As the first woman to succeed her husband in Congress, widow Mae Ella Nolan set a precedent by championing the legislative agenda of her late husband, John I. Nolan. Congresswoman Nolan’s example influenced many future widows. But her career, which included the distinction of being the first woman to head a congressional committee and all the attendant media attention, proved short–lived.
Mae Ella Hunt was born on September 20, 1886, to Irish immigrants in San Francisco, California, and grew up in its working–class neighborhoods. She attended the public schools in San Francisco, St. Vincent’s Convent, and Ayers Business College of San Francisco. After earning a certificate in stenography, she went to work at Wells Fargo Express. In 1913, she married John I. Nolan—a former iron molder and labor activist—shortly after he was elected to the 63rd Congress (1913–1915) on the Bull Moose Party ticket. The couple raised a daughter named Corlis. John Nolan, a San Francisco native and former member of the city’s board of supervisors, had been active in the city labor movement and political scene for years. He entered the iron molding trade at age 14 and moved into the ranks of union leadership—as a member of the national executive board of the molders’ union, as a delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, and as a lobbyist representing the labor council in Sacramento. He played a prominent role in the Union Labor Party, at the height of its influence in San Francisco politics during the Progressive Era. In the House, representing a district that covered southern San Francisco, Nolan eventually chaired the Labor Committee and was considered the GOP’s leading labor advocate, fighting aggressively against child labor and working for protections for women in industrial jobs.1 He was considered for Labor Secretary in President Warren G. Harding’s Cabinet. Mae Nolan was his constant companion. Corlis was known as the “Daughter of the House of Representatives,” and became a regular on the House Floor and a favorite of Speakers Joe Cannon of Illinois and Champ Clark of Missouri.2
John Nolan was elected unopposed to a sixth term in November 1922 but died weeks after the election. The Union Labor Party quickly nominated Mae Ella Nolan to succeed her husband. She also received the support of the executive committee of the California Women’s Republican League.3 While campaigning, Nolan embraced a platform that called for relaxing Prohibition laws and supported labor interests. Though the campaign was pushed back two weeks to allow prospective candidates to gather signatures for their nomination, Nolan was the odds–on favorite. She was elected as a Republican to the remainder of the 67th Congress (1921–1923) and the full term in the 68th Congress (1923–1925) on January 23, 1923, out–polling her nearest opponent, San Francisco Supervisor Edwin G. Bath, by more than 4,000 votes.4
Nolan was an immediate novelty because she was the first widow to serve in Congress. As the Los Angeles Times observed at the time of her election, Mae Nolan was “intimately associated with the Washington chapters of her husband’s life” and familiar with the “pangs and diversions” of congressional politics. In announcing her platform, Nolan likened her program to a memorial for her husband. “I owe it to the memory of my husband to carry on his work,” Nolan told the San Francisco Examiner. “His minimum–wage bill, child labor laws and national education bills all need to be in the hands of someone who knew him and his plans intimately. No one better knows than I do his legislative agenda.”5
On February 12, 1923, she was escorted by California Congressman Charles F. Curry to take the oath of office. “I come to Washington, not as a stranger, but as one among friends,” Nolan said. “I come with new responsibilities and in a new attitude, however. I can not forget that my election was a tribute to the memory of my late husband … and in the belief and expectation that I, who was his close associate in his legislative work for many years, could best carry that work on in his place.” To help manage her office, she employed her sister, Theresa Hunt Glynn, who had worked for six years as John Nolan’s secretary. Nolan also relied on Representative Julius Kahn, San Francisco’s other Congressman, and a personal friend of her husband, for counsel and advice.6
In the 67th Congress, Nolan was appointed to the Committee on Woman Suffrage. When the 68th Congress convened in late 1923, she received an assignment on the Committee on Labor. Nolan also was appointed, late in the 67th Congress, to chair the Committee on Expenditures in the Post Office and received national press attention as the first woman to chair a congressional committee. She also chaired the panel in the 68th Congress.
Claiming that the workload with her additional assignments was too much, she dropped the Woman Suffrage Committee assignment. It was a convenient moment for Nolan to distance herself from the women’s rights movement with which she had a relatively cool relationship, largely because her core labor constituency was unsupportive. In particular, the American Federation of Labor vigorously denounced the Equal Rights Amendment (introduced in Congress during Nolan’s first year) because of perceptions that it would erode Progressive Era workplace protections for women in industrial jobs. As the only woman in the 68th Congress, Nolan minimized gender differences. “A capable woman is a better representative than an incapable man, and vice versa,” Nolan said. “After all, the chief responsibility in legislative matters rests with the electorate. If it is alert, informed, and insistent, it will get good representation in Washington from either a man or a woman Member of Congress.”7
Nolan sought to improve wage conditions for laborers, taking up the fight for John Nolan’s minimum daily wage bill for federal employees. “Uncle Sam should be a model employer,” Mae Nolan said in late 1923. “Wages and working conditions in the Government service should conform to a proper American standard of living. I am in complete sympathy with the movement to increase the compensation of the postal workers and to provide a more generous retirement system.” Nolan also supported lowering taxes on working–class Americans and raising them on the wealthy. Further, she championed a bonus for World War I veterans (an idea approved by Congress in 1922 but vetoed by President Harding). “The men who risked their lives in the trenches of Europe should receive their adjusted compensation before we undertake to reduce the tax burden of the very rich,” Nolan declared.8 In her one complete term in Congress, Congresswoman Nolan also gained passage of several bills related to her district, including one transferring the Palace of Fine Arts from the federal government’s Presidio to the city of San Francisco and another authorizing construction of a federal building.9
Despite her ability to secure solid committee positions, Nolan seems to have had problems stepping from behind her husband’s shadow into the full glare of the public spotlight. She expressed frustration at the unblinking press attention lavished on her during her early House career, claiming that she was misquoted and misrepresented regularly. The press also mercilessly derided Nolan’s figure—noting at one point that she had taken up golf as a form of exercise to lose weight. She made relatively few floor speeches and soon withdrew from the reporters who sought her out for interviews. By her second year in Congress, the Washington Post reported that Nolan “retired into her shell and lobbyists say it is with difficulty that they can obtain a few words with her.” When she left the House, a Washington Post headline claimed (not quite accurately) that “in Congress 2 years, she did no ‘talking.’”10
Representative Nolan declined to run for re–election to the 69th Congress (1925–1927), citing the time–consuming workload and her responsibilities as a single parent: “Politics is entirely too masculine to have any attraction for feminine responsibilities.” Mae Ella Nolan retired from Congress and returned to San Francisco. In later years, she moved to Sacramento, California, where she died on July 9, 1973.11
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
[ Top ]