SMITH, Virginia Dodd

SMITH, Virginia Dodd
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
1911– 2006

Biography

Virginia Dodd Smith’s House career owed much to her 40 years on a Nebraska farm and experience as a spokesperson for agricultural issues. As the first woman elected to Congress from Nebraska, Smith steered federal money toward farm programs from her seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee. Widely popular in her state, she also exercised a great deal of influence on political developments there, both because of her western Nebraska district’s size and her personal connection with constituents, whom she visited regularly.

Virginia Dodd was born in Randolph, Iowa, on June 30, 1911, to Clifton Clark Dodd and Erville (Reeves) Dodd. She graduated from Shenandoah High School in Shenandoah, Iowa. Virginia Dodd met Haven Smith while attending the University of Nebraska. The two wed on August 27, 1931, taking a hiatus from school to earn tuition money. The Smiths settled in Chappell, Nebraska, in the western portion of the state near the Colorado border and worked on Haven’s family wheat farm during the depths of the Great Depression. They both returned to school and received their bachelor of arts degrees from the University of Nebraska in 1936. The Smiths eventually expanded their wheat farming business into poultry, seed potatoes, and other crops.1 From 1950 until 1960, Virginia Smith worked for the Home Economics Research Advisory Committee for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She became involved in a wide variety of farm organizations, such as the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), spending 20 years on its board of directors and serving as the national chair of the AFBF women’s bureau from 1955 to 1974. Meanwhile, Smith was active in the state’s Republican Party.

Smith’s extensive participation in farming organizations and civic affairs in Nebraska provided an invaluable network for her first run for elective office in 1974, when seven–term incumbent Republican Dave Martin retired from the U.S. House of Representatives. Martin represented what was then the nation’s largest congressional district, consisting of 61 counties and 307 towns spread over the western three–quarters of the state, an area dominated by the wheat, corn, and cattle businesses. A political observer described it as “one of the most macho districts” in America.2 It certainly was one of the most historically Republican regions. The farmers and ranchers of western Nebraska had voted for Republican House Members with only one significant interruption—from 1932 to 1942 during the heyday of the New Deal agricultural programs.

Name recognition in the massive district was no problem for Smith. Already a familiar face in many of the district’s small farm towns, she defeated eight candidates in the GOP primary. In the general election, Smith faced Democratic candidate Wayne W. Ziebarth, a former state senator. Ziebarth, too, had name recognition, after having run a statewide race in 1972 for the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate. Smith was a formidable campaigner who engaged individuals in the crowds in one–on–one conversations and had an “extraordinary” capacity for names, faces, and issues.3 She relied on the wholehearted support of her husband, Haven. “It was a two–person job,” Virginia Smith recalled. “He was just my righthand man all the way.”4 Ziebarth aided Smith’s cause when he made a crucial mistake late in his campaign, publicly stating that women were not cut out for politics.5 Smith defeated her opponent by a margin of just 737 votes out of more than 161,000 cast.6 When she took her seat in the 94th Congress (1975–1977), she did so as the first Nebraska woman elected to the U.S. House. In her subsequent bids for re–election, voters returned Smith to office for seven more terms by increasingly wide margins, from 73 to 84 percent of the vote.7

During Smith’s freshman year, she served on the Education and Labor and the Interior and Insular Affairs committees. In her second term in Congress, she managed to get a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee—an assignment she held until her retirement in 1991. She served on two Appropriations subcommittees: Rural Development, Agriculture, and Related Agencies and Energy and Water Development. She also was assigned to the GOP policy committee in 1977, which advised House Republicans on key issues.

Throughout her tenure, Smith focused on agricultural matters. Fiscally conservative on most issues, she nevertheless routinely favored spending federal money on farm programs. As Ranking Member of the Rural Development, Agriculture, and Related Agencies Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, she had a strong position from which to steer federal dollars into that sector, and into her district in particular. In 1984, for instance, more than $162 million dollars in federal payments for corn growers flowed into her district, by far the largest amount of any other congressional district for a region that, in fact, produced more corn than any other in the nation.8 In 1987, she managed to exempt U.S. agriculture exporters from having to ship a certain percentage of their product on American vessels, which charged higher shipping costs. In 1989, as the United States began to send food aid to Eastern European countries emerging from communist rule, Smith was one of several midwestern Representatives to argue that the U.S. government should continue to allow shipments to be made on foreign vessels—at about one–third of the transportation rates on American–registered ships. The differential could then have been applied to buying more foodstuffs, which would have further benefited American farmers.9 Smith also supported the creation of more domestic land and air transportation routes, in order to keep rural America connected to urban centers. “The revitalization of rural America cannot and will not occur unless we guarantee mobility.”10 In a 1989 Appropriations Committee vote, her amendment to restore subsidies to airline companies as an incentive to fly to small towns was narrowly defeated, with the vote breaking down not along party lines, but between rural and urban legislators.11 In 1988, she helped secure federal funding for a bus line that connected remote parts of western Nebraska with South Dakota.12 That same year she also successfully fended off efforts to cut funding to the Davis Creek Dam which, when completed, would provide irrigation water in her district.13

Smith’s farming constituents showed their approval for her policies with her overwhelming success at the polls. “I think people know I fight very hard to get a fair share of federal revenues for Nebraska,” she once said. “I visit every one of the counties in my district every year and I visit most of them quite a lot of times. I work seven days a week on this job. I do my homework … I love this job and I love the people of my district, and I think that when you have the privilege of representing 500,000 of the finest people on earth, you ought to work hard.”14

Focusing on the needs and traditions of her agricultural constituents, Smith did not embrace feminist issues during her House career. As a new Member of Congress, for instance, she had requested that she be known as “Mrs. Haven Smith.”15 In 1977, though she often encouraged women to enter politics, Smith was one of three Members who did not join the Congressional Women’s Caucus during its inaugural meetings.16

Smith did not stand for re–election in 1990 and retired the following January. In retirement, she and her husband settled in Sun City West, Arizona. Three years later, the community named Virginia Smith one of its favorite leaders. Haven Smith died on May 12, 1997, after the couple had reached their milestone 65th wedding anniversary. Approaching age 90, Virginia Smith was still active in Nebraska politics. In 2000, she agreed to work on the campaign for a promising Republican candidate in her old district.17 Virginia Smith died on January 23, 2006, in Sun City West, Arizona.18

Footnotes

1David C. Beeder, “Virginia Smith’s ‘Right–Hand–Man,’ Haven Smith, Dies,” 14 May 1997, Omaha World–Herald: 1.

2Douglas E. Kneeland, “Rep. Thone Is Victor in Nebraska Election,” 10 May 1978, New York Times: A19.

3David Hendee, “Virginia Smith Celebrates Her 90th,” 3 July 2001, Omaha World–Herald: 9.

4Beeder, “Virginia Smith’s ‘Right–Hand–Man,’ Haven Smith, Dies.”

5Politics in America, 1982 (Washington, D.C.: National Journal Inc., 1981): 791.

6“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” http://clerk.house.gov/member_info/election.aspx; “Republican Wins Neb. House Seat,” 19 November 1974, Washington Post: A8.

7“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” http://clerk.house.gov/member_info/electionInfo/index.aspx.

8Agricultural subsidy statistics, 16 October 1985, Washington Post: A21.

9“Aid to Poland Sets Off a Fight Over Shipping,” 8 December 1989, New York Times: A19.

10“Rural Transit Hurting, Says Congresswoman,” Chicago Tribune, August 24, 1988: 3.

11Dan Morgan, “Geography Shoves Ideology Aside in Money Fights,” 13 August 1989, Washington Post: A1.

12William Robbins, “On the Road to Ending Rural Isolation by Forging Bus Links,” 27 August 1988, New York Times: 5.

13Politics in America, 1990 (Washington, D.C.: National Journal Inc., 1989): 897.

14“Virginia Dodd Smith,” Associated Press Candidate Biography, 1990.

15Politics in America, 1990: 898.

16Donnie Radcliffe, “A Show of Support for Women’s Issues,” 26 April 1978, Washington Post: B3.

17“Yes, Virginia, There Is an Open Seat,” Associated Press, 10 January 2000; “Smith Backs Gale in 3rd District Race,” Associated Press, 9 January 2000.

18Bill Hord, “Virginia Smith, 1911–2006, A ‘Legend’ Remembered: Longtime 3rd District Representative Dies at 94,” 24 January 2006, Omaha World–Herald: 1A.

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

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External Research Collections

University of Nebraska-Lincoln
The University Libraries Archives and Special Collections

Lincoln, NE
Papers: 1974-1990, 463 linear feet. The papers of Virginia Dodd Smith include correspondence, legislation and congressional committee reports, speeches, office records and schedules, press clippings and releases, photographs, audiotapes, and films. A finding aid is available in the repository.

University of Oklahoma
The Julian P. Kanter Commercial Archive, Department of Communication

Norman, OK
Videocassettes: 1986-1988, 6 commercials on 2 videocassettes. The commercials were used during the campaigns of Virginia Dodd Smith for the 1986 and 1988 U.S. congressional elections in Nebraska, Republican Party.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Virginia Dodd Smith" 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 - Appropriations
  • House Committee - Education and Labor
  • House Committee - Interior and Insular Affairs
  • House Committee - Select Committee on the House Beauty Shop
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