Hicks, Paul. "Caroline O'Day: The Gentlewoman from New York," New York History, 88 (Summer 2007), 287-305.
A longtime suffragist with strong ties to New York politics and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Caroline O’Day was an unwavering supporter of New Deal legislation and a fervent pacifist during her four terms in the House. Once, when asked what she would do if the United States became embroiled in a war, she declared, “I would just kiss my children good-bye and start off for Leavenworth.”1 Those convictions changed, however, when O’Day realized the aims of Nazi Germany.
Caroline Love Goodwin was born on June 22, 1875, on a plantation in Perry, Georgia, daughter of Sidney Prior Goodwin and Elia Warren. Caroline Goodwin graduated from the Lucy Cobb Institute in Athens, Georgia, and for eight years studied art in Paris (with James McNeill Whistler), Munich, and Holland, and briefly at the Cooper Union. In 1902 she married Daniel T. O’Day, son of a Standard Oil Company executive, whom she met in Europe. They settled in Rye, New York, and had three children: Elia, Daniel, and Charles.
Caroline O’Day first became interested in politics after witnessing a suffrage parade with her husband, who turned to his wife and asked why she wasn’t marching with the procession.2 She later joined the Westchester (New York) League of Women Voters, where she became an officer and first met Eleanor Roosevelt. After the death of her husband in 1916, Caroline O’Day dedicated herself to improving the lives of working-class poor in the inner city. She served on the board of directors and volunteered at Lillian Wald’s Henry Street Settlement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. A pacifist who opposed U.S. entry into World War I, O’Day became vice chair of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. In 1917 she joined Jeannette Rankin of Montana in support of the enfranchisement of New York women. Her first political appointment came in 1921 when New York Governor Alfred E. Smith named her to the state board of social welfare, supervising care for dependent juveniles. In 1923 O’Day became associate chair of the New York state Democratic Committee and directed its women’s division—holding both positions until her death. She traversed New York, logging more than 8,000 miles with Eleanor Roosevelt and other women leaders to organize voters. As a reward, the party appointed her chair of the New York delegation to the 1924 Democratic National Convention.3 Together, O’Day and Roosevelt led delegations of women to Albany to press the legislature to adopt Governor Smith’s programs. She worked for Smith’s presidential campaign in 1928 and for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s successful 1932 campaign. After Roosevelt’s inauguration, O’Day was named New York’s director of the National Recovery Administration.
O’Day’s 1934 race for one of two New York At-Large seats in the U.S. House of Representatives drew national attention because of the candidate’s highly placed supporter: First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.4 O’Day secured the nomination when Roosevelt allies ousted the first-term incumbent, John Fitzgibbons (former mayor of Oswego) from the ticket, citing his insufficient support for New Deal initiatives.5 Eleanor Roosevelt backed O’Day and, in the process, became the first First Lady to actively campaign for a congressional candidate—making a half dozen speeches and even chairing her campaign committee.6 GOP leaders were incensed at the break with tradition and labeled O’Day as a “Yes” vote for the Roosevelt administration. Eleanor Roosevelt defended her actions on personal and political grounds.7 “I am doing this as an individual,” she said. “I believe in certain things, and . . . I feel I am justified in making this effort in my own state, because I know its problems.”8
While Republicans howled at Eleanor Roosevelt’s involvement, O’Day’s principal opponent, Nyack lawyer Natalie F. Couch, refused to go on the attack and stuck to a vague nine-point platform that promised to fight unemployment and support “humane” public relief programs while balancing the federal budget.9 O’Day’s platform stressed better wages and working conditions for laborers, strong support for federal intervention to relieve the effects of the Great Depression, and the need to involve women in local and national government.10 O’Day also tapped into a state network of Democratic women’s groups and arranged for prominent national women’s figures to canvass New York on her behalf. Self-styled as the “Flying Squadron,” the group included such luminaries as the aviator Amelia Earhart (O’Day’s Rye neighbor), Elizabeth Wheeler (daughter of Montana Senator Burton Kendall Wheeler), and Josephine Roche, a prominent Colorado politician.11 O’Day topped a slate of 12 candidates with 27.6 percent of the vote, just barely ahead of Democrat Matthew Joseph Merritt and only a few percentage points in front of Couch. O’Day’s platform had broad appeal for Depression-Era New Yorkers: “Higher standards for wage earners, adequate relief at lowest cost to the taxpayer, a sound policy, and wider opportunity for women in government.”12 The GOP ran women candidates in the next three elections in unsuccessful attempts to unseat O’Day. None could close O’Day’s and Merritt’s several-hundred-thousand-vote margins.13
Once in the House, O’Day received assignments on the Immigration and Naturalization Committee and on the Insular Affairs Committee. She also chaired the Committee on the Election of the President, Vice President, and Representatives in Congress from 1937 to 1943. She, along with Representatives Mary T. Norton of New Jersey and Isabella Greenway of Arizona, was one of the most popular and recognizable women in Congress. O’Day’s trademark was her collection of hand fans. Known as “The Lady of the Fans,” she carried them into committee hearings and onto the House Floor.14
Congresswoman O’Day’s first passion was the pursuit of world peace. Her affiliation with the group World Peaceways led O’Day to propose several measures she believed would deter world conflict: the adoption of a national referendum to allow voters to decide for or against a war; federal government control of the arms industry; and a government-backed educational campaign about the horrors of war. Women played a particularly important role in the protest movement, O’Day noted, because as mothers they “pay the first and greatest cost of war.”15 She represented the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom at the International Conference for the Maintenance of Peace in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1936.16 She was concerned with the prospect of “total war,” in which civilian targets— urban and industrial, in particular—were as important to strategists as traditional military targets. The Spanish Civil War, then raging in Spain, as well as Japanese and Nazi tactics in the opening years of World War II, would confirm O’Day’s fears. O’Day urged that the United States and other nations adopt a “standard of ethics” that would outlaw mass killings.17
O’Day’s work extended beyond pacifist principles. National security, she observed, derived from stable domestic life.18 She was a staunch supporter of the New Deal and looked to advance the cause of labor and children’s issues. O’Day’s first major legislative victory was in winning the delay of the deportation of 2,600 immigrants (many of them with children who had citizenship rights in the United States), pending a thorough review by Congress.19 She helped attach a child labor amendment to the 1936 Walsh–Healy Act, which set employment standards for federal contracts, and to the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which fixed minimum wages for employment. The Congresswoman also called for a dramatic expansion of the government’s aid to the dependent children program, which she described as a “national investment.”20 In 1940 O’Day urged colleagues to adopt federal aid programs for migrant workers, especially for children of migrants, who often toiled in the fields alongside their parents.21 O’Day also fought to keep funding for federal arts projects in theater, music, and writing, initiated by the Works Progress Administration.22
Representative O’Day consistently championed progressive civil rights causes. She supported an anti-lynching bill that came before Congress in 1935, noting that “I have been interested in the efforts Southern women have been making to curb this horrible thing.”23 She backed a 1937 version of the bill that passed the House. She also criticized the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1939 when they refused to allow African-American singer Marian Anderson to perform at Constitution Hall. In 1939 O’Day opposed legislation to create detention camps for foreign nationals, a plan that foreshadowed later wartime internment camps for Japanese Americans. She derided the bill as “a negation of every idea and policy and principle that our country holds dear.”24 Her suffrage background and her tireless work on behalf of underrepresented minorities, however, did not translate into support for an equal rights amendment. Like many of her women colleagues, O’Day publicly rejected the idea, fearing that it would undermine protective laws she had helped implement for single women and working mothers in the labor force.25
Her pacifist views threatened to bring her into open conflict with the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration as America’s entry into World War II grew imminent. O’Day opposed modification of the Neutrality Acts to authorize arms sales to nations at war with Nazi Germany and voted against the 1940 Selective Training and Service Act. She lashed out against the U.S. military as the “most powerful lobby in the nation.”26 Eventually, however, when Nazi forces overran Western Europe and intensified atrocities against Jews and other minorities in Germany and the occupied countries, O’Day changed her position. She supported increased armaments for the American military. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Congress voted overwhelmingly to declare war on Japan. O’Day, who by that time suffered from a chronic long-term illness, was absent for the vote. She later told House colleagues that, had she been present, she would have voted for the war resolution. “Japan, Germany, and Italy have decided the issue of peace or war,” O’Day said.27
Poor health brought O’Day’s career to a premature end. Her 1940 election had been carried on largely by her daughter, Elia, who made campaign appearances for her convalescing mother. O’Day declined to run for a fifth term in 1942, after she suffered complicating injuries from a fall. She was succeeded by Republican Winnifred Claire Stanley, who prevailed against Democratic candidate Flora Dufour Johnson in the 1942 general elections. O’Day died on January 4, 1943, a day after the end of her congressional service.28 In observing O’Day’s popularity among her House colleagues, the Washington Post eulogized her as “a firm friend, a cultivated companion, and a conscientious public servant.”29
1“Mrs. O’Day Pledges Opposition to War,” 29 October 1934, New York Times: 4.
2“Mrs. O’Day, Ill, Won Solely on Record,” 6 November 1940, New York Times: 4.
3Anne O’Hagan Shinn, “Politics Still Masculine, Convention Women Discover,” 29 June 1924, New York Times: XX3.
4At–Large districts in states entitled to more than one Representative were outlawed by Congress in 1967. Congressional Quarterly’s Guide to Congress, vol. 2 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 2000): 910.
5“Women Delegates Cheer Mrs. O’Day,” 28 September 1934, New York Times: 11; “Labor Fights Mrs. O’Day,” 18 October 1934, New York Times: 18.
6“President’s Wife Raising O’Day Fund,” 16 October 1934, New York Times: 1; “Mrs. Roosevelt in Last Plea for Mrs. O’Day Whose Rival ‘Crashes’ Dinner Futilely,” 2 November 1934, New York Times: 1.
7Despite the criticism she received for campaigning for her friend, the First Lady apparently had the support of President Roosevelt and New Deal proponents such as Louis Howe. Blanche Wiesen Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt, vol. 2 (New York: Viking, 1999): 221.
8“First Lady Opens Mrs. O’Day’s Drive,” 26 October 1934, New York Times: 1; “Mrs. O’Day Called Roosevelt ‘Victim,’ 28 October 1936, New York Times: 20.
9“President’s Wife Raising O’Day Fund.”
10Martha H. Swain, “O’Day, Caroline Love Goodwin,” American National Biography 16 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): 616.
11“Flier to Aid Mrs. O’Day,” 30 October 1934, New York Times: 14; “Miss Roche Will Aid Mrs. O’Day in Fight,” 19 October 1934, Washington Post: 1; “Elizabeth Wheeler Stumps for Mrs. O’Day,” 31 October 1934, Washington Post: 4.
12Susan Tolchin, Women in Congress (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1976): 60.
13Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”
14“Caroline O’Day,” 6 January 1943, Washington Post: 8.
15“Mrs. O’Day in Peace Plea,” 22 September 1936, New York Times: 32.
16“Hull Advances 8–Point Plan as Peace Basis,” 6 December 1936, Washington Post: M1; Carrie A. Foster, The Women and the Warriors: The U.S. Section of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, 1915–1946 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1995): 218–219.
17“Rep. Caroline O’Day Urges Standard of Ethics to Make Mass Killings in War as Wrong as Individual Murder,” 27 January 1938, Washington Post: 13.
18“Congresswomen Show They Can Take It,” 8 December 1940, Washington Post: S10.
19“Victory for Mrs. O’Day,” 24 August 1935, New York Times: 2.
20Congressional Record, Appendix, 76th Cong., 1st sess. (22 May 1939): A2143–2144.
21“Federal Aid for Migrants Is Urged by Congresswoman,” 1 August 1940, Christian Science Monitor: 8.
22Congressional Record, House, 76th Cong., 1st sess. (13 January 1939): 339–340.
23“Mrs. O’Day Indorses Anti–Lynching Bill,” 16 January 1935, Washington Post: 3.
24Congressional Record, House, 76th Cong., 1st sess. (5 May 1939): 5164.
25Hope Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress (New York: Praeger, 1973): 110.
26Karen Foerstel, Biographical Dictionary of Congressional Women (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999): 211.
27Congressional Record, Appendix, 77th Cong., 1st sess. (11 December 1941): A5565.
28“Caroline O’Day, in House 4 Terms,” 5 January 1943, New York Times: 19; “Peace Advocate: Mrs. O’Day Dies; Former Legislator,” 5 January 1943, Washington Post: 3; “Caroline O’Day Dies at Home in New York,” 5 January 1943, Atlanta Constitution: 8.
29“Caroline O’Day,” 6 January 1943, Washington Post: 8.
Hicks, Paul. "Caroline O'Day: The Gentlewoman from New York," New York History, 88 (Summer 2007), 287-305.
"Caroline Love Goodwin O'Day" 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.