A longtime House legislative aide for a string of Congressmen from a south–central North Carolina district, Eliza Pratt developed a rapport with voters and knowledge of legislative interests in the district that eventually exceeded that of most other local politicians. When her boss, Congressman William O. Burgin, died in April 1946, Pratt seemed a natural choice to succeed him. Her election a month later, by a far wider margin than any of her predecessor’s victories, made Pratt the first woman to represent her home state in Congress.
She was born Eliza Jane Pratt in Morven, North Carolina, on March 5, 1902, one of seven children of James Pratt and Lena Little Pratt. James Pratt was a merchant and farmer who instilled in Eliza a passion for gardening. She enrolled at Queens College in Charlotte, North Carolina, planning to study music, but she left school to seek employment after her father’s health failed. She later attended Kings Business College in Charlotte and Temple Secretarial School in Washington, D.C.1 Pratt never married and raised no children. She became editor of the Montgomerian (Troy, North Carolina) newspaper in 1923. In 1924 she resigned her position to accept an offer to serve in Washington, D.C., as an administrative assistant to North Carolina Congressman William C. Hammer, who represented a large swath in the southwestern part of the state. When Hammer died in 1930, Pratt went on to work for a succession of North Carolina Representatives from the same district: Hinton James, J. Walter Lambeth, and William O. Burgin. During the 1930s and 1940s, Pratt was active in various clubs and social programs for North Carolinians who worked on Capitol Hill.
Following Congressman Burgin’s death, North Carolina Democratic Party leaders began the search for a successor. Unlike most other southern states during that era, North Carolina was not a one–party state. While the congressional delegation remained solidly Democratic, an active Republican Party had its stronghold in the western piedmont of the state. It had been key when the state voted for the GOP presidential candidate, Herbert Hoover, in 1928.2 Preparing for the 1946 elections, Republicans hoped to capitalize on voter discontent with the Harry S. Truman administration’s postwar economic policies.
Eliza Jane Pratt had built–in advantages in the scramble for the Democratic nomination, primarily her strong base in the district. Pratt’s hometown, Lexington, was located in a narrow band in the oddly shaped district stretching south to northwest between Charlotte and Greensboro. After working 22 years for four successive Congressmen, she knew the needs of the constituency better than any of her challengers and voters knew her. In a special meeting held in Troy to nominate a candidate, Pratt’s supporters pushed her name against six other candidates. Though Pratt was ill with the flu and unable to make her own case, the North Carolina Democratic Party executive committee debated only 30 minutes before nominating her for the remainder of Congressman Burgin’s term in the 79th Congress (1945–1947).3 Following a five–week campaign in which she paid all her own expenses, Pratt won a lopsided victory over Republican candidate, lumberman H. Frank Hulin of Lexington, on May 25, 1946, to fill the remainder of Burgin’s term. Pratt tallied 31,058 votes to Hulin’s 8,017—for an 80 percent margin of victory, a percentage well above that of Burgin in any of his four election campaigns.4
It was an impressive but temporary triumph. A nearby newspaper, the Greensboro Record, seemed to sum up expectations when, in explaining her special election, the editors remarked that in the fall elections “the man to fill the post for the regular congressional term will be chosen.”5Charlotte Observer Washington correspondent Red Buck Bryant, who understood Pratt’s special qualifications, saw things somewhat differently. “With her background and training,” Bryant wrote, “Miss Pratt would make a worthy Congressman for years instead of a few months.” While Pratt had the experience, she later observed that she had little money to mount political campaigns.6 Moreover, the party had settled on its preferred candidate for the full term in the 80th Congress (1947–1949). On the day Pratt won the special election, Charles B. Deane of Rockingham secured the Democratic nomination by a slender margin against another male candidate. Pratt was not a candidate in that race. In the fall elections, Deane (compiler of the Congressional Directory) survived a strong effort by GOP candidate Joseph H. Wicker, Sr., winning by a margin of 54 to 46 percent.7
Pratt became the first woman to represent North Carolina when she took the oath of office on June 3, 1946, escorted by Members of the state delegation into the House Chamber. Three of her sisters looked on as House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas administered the oath.8 Congresswoman Pratt was appointed to three committees: Pensions, Territories, and Flood Control. Her work as a longtime congressional aide gave her an intimate knowledge of pending legislation and taught her to manage her office and efficiently handle constituent requests. During the brief eight weeks that the House was in session during her term (Congress recessed on August 2), Pratt made no floor speeches and introduced no bills.
Pratt retired from Congress on January 3, 1947, but remained close to the capital scene for more than a decade after leaving Congress. She worked in Washington for several federal agencies. From 1947 to 1951, she was employed in the Office of Alien Property. She later served in the Agriculture Department, from 1951 to 1954, and the Library of Congress, from 1954 to 1956. She returned to Capitol Hill as a secretary to Representative Alvin P. Kitchin, serving her former district, from 1957 to 1962. Afterward, she resettled in North Carolina and worked as a public relations executive for the North Carolina Telephone Company. Reflecting on the role of women in North Carolina politics, Pratt later found reason for hope. “The men here were slow to accept suffrage, and the majority have not yet fully recognized women as equal political partners,” she said. “But, looking back, I can remember the time when only a handful of women would turn out for a rally. Now they sometimes outnumber the men. And they work as regular members of a campaign organization. Unfortunately, when a campaign ends, they are all too often relegated to their former roles as second–class politicians.”9 She resided in Wadesboro, North Carolina, until her death in Charlotte on May 13, 1981.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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