Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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In Republican-controlled, predominantly Protestant, and traditionally conservative northwestern Kansas, Kathryn O’Loughlin McCarthy was an unusual politician: a Democrat, a Catholic, and a single woman. But her political roots, connection with farmers and cattlemen devastated by the Great Depression, and a strong Democratic tide in the 1932 elections helped her win election to the U.S. House of Representatives.

The daughter of John O’Loughlin, a Kansas state representative and cattleman, and Mary E. O’Loughlin, Kathryn Ellen O’Loughlin was born on April 24, 1894, in Hays, Kansas. She grew up on the family ranch and remembered a childhood shaped by farm chores—feeding livestock, milking cows, and familiarizing herself with the latest farm equipment.1 She graduated from Hays High School in 1913 and, four years later, received a BS in education from the State Teacher’s College in Hays. After she received a University of Chicago LLD in 1920, she passed the Kansas and Illinois bar exams.2 O’Loughlin began positioning herself for a career in elective office. She returned briefly to Kansas and served as a clerk for the Kansas house of representatives’ judiciary committee while John O’Loughlin was a member of the legislature. “Sometimes I could hardly sit still at the debates,” she recalled. “I wanted to get in there and argue, too.”3 O’Loughlin returned to Chicago, where she participated in legal aid and social welfare work. In 1929 she resettled in Kansas and, a year later, was elected to the state legislature.

In 1932 O’Loughlin defeated eight men for the Democratic nomination in the race for a sprawling 26-county House district that covered the northwestern quarter of Kansas—compelled largely by her desire to seek progressive reform at the national level.4 Only one Democrat had ever represented the district since its creation in 1885. Republicans, and briefly Populists in the 1890s, dominated the elections. O’Loughlin challenged two-term incumbent Republican Charles Isaac Sparks, a former state judge. She focused on the devastated agricultural economy of western Kansas and proposed federal relief for farmers and ranchers. She logged more than 30,000 miles and delivered a dozen speeches daily. She stanched a “whisper campaign” against her religion, “wet” position on Prohibition, and status as a single woman. “A large part of the population of Kansas consists of German farmers who are terribly opposed to women in public life,” O’Loughlin recalled after the election. “In fact the slogan of my county [Ellis County] in regard to women invading politics is ‘Kinder und cookin’—meaning ‘children and cooking.’ . . . But I soon discovered that when I proved to the people that I knew what I was talking about, and was better informed than the average man, they gradually dropped their prejudices.”5

On November 8, 1932, O’Loughlin defeated Sparks with 55 percent of the total vote, thanks in good part to concerns about the Great Depression and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s long coattails in the presidential election.6 When she took her seat in the 73rd Congress (1933–1935) in March 1933, she became the first Kansan woman and first woman lawyer to serve in Congress. She also changed her name, to Kathryn O’ Loughlin McCarthy, when she wed Daniel McCarthy, a newly elected Kansas state senator, whom she met on the campaign trail, and who initially opposed women holding public office. “I want it understood that I am not out of politics,” the Congresswoman-elect declared on her wedding day, February 4, 1933. “I consider marriage an asset and not a liability in the political field.”7

From the beginning, Congresswoman Kathryn O’Loughlin McCarthy faced an almost insuperable obstacle to re-election when House leaders rejected her appeal for a seat on the Agriculture Committee and instead assigned her to the Committee on Insular Affairs—in charge of U.S. overseas territories. “Where, pray tell, are the islands of Kansas?” she protested.8 Outraged, she demanded an assignment more useful to her constituents. Her challenge caught House leaders off guard. Contending with an avalanche of freshman Democrats elected from traditionally Republican districts, they denied her request for an Agriculture seat. The decision disappointed farm constituents, who had hoped to have a stronger voice in federal projects for the state. Instead, McCarthy was reassigned to the Education Committee. She also received posts on the Public Buildings and Grounds and the World War Veterans’ Legislation committees.

The repeal of Prohibition was one of the first issues McCarthy confronted. Long-standing Kansan support for temperance conflicted with the needs of the state’s cash-strapped wheat and barley farmers—shaping her middle of the road position. The issue was contentious in a state that had produced Carry Nation, a petite grandmotherly figure who had led the militant forefront of the Prohibition movement at the turn of the century. Her “Home Defenders” network of temperance zealots descended on saloons in Wichita, Topeka, and other Kansas towns, smashing them up with canes, bricks, and stones in a series of attacks that became known as “hatchetations.” Against this backdrop, McCarthy steered her course. Her home county permitted the production of alcoholic beverages, but not all the counties in her district did. Shortly after her election she pledged to modify the Eighteenth Amendment to allow “wet” states to have liquor if states that wished to prohibit alcohol were still protected. In her largely agricultural district, grain growers insisted that the alcohol market could generate revenue for devastated farming operations. Many Kansans, including some former temperance advocates, agreed the Eighteenth Amendment should be relaxed.9 When the Cullen Beer Bill, which legalized beer production, advertising, and distribution, overwhelmingly passed the House on March 14, 1933, however, McCarthy joined her six Kansas colleagues to vote against the measure.10 “You may expect me to be an ardent supporter of this bill; but I think this bill is premature, will not accomplish its purpose, and will not raise the revenue desired,” she explained. “It is a discrimination in favor of big business . . . I do not think all the home-brewers in my county could raise the $1,000 license fee.”11 Later in 1933, the Twenty-First Amendment repealed Prohibition altogether.

In Congress, McCarthy generally endorsed New Deal legislation, though she had none of the contacts with the Roosevelt administration that were enjoyed by several women colleagues. She made the best of her seat on the Education Committee, fighting for an emergency grant of $15 million in federal assistance for private, denominational, and trade schools. In particular, she hoped to boost teacher pay and put money into home economics and agriculture instruction courses. “The children of today cannot wait for the passing of the Depression to receive their education,” McCarthy told colleagues.12 By January 1, 1934, more than 2,600 schools nationwide, and more than 300 in Kansas, had been closed because of the Great Depression. Realizing that many Members would object to federal aid for nonpublic schools on the grounds of separation of church and state, McCarthy said, “That is all well and good and must be continued as a permanent policy, but this is temporary emergency legislation, to meet a time of stress.”13

McCarthy zeroed in on the needs of her farm constituents. She recommended extending experimental Agricultural Department programs to promote better “dry land” farming practices: crop rotation, soil erosion prevention, water conservation, and summer fallowing.14 In arguing on behalf of low interest rates for direct credits authorized under the 1933 Farm Bill, better known as the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), she blasted bankers and business interests as the root cause of agricultural economic collapse. “If we had not had the high protective-tariff rates which compelled the farmer to buy everything he used in a protected market and to sell everything he produced in a world market, he would not be in the condition he is in today,” she said to applause on the House Floor.15 McCarthy fervently supported the AAA, which she believed would bring relief to farmers through a combination of federal loans, parity pricing, and quota restrictions on basic farm commodities. In 1934 McCarthy introduced bills setting compulsory caps for wheat production and taxing extra wheat crops on new land that was brought into production. For decades farmers had suffered from a market that had been deflated by overproduction, and regulation seemed to hold out hope for improved profits. Through 1933 McCarthy had argued that frequent meetings with her constituents convinced her that they broadly supported federal intervention in agriculture.16 But by late 1934 that support had begun to erode as farmers felt AAA programs were bureaucratic and intrusive. By 1936, the Supreme Court had ruled the AAA unconstitutional.

Kansas Governor Alf Landon tapped into that growing resentment during the 1934 campaign season. Landon, a wealthy oilman elected in 1932, led the effort to unseat Kansas’s congressional Democrats. He targeted McCarthy as an obedient tool of Washington New Dealers. “I believe the people of Kansas are opposed to the licensing of agriculture to the extent that each man can be told what he is going to plant,” Landon said.17 McCarthy countered that Landon misrepresented her record. “Those misrepresentations will be corrected [in Kansas], when I get on the stump,” she predicted on the House Floor, “but when he throws down the gauntlet on my own doorstep, I am going to fight back. Remember my initials are K.O.—and ‘Knock Out’ McCarthy is on the job.”18

McCarthy sailed through the Democratic primary unopposed. In the general election she faced Frank Carlson, Landon’s handpicked challenger, who had been the governor’s 1932 campaign manager and chaired the Kansas Republican Party. Carlson effectively turned the election into a referendum to endorse or to repudiate the New Deal programs.19 McCarthy defended the federal programs and ran on her record as a friend of farmers. Public opinion, however, had already shifted. In late October, Kansas livestock producers voted against a proposal to limit corn and hog production—one of the first revolts against the AAA legislation. McCarthy’s claims that most farmers supported the administration’s policies were substantially weakened.20 In a close campaign, Carlson edged out McCarthy, winning by a margin of 2,796 votes out of more than nearly 123,000 cast, or 51 percent of the vote.21

After leaving Congress, McCarthy returned to her law practice in Hays and to attend to the businesses once managed by her father, who passed away in the summer of 1933.22 In 1937 she led a reform effort to stop the wholesale practice of sterilizing young girls at state correctional facilities.23 She paid the tuition for dozens of low-income students to attend Fort Hays State University, including several African Americans to whom she also extended free room and board in her home.24 In 1940 and 1944, McCarthy attended the Democratic National Conventions as a Kansas delegate.25 On January 16, 1952, she passed away in Hays, Kansas, after an extended illness.


1Frances Mangum, “Congresswoman McCarthy Says a Word—About Cupid,” 17 January 1934, Washington Post: 15.

2“Kathryn McCarthy Much Entertained,” 12 March 1933, Washington Post: S2.

3Mangum, “Congresswoman McCarthy Says a Word—About Cupid.”

4For motivations, see Hope Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress (New York: Praeger, 1973): 101–102; Susan Tolchin, Women in Congress (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1976): 53.

5Mangum, “Congresswoman McCarthy Says a Word—About Cupid.”

6Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

7“Weds ’Foe,’” 5 February 1933, Washington Post: 2. During the primary O’Loughlin met Daniel McCarthy, a candidate for the Kansas state senate opposed to women holding public office. He introduced himself to O’Loughlin by saying that it was “perfectly ridiculous” for a woman to run as a Democrat in a Republican state. Nevertheless, McCarthy introduced O’Loughlin to local Democratic leaders and endorsed her when she won the primary. Shortly after their simultaneous election victories, he proposed marriage. See Mangum, “Congresswoman McCarthy Says a Word—About Cupid.”

8Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: 101.

9W.G. Clugston, “Kansas Wheat Men See Hope in Barley,” 18 December 1932, New York Times: E6.

10“Legal Beer Is Speeded,” 15 March 1933, New York Times: 1.

11Congressional Record, House, 73rd Cong., 1st sess. (14 March 1933): 394.

12Congressional Record, House, 73rd Cong., 2nd sess. (26 April 1934): 7468–7469.

13Congressional Record, House, 73rd Cong., 2nd sess. (23 May 1934): 9390–9391.

14Congressional Record, House, 73rd Cong., 2nd sess. (1 March 1934): 3529–3530.

15Congressional Record, House, 73rd Cong., 1st sess. (12 April 1933): 1613.

16Congressional Record, House, 73rd Cong., 1st sess. (21 March 1933): 687–688.

17Raymond Clapper, “Warns Bureaucracy AAA Grows,” 12 June 1934, Washington Post: 2.

18Congressional Record, House, 73rd Cong., 2nd sess. (18 June 1934): 1934–1935.

19Roy Buckingham, “Republicans Start NRA Row in Kansas,” 24 June 1934, New York Times: E6. For more on Landon’s position on farm relief, see Donald R. McCoy, Landon of Kansas (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966): 144–149, 197–201.

20Roy Buckingham, “Kansans Opposed to Regimentation,” 14 October 1934, New York Times: E1.

21“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

22“John O’Loughlin Dies From Heart Disease,” 3 July 1933, Washington Post: 9.

23“Kansas Puts Stop to Sterilizing of Industrial School Children,” 24 October 1937, Washington Post: 1.

24Bobbie Athon, “The First Kansas Congresswoman: Kathryn O’Loughlin McCarthy,” Kansas Historical Society, March 2001, accessed 3 September 2003, online at http://www.kshs.org/features/feat301.html (link discontinued).

25Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: 102.

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

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External Research Collections

Ellis County Historical Society
Thomas More Prep Center for Research

Hays, KS
Papers: 1900-1948, quantity unknown. The papers of Kathryn O'Loughlin include announcements of graduations, engagements, and weddings; papers and a scrapbook pertaining to her term in the U.S. House of Representatives, 1933-35; materials on Kansas Frontier Historical Park ("Fort Hays Frontier Park") (now Fort Hays State Historic Site) (Kan.), Fort Hays Kansas State College (now Fort Hays State University) (Hays, Kan.), corporate farming, and sterilization of inmates at the State Industrial School for Girls (now Beloit Juvenile Correctional Facility) (Beloit, Kan.); and a scrapbook of her wedding to Daniel M. McCarthy. A finding aid is available in the repository.

Kansas State Historical Society

Topeka, KS
Microfilm: 1900-1948, 1 reel. The microfilm is for the papers of Kathryn O'Loughlin at the Ellis County Historical Society. A finding aid is available in the microfilm.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Kathryn O'Loughlin McCarthy" 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 - Education
  • House Committee - Election of the President, Vice President, and Representatives in Congress
  • House Committee - Insular Affairs
  • House Committee - Public Buildings and Grounds
  • House Committee - World War Veterans' Legislation
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