boarding homes for senior citizens.

Meyner actively promoted women’s rights and their increased involvement in politics. “A woman’s viewpoint is different,” Meyner said upon her 1974 election, “perhaps more intuitive and sensitive to people’s needs in the special areas like day care, environment and education.”9 In her first term, she supported legislation that aided destitute women, including a vote to provide federal funding for abortions through Medicare.10 As an active member of the newly founded Congresswomen’s Caucus, Meyner served as the organization’s resident expert on foreign policy. She developed a reputation as an even–tempered, thoughtful, and effective legislator, somewhat overshadowed by her New Jersey colleague, Millicent Fenwick. In what was later dubbed New Jersey’s “Year of the Woman,” the more flamboyant Fenwick was elected to Congress alongside Meyner in 1974; however, the two had an uneasy relationship.11 After the caucus traveled to China in 1977, the fiscally conservative Fenwick publicly rebuked Meyner for spending taxpayers’ money to bring her husband on the trip. Other Congresswomen, whose family members also accompanied them, defended Meyner.12

In 1978, Meyner faced Republican James A. Courter in another close election. High inflation, soaring gas prices, and a lagging economy under the Jimmy Carter administration were prime issues during the midterm elections. Running on a platform to improve economic opportunities, Courter defeated Meyner by fewer than 6,000 votes, winning 52 to 48 percent. After leaving Congress, Meyner returned to Princeton, New Jersey, where she again worked for the state rehabilitation commission. She also served on the boards of several major corporations, where she developed a reputation for pushing women’s equality in corporate management. After her husband’s death in 1990, she moved to Captiva Island, Florida. Meyner subsequently oversaw the establishment of the Robert B. Meyner and Helen S. Meyner Center for the Study of State and Local Government at her husband’s alma mater, Lafayette College, in Easton, Pennsylvania. Helen Meyner died on November 2, 1997, in Captiva Island.

Footnotes

1Mary C. Churchill, “Helen Meyner Adjusting to Life in Politics,” 17 November 1974, New York Times: 90.

2Churchill, “Helen Meyner Adjusting to Life in Politics.”

3Joseph F. Sullivan, “Maraziti Describes Duties For ‘No Show’ Aide,” 19 October 1974, New York Times: 35.

4Churchill, “Helen Meyner Adjusting to Life in Politics.”

5Jo Ann Levine, “Women Plot Campaign Course,” 2 August 1974, Christian Science Monitor: 12.

6“Helen Meyner, Lawmaker, Kin of Oberlin College Chief,” 3 November 1997, Cleveland Plain Dealer: 9B; Steven S. Smith and Christopher Deering, Committees in Congress, 2nd ed. (Washington D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1990): 37.

7“Zionism Resolution Assailed,” 16 November 1975, New York Times: 92.

8Congressional Record, 95th Cong., 2nd sess. (3 August 1978): 24221–24222.

9Churchill, “Helen Meyner Adjusting to Life in Politics.”

10Almanac of American Politics, 1978 (Washington, D.C.: National Journal Inc., 1977): 541.

11David M. Halbfinger, “Ex–Rep. Helen S. Meyner, 69; Born Into Democratic Politics,” 3 November 1997, New York Times: B7; “In Record Year for Women Candidates, New Jersey Lags Far Behind,” 24 October 1994, State News Service.

12Irwin N. Gertzog, Congressional Women: Their Recruitment, Integration, and Behavior (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995): 201.

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

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External Research Collections

Lafayette College
Special Collections and College Archives

Easton, PA
Papers: In the Robert B. and Helen Stevenson Meyner Papers, 1910-1998, 102.5 linear feet. The collection contains the congressional papers of Helen Stevenson Meyner. Included are papers documenting her four campaigns, bill files, legislative reference material, special projects, committee files, voting record, constituent correspondence, personal and administrative papers, press files, district offices, photographs, and scrapbooks. A finding aid is available in the repository and online.

Princeton University Library

Princeton, NJ
Papers: 1974-1978, 86 cubic feet. The papers of Helen Stevenson Meyner consist of legislative correspondence, casework, invitations, requests, and campaign and project material. Also included are references to her services on the Subcommittee on Education, Labor and Social Services (1976) and the Select Committee on Aging (1977-1978).
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Helen Stevenson Meyner" 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.

Tomlinson, Barbara J. "Making Their Way: A Study of New Jersey Congresswomen, 1924-1994." Ph.D. diss., Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey - New Brunswick, 1996.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - District of Columbia
  • House Committee - Foreign Affairs
  • House Committee - International Relations
  • House Committee - Select Committee on Aging
  • House Committee - Select Committee on the House Beauty Shop
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Related Media

Congresswoman Helen Meyner of New Jersey

Recollections of Congresswoman Helen Meyner of New Jersey and gender barriers in the Democratic Cloakroom.

Donnald K. Anderson, Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded October 23, 2006 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)