WEIS, Jessica McCullough

WEIS, Jessica McCullough
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
1901–1963

Biography

A gregarious socialite from a well–to–do family, Jessica Weis originally became involved in upstate New York Republican organizations because she was concerned with the scope of New Deal reforms in the 1930s. “I really went into politics because I got tired of sitting around the sitting room objecting to the ways things were being run,” Weis recalled. “I decided I ought to do something about it or stop objecting to it.”1 Working her way through the local GOP hierarchy, she eventually became a national committeewoman and spokesperson on the party’s lecture circuit. Speaking before numerous audiences and working closely with party activists came naturally to her. “Politics, after all, is a matter of human relationships,” she once said.2 Weis eventually represented her Rochester district in the U.S. House of Representatives, where she defended local agricultural interests and championed women’s equality in the workplace.

Jessica “Judy” McCullough was born on July 8, 1901, in Chicago, Illinois, daughter of Charles H. McCullough, Jr., and Jessie Martin McCullough. Her father was president of the Lackawanna Steel Company in Buffalo, New York. Born into privilege, Judy McCullough attended elite finishing schools in Pennsylvania and New York. In September 1921, McCullough married Charles W. Weis, Jr., who went on to become president of a lithography company in Rochester, New York.3 They settled there and raised three children: Charles, Jessica, and Joan. Judy Weis joined the Rochester Junior League and participated in other local charities, often joking that a “deep–seated hatred of housework” drove her to politics.

Weis became active in the New York Republican Party during the 1930s when she “got upset about those who worried about the New Deal and didn’t do anything about it.”4 She first served on the local GOP finance committee and, during the 1936 presidential election, organized motorcar caravans throughout the state to support GOP nominee Alf Landon. In 1937, Weis was appointed vice chair of the Monroe County Republican Committee, where she served for the next 15 years. In 1940, Weis was elected president of the National Federation of Republican Women and was chosen by the state’s “Committee of 48” to notify Wendell Willkie of his nomination for the presidency.5 In the early 1940s she traveled on the GOP’s national speaking circuit, addressing groups on a range of topics from women’s issues to the need for an internationalist foreign policy.6 When former New York Congresswoman Ruth Baker Pratt resigned as New York’s committeewoman to the national GOP in January 1943, Weis was named to succeed her.7 From 1940 through 1956 she also was a delegate at–large to GOP conventions. In 1948, Weis seconded the nomination of New York Governor Thomas Dewey for the presidency and then became the first woman to work as associate manager of a national campaign when she joined the Dewey–for–President team.8

Throughout this period, her chief base of operations was her Rochester home, “just like the party symbol, a big ungainly gray elephant,” she once observed. When asked if she would consider elective office in 1954 she demurred, “I’m not interested—I think it would affect my amateur standing.”9 In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Weis to the National Defense Civil Advisory Council; he reappointed her in 1956 and 1960. In 1956, Weis worked as the planning chair for the GOP National Convention in San Francisco, gaining additional national attention.

With more than 20 years’ experience in Republican politics in 1958, Weis was one of a dozen New York GOP members considered for the party nomination to fill the vacancy created when U.S. Senator Irving M. Ives announced his retirement in 1958; other candidates included Congresswoman Katharine St. George and Representative Kenneth Keating, who had represented Rochester and Monroe County for a dozen years.10 Keating eventually was nominated for and won the vacant Senate seat; however, Weis won a hard–fought four–way race for the nomination to Keating’s old House seat. “I can outlast any man,” she declared afterward. In the general election she faced Democrat Alphonse L. Cassetti. Weis’s name recognition and her network of women’s GOP groups throughout the state made her a strong candidate. During the campaign she described herself as a “middle of the road” Republican, although she added, “I hate all labels.” Her platform had few specifics, though she spoke broadly of “peace and the economy.”11 She coasted past Cassetti, garnering 58 percent of the vote in the heavily Republican district. In 1960, Weis was re–elected by the same margin against Democrat Arthur B. Curran, Jr.12

In her first term, Congresswoman Weis served on the Government Operations and the District of Columbia committees. She was a solid supporter of the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration’s legislative program. In one of her first votes on a major piece of legislation, she supported the 1959 Landrum–Griffin Act, which was designed to control illegal practices by labor unions. “I am convinced that the bill will go a long way toward routing out the corruption and racketeering which had worked its way into the labor– management relations field,” Weis said. “I do not believe that this bill will harm the clean, democratically run union; it will, in fact, protect and promote honest trade unionism.”13 As a fiscal conservative, she opposed domestic spending initiatives for veterans’ housing, airports, power plant construction, and water pollution control. As a Representative from an agricultural district, however, Weis did not regard aid to farmers as inflationary and lent her support to agricultural subsidies. She opposed a proposal to increase parcel post rates, arguing that mail order nurseries in her district would be adversely affected by the rate hike.14

During her second term, Weis was appointed to the newly created Committee on Science and Astronautics. As part of her new assignment, she worked on provisions for the Apollo Space Project that eventually sent manned missions to the moon. “We have been in the space age now for only a very short time and we are just on the threshold of a vast and largely unknown universe,” she said in a 1962 floor debate on space technology appropriations. She urged her colleagues to vote for a provision to boost federal money to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s program developing meteorological and communications satellite capabilities.15

On issues of women’s rights, Weis supported the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, and urged an end to wage discrimination against women. Weis took to the House Floor in 1959 and 1962 to support the proposed Equal Pay Act, which provided for pay equity between men and women in the workplace. “Mental capacity, talent, imagination, and initiative are not parceled out on the basis of sex,” Weis declared, shortly before passage of the bill. “In the space age, with the premium on excellence in these various qualities, this Nation cannot afford to waste its human resources by discriminatory pay practices which demean and cheapen the contributions of women.”16 Weis also returned home to Rochester each year to participate in the annual celebrations commemorating one the city’s most famous natives, Susan B. Anthony. Weis helped raise funds and awareness for the preservation of the leading suffragist’s home. Weis used these activities to inspire other women to become involved in politics.17 She encouraged young women to “get started early in politics and be noisy about it.”18

Congresswoman Weis’s career was cut short by terminal cancer. In June 1962 Weis informed the New York Republican State Committee that her health prevented her from running for a third term. She was succeeded by Republican Frank J. Horton. In a final effort to inspire young women, Weis donated her congressional papers to the women’s history archives at Radcliffe.19 Judy Weis died on May 1, 1963, in Rochester.

Footnotes

1“Jessica McCullough Weis Dead; G.O.P. Committeewoman, 62,” 2 May 1963, New York Times: 30.

2“‘Judy’ Weis Mounts Political Ladder,” 3 September 1942, Christian Science Monitor: 15.

3Charles Weis died in July, 1958, shortly before Jessica Weis was elected to Congress.

4Estelle Jackson, “Not Looking for a Job: Meet GOP Committeewoman,” 7 February 1954, Washington Post: S2; Phyllis Battelle, “Planning Chairman Promises: Convention Will Be ‘Entertaining,’” 20 August 1956, Washington Post: 23.

5“‘Judy’ Weis Mounts Political Ladder.”

6See for example, James A. Hagerty, “Young Republicans Condemn Isolation,” 16 May 1942, New York Times: 14.

7“Mrs. Pratt Quits Republican Group,” 23 January 1943, New York Times: 28.

8Jackson, “Not Looking for a Job: Meet GOP Committeewoman.”

9Ibid.

10Leo Egan, “G.O.P. Senate List Includes 2 Women,” 21 August 1958, New York Times: 49.

11Elizabeth Ford, “GOP Campaign Tune in New York: Judy’s Playing It By Ear,” 24 September 1958, Washington Post: C3.

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

13Congressional Record, House, 86th Cong., 1st sess. (14 September 1959): 19952–19953.

14Congressional Record, House, 86th Cong., 2nd sess. (2 February 1960): 1828–1829.

15Congressional Record, House, 87th Cong., 2nd sess. (23 May 1962): 9083–9084.

16Congressional Record, House, 87th Cong., 2nd sess. (25 July 1962): 14755; Congressional Record, House, 86th Cong., 1st sess. (2 February 1959): 1601.

17Hope Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress (New York: Praeger, 1973): 281; see also, Congressional Record, House, 87th Cong., 1st sess. (28 August 1961): 17263–17264; Congressional Record, House, 86th Cong., 1st sess. (16 February 1959): 2419.

18Elizabeth Ford, “Start ‘Noisy,’ Early, but Small in Politics,” 2 August 1961, Washington Post: B7.

19Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: 282.

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

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External Research Collections

Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University
Schlesinger Library

Cambridge, MA
Papers: 1922-1963, 7.25 feet. The papers of Jessica Weis contain correspondence, speeches, articles, scrapbooks, photographs, clippings, and other materials relating to her political career. The bulk of the collection from is from her congressional service and consists of correspondence with constituents, other members of Congress, government departments, non-governmental organizations, and the Republican Party. The papers are also available on microfilm. A finding aid is available in the repository.
Papers: In the Ruth Cowan Nash Papers: Series V-VII, 1935-1979, 3.25 linear feet. Subjects covered include Jessica McCullough Weis.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Jessica McCullough Weis" 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 - District of Columbia
  • House Committee - Government Operations
  • House Committee - Science and Astronautics
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