"Hazel Hempel Abel," 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, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2006.
Hazel Hempel Abel, an accomplished businesswoman and Republican Party official, was elected to the U.S. Senate from Nebraska to fill a two-month term created by a technicality in the state’s election law. Though her service was brief, Abel participated in an historic censure of fellow Republican Senator Joseph Raymond McCarthy of Wisconsin for his aggressive redbaiting tactics.
Hazel Pearl Hempel was born in Plattsmouth, Nebraska, on July 10, 1888. Her mother was Ella Beetison Hempel, and her father, Charles Hempel, worked as a railroad official. Hazel Hempel went to Omaha High School and graduated in 1908 from the University of Nebraska with a BA and a teaching certificate. Prior to her marriage to George Abel in 1916, she worked as a teacher, instructing high school students in mathematics, English, Latin, and German. The Abels raised five children: Helen, George, Hazel, Alice, and Annette. While managing family responsibilities, Hazel Abel later served as a high school principal in three Nebraska towns. She left teaching to work for the Abel Construction Company as secretary-treasurer for 20 years, assuming the company’s presidency after her husband’s death in 1937. She served in that capacity until 1951 and once observed that her education and managerial experience made the transition into those responsibilities of company head somewhat easier. “These assets compensated somewhat for my lack of knowledge about cement mixing,” she quipped. Hazel Abel also served as a trustee for four colleges, including the University of Nebraska, and became a driving force in reforms in the juvenile probation system and juvenile courts and in a broad recodification of the state’s children’s laws.1 Abel also was an active member of the Nebraska Republican Party, eventually chairing the state’s GOP central committee.
A quirk in Nebraska election laws launched Abel’s brief career in elective politics. Eva Bowring, who had been appointed in April 1954 to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Dwight Griswold, was barred by law from serving past the date of the first general election following her appointment. That fall, a special election open only to candidates not seeking the six-year term in the Senate was set for November 2, 1954. Hopefuls from both parties seized on the opportunity to run for the brief, 60-day term. Sixteen Republicans and three Democrats jumped into the race. The 66-year-old Abel outran the field. Dubbed “Hurricane Hazel,” she waged a high-energy campaign conducted from the driver’s seat of her automobile as she crisscrossed the state.2 Her platform was centered on support for the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration’s foreign and domestic policies. She beat her nearest GOP rival by nearly 20,000 votes and swept past her chief opponent, William Meier, the state’s Democratic chairman, by carrying 86 of Nebraska’s 93 counties and 58 percent of the total vote.3 Nebraska election law would not certify the election, however, until November 22, which posed a problem because immediately after the elections, the Senate determined that it would come back into session to hold censure proceedings against Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. Governor Robert Crosby, therefore, took the unusual step of appointing Abel to succeed Bowring, which allowed her to be seated immediately.4
On November 8, 1954, with her five children and other family members looking on, Abel became the first woman to succeed a woman in the Senate.5 On November 30, she was appointed to the Finance Committee and the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee, the latter assignment having been held by her predecessors, Bowring and Griswold.6 Her only floor speech during the Senate’s abbreviated three-week session was a eulogy of former Nebraska Senator Hugh Alfred Butler, whom she had known through her work as a trustee of Doane College in Lincoln, Nebraska.7 Abel’s presence, however, was widely noted simply because she and Margaret Chase Smith of Maine were the only women in the Senate. Her presence created some confusion in Washington social circles. Shortly after taking office, she received an invitation to the British Embassy for a reception for the visiting Queen Mother Elizabeth. Upon arriving at the embassy door and identifying herself, a British diplomat refused her entry, insisting that he thought Smith was the only woman in the Senate. Eventually Abel’s daughter, Helen, a writer for the San Diego Union, who also was attending, came to the door and identified her mother, who was then allowed to enter.8
Just days after taking her seat, Abel participated in the historic censure of Joseph McCarthy, whose hearings into the activities of alleged communists in the U.S. government mesmerized the American public and intimidated federal employees and many politicians in Washington. Political observers believed that she would join her Nebraska colleague, Senator Roman Lee Hruska, in voting against censure. Before the proceedings, Abel told the Washington Post, “I came to Washington to hear the discussion during the session. I have not made up my mind either way.”9 She did not participate in the rancorous floor debates that raged between McCarthy’s critics and defenders but instead carefully studied the evidence. Poring over the thousands of words of testimony and remaining on the Senate Floor on the final day of the debate without taking a break, Abel voted with the majority—67 to 22—to reprimand McCarthy on December 2, 1954, for his sensational and redbaiting investigatory tactics. That day the Senate adjourned, bringing Abel’s active work in the upper chamber to a close.10
Hazel Abel resigned her seat on December 31, 1954, three days before the expiration of her term, to give fellow Republican Carl Thomas Curtis of Nebraska, elected to the six-year term in November, a seniority advantage. She later observed that she campaigned for the two-month term to raise the visibility of women in political office. “To me it was more than just a short term in the Senate,” Abel recalled for Newsweek. “I wanted Nebraska voters to express their approval of a woman in government. I was sort of a guinea pig.”11
Abel returned to an active civic life in Nebraska. She chaired the Nebraska Republican state delegation at the 1956 national convention. In 1957 Abel was chosen as “American Mother,” an honor which included an invitation to the Brussels International Exposition to address the Mothers of the World. She also served as the chairwoman of the board of trustees of Doane College. She unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for governor of Nebraska in 1960. In 1963 the University of Nebraska conferred an honorary LLD to Abel for her work as a teacher and political leader. Hazel Abel died in Lincoln on July 30, 1966.12
1American Mothers Committee, Mothers of Achievement in American History, 1776–1976 (Rutland, VT: C.E. Tuttle and Company, 1976): 388.
2Hope Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress (New York: Praeger, 1973): 244.
3Michael J. Dubin et al., United States Congressional Elections, 1788–1997 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers, 1998): 596.
4“Distaff Senators Are Firsts,” 6 November 1954, Washington Post: 23.
5Elizabeth Ford, “Abel Clan Sees Senator Sworn In,” 9 November 1954, Washington Post: 31; “Distaff Senators Are Firsts.”
6For committee assignments, see Garrison Nelson, Committees in the U.S. Congress, 1947 to 1992 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1993). Her successor, Curtis, did not receive posts on either of these committees. See also, “Random Notes From Washington: President Seeks a Liberal G.O.P.,” 27 December 1954, New York Times: 7.
7Congressional Record, Senate, 83rd Cong., 2nd sess. (9 November 1954): 15895.
8“Random Notes From Washington: High Court Gives Itself Hearing,” 15 November 1954, New York Times: 20.
9“3 New Senators To Act on Censure,” 5 November 1954, New York Times: 6; Ford, “Abel Clan Sees Senator Sworn In.”
10Congressional Record, Senate, 83rd Cong., 2nd sess. (2 December 1954): 16392.
11Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: 246.
12“Mrs. Abel, Senator for 4 Months, Dies,” 1 August 1966, New York Times: 27; “Hazel Abel, Ex-Senator,” 1 August 1966, Washington Post: B2.