The History of Wives Replacing Their Dead Husbands in Congress

This tradition was one of the main ways American women gained access to political power in the 20th century

Margaret Chase Smith being sworn in
Margaret Chase Smith sworn in on June 10, 1940 to fill the vacancy left by her husband, Rep. Clyde Smith. Left to right in the picture: Margaret Chase Smith, Speaker William Bankhead and Rep. James C. Oliver, Republican of Maine, who sponsored Mrs. Smith Library of Congress

Tomorrow, Marylanders in the state’s 7th congressional district will vote in a primary election to decide who will be the nominees to replace Congressman Elijah Cummings, whose death in October 2019 left open the seat he had held since 1996. Among the many names (more than 20) on the Democrats’ primary ballot is Cummings’ wife, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, a public policy consultant and the former chair of the Maryland Democratic Party.

If she wins, she’ll become part of a nearly century-long tradition of “widow’s succession,” when wives either ran or were selected to fill their husband’s vacated seats in Congress in Washington. (According to the code for the House of Representatives, vacant seats are filled through a special election; only Senate seats can be filled by governor appointment, with some exceptions.)

This custom has slowed in recent years: If Rockeymoore Cummings wins the primary and then the general, she would be the first woman since 2005 to succeed a husband who died in office. But the tradition had a defining impact on the makeup of Congress in the 20th century and on female political representation. As the Los Angeles Times reported in 1998, “Among first-time House candidates between 1916-93, 84 percent of the widows won, while only 14 percent of other women were victorious. The trend was strongest when women were rarer in politics; 35 of the 95 women who served in Congress before 1976 were congressional wives first.”

The trend was once so pronounced that Diane Kincaid, a political scientist who studied the topic in the 1970s, wrote, “statistically, at least, for women aspiring to serve in Congress, the best husband has been a dead husband.” Writing 25 years later, academics Lisa Solowiej and Thomas L. Brunell concurred that it “is arguably the single most important historical method for women to enter Congress.”

When Congressman John Nolan of California died in mid-November 1922, after he had been re-elected to a fifth term, local leaders came to his widow, Mae Ellen Nolan, with an idea. As researcher Hope Chamberlin writes in A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress, “an unlikely coalition of influential San Francisco Republicans representing both business and labor first approached her.” Why recruit a “quiet, pleasant, businesslike” woman for the role? Chamberlin cites one political insider’s candid opinion: “The Nolan name means victory.”

Nolan said at the time, “I owe it to the memory of my husband to carry on his work.” In a special election held to finish John’s term and serve the next one, she defeated six opponents and headed to Washington, where she was the first woman to head a Congressional committee (the Committee on Expenditures in the Post Office).

Party leaders who recruited widows merely saw them as temporary placeholders; they “capitalized on public sympathy to ensure that the party held the seat in the interim...and helped the party avoid internal disputes and provide time to recruit a ‘real’ replacement,” write academics Barbara Palmer and Dennis Simon in Political Research Quarterly. In an interview, Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), says that the parties assumed that husband and wife shared the same values, so they could count on the wives to uphold their husband’s politics in office.

Some of the widows were content with the placeholder role that the party presumed, serving just one year or one term. After her term was over, Mae Ellen Nolan declined to run for reelection, wanting nothing more to do with Washington. “Politics is entirely too masculine to have any attraction for feminine responsibilities,” she said at the time.

But many women embraced the opportunity to pursue politics themselves and surprised the men who recruited them. Kincaid identified one example in Senator Hattie Caraway of Arkansas, who filled her husband’s seat in the Senate in 1931. Kincaid wrote that Caraway “confounded the Governor who appointed her and who openly coveted the seat himself by entering the primary for renomination.” She won that election, and others, before losing a bid for reelection in 1944.

The History of Wives Replacing Their Dead Husbands in Congress
Women members of the 75th congress photographed in 1938. Left to right: Rep. Caroline O'Day, Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers, Rep. Mary T. Norton, Rep. Nan Honeyman, Rep. Virginia E. Jenckes and Senator Hattie W. Caraway. Nourse Rogers and Caraway both filled seats left vacant by their husbands.

According to research from CAWP, of the 39 women who entered the House of Representatives as successors to their husbands, 21 stayed on for more than two years, often sustaining illustrious careers. Among them are Representatives Edith Nourse Rogers, who sponsored the original GI bill, Florence Prag Kahn, the first Jewish woman to serve in Congress and the first to serve on the House Military Affairs Committee, Corinne “Lindy” Boggs, who championed women’s rights, and Chardiss Collins, who advocated for Medicare expansion and affirmative action.

Although widows had name recognition among constituents, they still faced competitive races. “They usually had to overcome opposition for their office; nearly half have sought to retain their seats,” wrote Kincaid. “Significant power was accumulated and employed by those who extend their tenure.”

Moreover, she pointed out that some widows, like Rep. Leonor Sullivan of Missouri, “have vigorously sought and/or campaigned for their husbands’ seats, and have been denied and/or defeated.” Denied the party’s support in the 1951 special election, Sullivan beat six men in the primary and won the general election the next year. As she competes for Maryland Democrats' support, Rockeymoore Cummings carries the enviable endorsement of EMILY’s List, but opponent Kweisi Mfume holds the endorsement of the Maryland State AFL-CIO.

Rep. Beverly Byron, also of Maryland, was candid about her practical reasons running for her husband’s seat, which she occupied from 1979 to 1993. “In 24 hours, I became a widow, a single parent, unemployed and a candidate for Congress,'” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1998. “I knew I needed to work; it was the only job offered to me.”

Many widows who went to Congress were already familiar with its working, having been party to their husbands’ world. “They had worked on their husbands’ campaigns and as a result, knew their district well,” explain Palmer and Simon. Many wives were deeply entwined with their husbands’ policy setting and political strategy. Before the powerful congressman Hale Boggs died, his wife, Lindy, “was his chief political adviser,” explains the House of Representatives archives. “She set up her husband’s district office in New Orleans, orchestrated his re–election campaigns, canvassed voters, arranged for her husband’s many social gatherings, and often acted as his political surrogate as demands on his time became greater the further he climbed in the House leadership.”

Some widows’ tenures in D.C. came to overshadow their husbands’ legacies. Perhaps most notable was Senator Margaret Chase Smith, a famous and formidable politician who spoke out against Senator Joseph McCarthy’s redbaiting. She originally went to Congress in 1940 to fill her husband Clyde’s seat and, after her election to the Senate in 1964, she made history as the first woman to serve in both chambers. She lost her last election in 1972, when she was in her mid-70s.

Today, just one widow successor sits in Congress: Rep. Doris Matsui from California. (Matsui is a member of the Smithsonian Board of Regents.) Rep. Debbie Dingell became the first woman to succeed her retiring husband in his congressional seat (John stepped down in 2015 and passed away in 2019). To date, no widower has succeeded his wife.

Widow’s succession “used to be the norm and it is now quite clearly the exception,” says Walsh. “In those early days, these women's lives and careers were probably incredibly closely intertwined with their husbands. They didn't really have their own careers separate from their husbands’ political career.”

“For a lot of women” these days, she continues, “they have their own lives, their own careers. And they may not be available…to just step in and take his job.”

But for Rockeymore Cummings, her career aligns with her husband’s and her political ambition predates his death. She was the chair of the Maryland Democratic Party and was a onetime candidate for governor, before dropping out when Cummings was hospitalized.

As she faces down her many many fellow Democrats in a crowded primary, she echoes widows before her, like Mae Nolan. As she said to CNN, “I’m now running to build on his legacy in Congress.” But it’s just as likely, should she win in the primary, that she’ll make the seat her own.

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