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RILEY, Corinne Boyd

RILEY, Corinne Boyd
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives


Riding on the tradition of a “widow’s mandate” in South Carolina, Corinne Boyd Riley, without making a single stump speech, appearing at an election rally, or even facing a bona fide opponent, won the special election to fill the last nine months of the term of her late husband, John Jacob Riley. She became the fourth widow to represent South Carolina and the second from a district in the south-central part of the state. She held the seat long enough to vote for several projects benefiting local interests in the district her husband had represented during his eight terms in the House.

Corinne Anderson Boyd was born in Piedmont, South Carolina, on July 4, 1893. The daughter of a Methodist preacher, Reverend George Boyd, she was named for her mother. She graduated from Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in 1915 and taught high school for the next 22 years. In 1917 she married John Riley, a World War I veteran, real estate broker, and insurance businessman. The couple raised a daughter, Helen, and a son, O. Beverley. From 1938 to 1942, Corinne Riley worked as a field representative for the South Carolina textbook commission. During World War II, she joined the civilian personnel office at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, South Carolina. In November 1944, John Riley won election as a Democrat to the 79th Congress (1945–1947) as a south-central South Carolina Representative. He succeeded Willa Lybrand Fulmer, the widow of longtime Representative Hampton Pitts Fulmer. Riley served two terms before being defeated for the 81st Congress (1949–1951) in 1948; however, he was re-elected to the 82nd Congress (1951–1953) and then to the five succeeding terms.1 He voted in line with other conservative southern Democrats, opposing foreign aid expenditures and seeking a balanced budget. He eventually served on the Appropriations Committee, working on its defense and public works subcommittees.

When John Riley died on January 1, 1962, local and national leaders from both parties urged Corinne Riley to run in the special election to fill her husband’s seat.2 She initially resisted the invitation to represent the state’s largest district, but reversed herself and announced her candidacy in mid-January. “I want to finish the work John started,” she told reporters. “Women do have a place in politics, of course, but it’s not one of leadership. It is one of helping her husband.”3 Nominating a deceased Congressman’s widow had become tradition in South Carolina starting in the 1930s, with the precedent set by previous widows Elizabeth H. Gasque, Clara Gooding McMillan, and Willa Lybrand Fulmer. Both parties respected this gesture of sympathy as a political code.4 They further announced that if Riley won the nomination, neither party would run another candidate against her with the expectation that she would retire at the end of the term.

However, South Carolina political leaders did not expect another more experienced woman politician to challenge the tradition. Riley faced an 11-term member of the state house of representatives, Martha T. Fitzgerald, in the February 1962 Democratic primary. Fitzgerald claimed her credentials as an able state legislator made her a more suitable candidate than Riley. Still mourning for her husband, Riley made no campaign appearances and sent surrogates to read her speeches at various political meetings. She promised only to pursue the conservative agenda of her husband and to retire at the end of his unexpired term. “I know just what my husband thought about foreign aid, the United Nations, the Peace Corps and federal aid to education, and I’ll vote his views,” she declared, ticking off a series of programs which John Riley had opposed.5 In the end, tradition won out. Riley triumphed by more than a two-to-one margin, carried all eight counties in the district, and described the nomination as “a tribute to the voters’ confidence in my husband and their faith in me.” Despite the strength of precedent and outpouring of sympathy on her behalf, Riley admitted that her defeat of Fitzgerald was “rather surprising.”6 Shortly after Riley’s nomination, the Columbia State observed that she “would bring to the office a considerable knowledge of its requirements gained through her close association with it through her late husband. Also, since she shares the conservative views of her husband, and since this district is largely (not totally) one of that bent, there would be considerable satisfaction from the service of Mrs. Riley, a dedicated South Carolinian and a woman of considerable force and ability.”7 Corinne Riley faced no challenger in the April 10, 1962, special election.

After taking the oath of office two days later, Congresswoman Riley was assigned a seat on the Committee on Science and Astronautics. Though her husband had served on the Appropriations Committee, she had no illusions about getting on that sought-after committee.8 She did, however, resist initial offers for the Education and Labor Committee and the Committee on Post Office and Civil Service, convincing House Speaker John W. McCormack of Massachusetts and Majority Leader Carl Albert of Oklahoma that the Science and Aeronautics assignment would be “more useful” to voters in her district. She also expressed satisfaction that the assignment “might mean a trip to Europe.”9 During her brief eight-month term, Riley introduced a bill authorizing the General Services Administration to transfer surplus property to the Aiken (South Carolina) Historical Society for use as a historical monument. She also supported authorizing the Federal Communications Commission to require that television sets be equipped with high-frequency channels, a proposal she hoped would benefit an educational television system operating in her district. “We in South Carolina have worked long and hard to preserve this valuable resource which we call our VHF channel in Columbia,” Riley noted in her brief and only floor speech as a Member.10

True to her campaign promise, Riley declined to seek re-election in the fall of 1962. Years later she described her congressional career as “a pleasant interlude.”11 Riley retired to Sumter, where she died on April 12, 1979.


1“Rep. Riley Dies; Served Eight Terms,” 3 January 1962, Washington Post: B5; “Rep. John J. Riley, 15 Years in House,” 3 January 1962, New York Times: 33. See also Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

2“Widow Will Seek Riley House Seat,” 14 January 1962, New York Times: 52; “Widow Backed for House Seat,” 5 January 1962, New York Times: 21.

3“Congress Time for Mrs. Riley,” 16 April 1962, Christian Science Monitor: 5.

4Hope Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress (New York: Praeger, 1973): 290.

5Marie Smith, “Mrs. John J. Riley: She’ll Vote Husband’s Views,” 16 February 1962, Washington Post: C2.

6“Mrs. Riley Wins Nomination,” 14 February 1962, Christian Science Monitor: 11; Smith, “Mrs. John J. Riley: She’ll Vote Husband’s Views.”

7Congressional Record, House, 87th Cong., 2nd sess. (15 February 1962): A1075. In the above-referenced speech, Representative Robert W. Hemphill of South Carolina included the 14 February 1962 editorial of the Columbia State (SC).

8Smith, “Mrs. John J. Riley: She’ll Vote Husband’s Views.”

9Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: 291.

10Congressional Record, House, 87th Cong., 2nd sess. (1 May 1962): 7444–7445.

11Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: 291.

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

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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Corrine Boyd Riley" 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 - Science and Astronautics
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