Mankin, Helen Douglas (1894–1956)

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Mankin, Helen Douglas (1894–1956)

U.S. congressional representative, state assemblywoman, and lawyer who was the first woman elected to Congress from Georgia . Name variations: Helen Douglas. Born on September 11, 1894, in Atlanta, Georgia; died on July 25, 1956; daughter of Hamilton Douglas (a lawyer, teacher, and founder of the Atlanta Law School) and Corinne (Williams) Douglas (a teacher and lawyer); Rockford College, A.B., 1917; Atlanta Law School, L.LB., 1920; married Guy Mark Mankin (an engineer), in 1927; children: (stepson) Guy, Jr.

Helen Douglas Mankin was born the third of five children, including four daughters, in Atlanta, Georgia, on September 11, 1894. Her parents had received law degrees from the University of Michigan; unable to practice because the Georgia bar had not yet begun to admit women, her mother Corinne Douglas worked as a teacher and organized the first department of commercial studies for girls in the Atlanta high schools, and her father, Hamilton Douglas, president of the Board of Education, founded the Atlanta Law School, where he also served as dean. They maintained an intellectual household, entertaining such visitors as Jane Addams , Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard University, and William Howard Taft, future president of the United States. Helen attended public schools and was the only girl to play on the local baseball team.

Mankin graduated with a bachelor's degree from Rockford College in Illinois (her mother's and grandmother's alma mater) in 1917. She joined the American Women's Hospital Unit during World War I and drove an ambulance in France for 13 months. Returning to America, she entered Atlanta Law School and earned her LL.B. in 1920. That year both she and her mother, then over 60, were admitted to the Georgia bar and entered the family firm. At a time when women were still not accepted in traditionally male roles, particularly in the South, Mankin felt awkward and out of place. Searching for new adventures, she and her sister Jean Douglas set off on a whirlwind tour of America, covering over 13,000 miles by automobile in 1922. At the completion of their trip, they set off for Europe with their mother. Following an extensive automobile trip, they returned to America, and in 1924 Mankin opened her own law firm.

As a fairly new lawyer and a woman, she did not attract wealthy corporate clients. Most of her clients were poor African-Americans, with whom she quickly established good relationships. She supplemented her income by giving lectures at Atlanta Law School, and developed an interest in politics. In 1927, while working as the women's manager of I.N. Ragsdale's mayoral campaign, she met and married Guy Mark Mankin, a widower with a young son. Guy Mankin was a mechanical engineer and his work took them to a variety of locations, including Cuba, Brazil, Argentina, New York, and Chicago.

The family returned to Atlanta after several years, and by 1933 Mankin had resumed her law career. She lobbied without success for ratification of a child-labor amendment to the state constitution and her frustration led her to decide she would have more influence as a politician. In September 1936, Mankin was elected state representative. A Democrat, and only the fifth woman to sit in the Georgia legislature, she served from 1937 to 1946, being re-elected four times. Considered outspoken, independent and sometimes abrasive, Mankin championed causes such as education and child welfare. She worked for progressive legislation in such matters as improved salaries for teachers, better state policing, permanent registration laws, the separation of juvenile inmates from adult inmates in state prisons, and a state department of labor.

Mankin was an ardent supporter of Governor Ellis Arnall's liberal policies, including his repeal of the poll tax. In 1946, Arnall called a special election to fill the seat of Congressman Robert Ramspeck, who had resigned, and Mankin decided to leave the state legislature to seek the office. At a time when African-Americans were suing to end Georgia's white primary, she was the only candidate to actively pursue their vote. African-American voter registration doubled for the election, and Mankin won the seat. Facing derision from such locally important politicians as ex-governor and gubernatorial candidate Eugene Talmadge (who called her "the Belle of Ashby Street," an African-American neighborhood, and publicly mocked "the spectacle of Atlanta Negroes sending a Congresswoman to Washington"), she refused to disavow her black supporters. She also drew support from the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), women's groups, church groups, and various progressive organizations. Mankin was considered a radical, and was one of the few Southerners to support Truman's veto of the Case anti-strike bill. Despite her labor support, she went on record voting for the Hobbs bill, which was directed against the CIO's Teamsters Union.

Mankin completed Ramspeck's term in Congress and filed to run again in the 1946 primaries. She won the popular vote against her closest opponent, Judge James C. Davis, but Davis claimed victory under an obscure countyunit system. The system awarded unit votes to the candidate receiving a plurality of its popular vote, and total units rather than majority were used to determine a winner. Although the system had not been used in recent times, it was revived to nullify African-American votes. Davis had received eight county-unit votes to Mankin's six. Mankin challenged the results and the State Democratic Executive Committee placed both names on the ballot. However, her political enemy Eugene Talmadge had won the gubernatorial election, and he removed her name. Mankin countered with a write-in challenge and, despite the involvement of white supremacists working for Davis, received an impressive

19,527 votes against Davis' 31,444. The racial disturbances drew national, and critical, attention, for which she was blamed by the local establishment. She challenged Davis again in 1948, was castigated again for stirring up trouble, and lost. In 1949, Mankin sued in South v. Peters to end the county-unit system. The Supreme Court did not rule in her favor, citing states' rights, and the system remained in effect until it was struck down in 1962.

Helen Mankin did not run for office again. She continued in private practice and also visited Israel and took up Zionist causes. In 1956, she was involved in an automobile accident in Georgia and died of her injuries on July 25.


Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1946.

Office of the Historian. Women in Congress, 1917–1990. Commission on the Bicentenary of the U.S. House of Representatives, 1991.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green. Notable American Women: The Modern Period: A Biographical Dictionary. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

suggested reading:

Spritzer, Lorraine N. The Belle of Ashby Street: Helen Douglas Mankin and Georgia Politics. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1982.

Judith C. Reveal , freelance writer, Greensboro, Maryland

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