Edith Nourse Rogers

views updated

Edith Nourse Rogers

Edith Nourse Rogers (1881-1960) was the first woman from New England to be elected to Congress. Reelected 17 times, she worked tirelessly for veterans' concerns throughout her congressional career.

Edith Nourse Rogers, daughter of Franklin Nourse and Edith Frances Riversmith, was born March 19, 1881, in Saco, Maine. Her family was well-to-do and they moved to Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1895, when her father became the manager for the second largest textile mill in Lowell. Edith was educated by private tutors and then at Rogers Hall School, a private girls' boarding school, graduating in 1899. Her parents sent her to a finishing school at Madame Julien's School in Paris. Upon her return she plunged into the social whirl and was married to John Jacob Rogers in October 1907.

John Rogers began a successful law practice before turning to politics and being elected to Congress in 1912. He carried his district six more times before dying in March 1925. Edith Nourse Rogers was urged to run for her husband's seat in the special election and easily won on June 25, 1925, becoming the first woman from New England to be elected to Congress. She intended to remain in Washington for only a few years, but won reelection 17 times. As her 19th campaign began in 1960, she was unopposed. Her 35 years of service in the House of Representatives was the longest of any woman.

Although an ardent suffragist, Rogers was not an ardent feminist, and she became famous for her interest and advocacy of veterans' affairs. Her transformation from a socialite to a person deeply and enduringly interested in veterans' affairs occurred during World War I when she accompanied her congressman husband to Europe to visit base and field hospitals. Upon her return to Washington in 1918 she became a seven-days-a-week volunteer worker at Walter Reed Hospital, continuing there until 1922. In recognition of her interests, President Warren Harding appointed her a dollar-a-year inspector of veterans hospitals, a commission renewed by President Calvin Coolidge (1923) and Herbert Hoover (1929).

Her concern for veterans became her principal interest in the House of Representatives. Over the years she served on the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, becoming the ranking member and twice chairing it when the Republicans held the House majority. Not surprisingly, she had a hand in many major veterans' bills. In 1930 she persuaded Congress to appropriate the money to construct a nationwide network of veterans hospitals. She was one of the major drafters of the G. I. Bill of Rights for veterans of World War II and sponsored the Korean War Veterans Benefits Bill. She introduced the legislation which established the Women's Army Corps in 1942 and created a permanent Nurse Corps in the Veterans Administration. In addition, she secured the passage of hundreds of private bills for pensions and disability allowances for veterans.

No rubber-stamp Republican, she often went her own way. In 1933 she was one of the first members of Congress to speak out against Nazi persecution of the Jews; subsequently she voted against the 1937 Neutrality Act, which the isolationist Republican leadership favored, and for the Selective Service Act of 1940, which they opposed. Her actions and dedication to her constituency made her un-beatable in elections. She always won by landslide proportions and was unopposed in three elections, although Massachusetts was increasingly Democratic-dominated.

Her health began to fail after 1954; but even at age 79 in 1960 when she approached her 19th election, she was invincible to all challengers except death itself. She died of a heart attack on September 10, 1960, three days before the primary election.

Further Reading

A gook sketch of Edith Nourse Rogers is Victoria Schuck's entry in Notable American Women: The Modern Period (1980). Also see the popularly-written sketch by Hope Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress (1973). Other sources include the Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement Six: 1956-1960 (1980) and obituaries in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Boston Globe on September 11, 1960.

Additional Sources

Konantz, Gail, Edith Rogers, Winnipeg, Man.: Peguis Publishers, 1981, 1980. □