The short Senate career of Gladys S. Pyle stood in marked contrast with her long and influential participation in her native South Dakota’s politics. A daughter of a leading suffragist and state attorney general, Pyle was oriented to public service from an early age. Her brief time as Senator, nevertheless, stood as a signal moment in a life of commitment to South Dakotans. “Citizenship,” she once observed, “is service.”1
Gladys Shields Pyle was born on October 4, 1890, in Huron, South Dakota, the youngest of four children of John L. Pyle and Mamie Shields Pyle. Her father was a lawyer, the South Dakota attorney general, and a patron of Huron College. Mamie Pyle led the Universal Franchise League, which eventually won the vote for South Dakota women in 1918. Both parents fostered in their children a commitment to public service from which young Gladys drew for the rest of her long life. After graduating with a liberal arts degree with a music emphasis from Huron College in 1911, Gladys Pyle took graduate courses at the American Conservatory of Music and the University of Chicago. In 1912, she returned to Huron, where she taught high school until 1918, when she accepted a position as principal of a school in Wessington, North Dakota. Two years later she left teaching to work briefly as a lecturer for the League of Women Voters, traveling to several midwestern states to deliver talks on citizenship and voter participation.2 Pyle never married.
Gladys Pyle made the transition to politics in order to put into practice what she had preached in the classroom. Years later she described her lifelong political philosophy as being that of a Progressive, moderate Republican.3 “Politics … is like sailing a boat,” Pyle observed. “You have to learn to tack, going from one side of the river to the other. It takes a little longer, but you can make good progress.”4 Political activism was requisite for her.5 Ironically, she embarked on her new career against the advice of her mother, who had reservations about Gladys running for elective office, perhaps because she believed it would make her daughter vulnerable to charges of riding her mother’s coattails.6 Undeterred, 32–year–old Gladys Pyle ran for the state legislature in 1922, winning election to the South Dakota house of representatives by a slender 350 votes. Pyle, the first woman elected to the state legislature, served an additional two terms and was instrumental in gaining South Dakota’s ratification of the Child Labor Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.7 During her time in the legislature, Pyle also served as assistant secretary of state. In 1926, she became the first woman elected as South Dakota secretary of state. She served for two terms from 1927 to 1931, introducing some of the nation’s first safety codes for automobiles and motorcycles.8
In March 1930, Pyle made national headlines when she entered the GOP primary for South Dakota governor against four men, including former Governor Carl Gunderson and Brooke Howell, a favorite of state financiers. Pyle refused to take to the campaign trail, citing her responsibilities as secretary of state. She did, however, launch a targeted public relations blitz at newspaper editors, state delegates, and GOP county chairmen. Her campaign centered on the issue of banking reform and tighter control of miscellaneous state funds. Her slogan was, “Clean up the banks.” Pyle surprised observers by winning more votes than any of her rivals—and topping her nearest contender, Gunderson, by about 1,600 votes. The 28 percent she polled, however, fell short of the 35 percent minimum required by law. The nomination was decided at a special state GOP convention in Sioux Falls in May 1930. Howell, Pyle’s chief rival, eventually withdrew from the race and on the 12th ballot threw his support behind Warren E. Green, a dirt farmer who had won just seven percent of the primary vote.9 Green prevailed. For Pyle, the episode revealed that her public career had reached something of a political glass ceiling, as the state’s political old guard refused to back her.10 From 1931 to 1933, Pyle served by appointment as secretary of the securities commission of South Dakota.11 As secretary of the commission, she became the first woman in the state to run an executive department and the first woman permitted onto the floor of the New York Curb Market.12 Except for her brief time in Washington, from 1933 until the 1980s, Gladys Pyle went into business as an insurance agent for two national companies.
Pyle took a circuitous route to the U.S. Senate, shaped by tragedy and peculiarities in South Dakota election laws. In late December 1936, Progressive–Republican Senator Peter Norbeck of South Dakota died after a long illness. Outgoing Democratic Governor Tom Berry, who had been defeated by a Republican in the November elections, quickly appointed Democrat Herbert Hitchcock to fill the vacancy. However, by state law, Hitchcock had to step down once the next regularly scheduled general election took place in November 1938. While a new Senator would be elected for the full term from 1939–1945, technically the seat would remain vacant from November 1938 until a successor was sworn into office in January 1939. The 75th Congress (1937–1939) had adjourned in June 1938 to prepare for the elections, and it was customary that it would not reconvene until the start of the 76th Congress (1939–1941) in January 1939. Normally, such a vacancy would provoke little concern. But as the 1938 elections took shape, rumors swirled that President Roosevelt would call for a special session after the elections to capitalize on the existing Democratic margins in both chambers of Congress. In response, the South Dakota Republican Party, which dominated the congressional delegation, pushed for a special election and sought a candidate to fill the two–month term. GOP candidate Chandler Gurney had won the nomination for the full term, but state laws prevented his name from appearing twice on the ballot.13
GOP leaders turned to Gladys Pyle because she had enough name recognition and support to win without the party having to invest considerable resources in the race. She traveled the state to campaign on behalf of the entire GOP ticket, with support from the Republican National Committee, arguing that the New Deal had not done enough for South Dakotans. Pyle also tapped into a strong statewide network of Republican women’s clubs.14 Recognizing that her term would be brief, voters went to the polls on November 8, 1938, and chose the 48–year–old Pyle seemingly as a gesture of appreciation for her service to the state. She registered a resounding win over Democrat John T. McCullen, 58 to 42 percent of the vote, garnering nearly 10,000 votes more than the next–best vote getter on the ticket—Gurney, who won the election for the full term. It also made her the first Republican woman elected to the Senate and the first woman from either party to win election to the Senate in her own right, without having first been appointed to fill a vacancy.
Because Congress already had adjourned, and FDR never did call a special session, Pyle was never officially sworn in to the Senate. Despite the lack of committee assignments and legislative duties, she left Huron the day after Thanksgiving and drove to Washington, D.C., with her mother and an aide and spent the next five weeks in the capital as South Dakota’s Senator. She paid her own travel expenses because Members only received mileage costs if they were commuting to and from a session of Congress.15 Once in Washington, she and an interim appointee from California shared an office space customarily reserved for one Senator.16
Pyle did not lack for things to do. She rallied support for her Depression–burdened state by pushing various highway and Works Progress Administration (WPA) programs. Pyle intervened with the Department of the Interior on behalf of landholders on Indian reservations who had suffered years of ruined crops and fallen far behind on mortgage payments. She also handled cases with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, investigated the sale of land inside a state park, and worked to expand funding for WPA projects within her state. Pyle tended to individual constituent needs ranging from pensions and hospitalization to civil service ratings.17 In addition, she persuaded Norwegian officials to schedule a June 1939 visit to South Dakota of the crown prince and princess of Norway during their North American travels, delighting thousands of South Dakotans of Scandinavian heritage.18 “I wish I had come the day after the election,” Pyle admitted as her term expired. “Just because the Senate is not in session is no sign a Senator cannot be of service to her constituents.”19
In January 1939, Pyle returned to her insurance business and stayed closely involved in public service work. At the 1940 GOP Convention in Philadelphia, she became the first woman to nominate a presidential candidate, backing South Dakota Governor Harlan J. Bushfield.20 During that same year, she also made an unsuccessful bid for mayor of her hometown of Huron.21 From 1943 to 1957, Pyle served on the South Dakota board of charities and corrections. In 1947, she and five other women became the first in state history to serve on a jury, as South Dakota dropped its all–male requirement. Pyle lived in Huron and was involved in numerous charities and civic organizations. In 1980, on her 90th birthday, the town named Pyle its “First Citizen.” At the age of 98, Gladys Pyle died on March 14, 1989, in Huron.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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