McCormick, Ruth Hanna (1880–1944)
McCormick, Ruth Hanna (1880–1944)
American politician who worked for suffrage, was elected "congressman-at-large" from Illinois, was the first woman from a major party to be nominated for the Senate, and managed the first presidential campaign of Thomas E. Dewey . Name variations: Ruth Hanna McCormick Simms. Born Ruth Hanna on March 27, 1880, in Cleveland, Ohio; died in Billings Hospital, Chicago, Illinois, on December 31, 1944, of pancreatitis following a fall from a horse; daughter of Marcus Alonzo Hanna, known as Mark Hanna (a U.S. senator) and Augusta Rhodes Hanna; attended Miss (Sarah) Porter 's School, Farmington, Connecticut; married (Joseph) Medill McCormick (1877–1925, ajournalist and politician), in 1903 (died 1925); married Albert Gallatin Simms, in 1932; children: (first marriage) Katrina "Triny" McCormick; Medill McCormick (d. 1938); Ruth "Bazy" McCormick .
Moved to Chicago (1903) with husband Medill McCormick; founded women's division of National Civic Federation and Women's City Club of Chicago; served as chair of women's committee of Progressive Party in Chicago (1912); led successful suffrage campaign in Illinois (1913); served as chair of Congressional Committee of National American Woman Suffrage Association (1914); served as chair of Republican National Party Women's Executive Committee (1918–19); was Republican National Committeewoman for Illinois (1924); was at-large Representative to U.S. Congress, Illinois (1928); was Republican nominee for U.S. Senate (1930); moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, with husband Albert Simms (1932); founded Manzano School and Sandia School for Girls (1932) and the Albuquerque June Music Festival (1942); was co-manager of preconvention presidential campaign of Thomas E. Dewey (1940).
The cover of Time magazine on April 23, 1928, featured a woman in a cloche hat with a wide grin and flashing brown eyes. "She learned the law of the jungle," announced the caption beneath the picture. Ruth Hanna McCormick had just defeated seven men in the Republican primary for "congressman-at-large" for Illinois; in November, she became the first woman to win a state-wide election for national office, ahead of the runner-up by 90,000 votes. Two years later, she beat the incumbent senator, Charles S. Deneen, twice governor and undefeated in 38 years of public service, to become the first woman nominated for the U.S. Senate by a major party. She lost the general election in the Democratic landslide at the onset of the Depression in 1930, but came back ten years later to break new ground for women when Thomas E. Dewey appointed her to manage his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
Ruth Hanna McCormick learned the love and practice of politics from her father Mark Hanna, a businessman who was just beginning his career in politics when she was born in 1880. In 1896, the year she turned 16, Hanna managed the successful presidential campaign of his Ohio neighbor, William McKinley. Ruth also worked for the McKinley campaign, serving lemonade to voters who came to see McKinley speak on the front porch of his home in Canton, Ohio. After McKinley was elected president, Hanna himself was elected to the U.S. Senate. Hanna liked to invite all kinds of people to his house, and always said he could learn more from talking to people than from reading books. His daughter Ruth was the same. She was not a good student, and, after graduation from boarding school, she worked as her father's personal secretary in Washington. The Hannas lived across Lafayette Park from the White House, and she was hostess at her father's famous breakfasts, attended by the important politicians of the day, including Presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. She always craved her father's approval, but, she said later, "In all my life I never had one word of praise from my father. If he accepted the work, it was satisfactory. Otherwise, it came back to me to do over."
Even her marriage in 1903 to Chicago Tribune heir apparent Joseph Medill McCormick was a political affair. Hanna was Roosevelt's only serious rival for the Republican presidential nomination in 1904, and the president invited himself to the wedding in order to get on a friendly footing with "Uncle Mark." But the wedding date conflicted with a planned presidential speaking tour. When Roosevelt suggested that Ruth postpone the nuptials, she told the press: "The wedding has been set for the tenth of June. I am sure if Mr. Roosevelt understands this, he will arrange to reach Cleveland by that time." The president changed his itinerary.
Real political achievement asks for all you've got, including all the years of your life. Nowhere is that better illustrated than in the life of Ruth [Hanna McCormick].
Ruth McCormick moved to Chicago with her husband, who eventually forsook the newspaper business for politics. The two were involved in many early progressive reform groups in the city, including the Northwestern Settlement House behind the stockyards that provided material for Upton Sinclair's exposure of the meatpacking industry, The Jungle. Tensions at the Chicago Tribune, where Medill's powerful mother Katherine Medill McCormick was a controlling stockholder, led to his nervous breakdown in 1909. Ruth McCormick persuaded him to spend some months in Europe consulting Carl Jung, but Medill probably suffered from manic depression, and analysis was ultimately of little help. They did decide that he would be better off out of the family business.
When Roosevelt lost the Republican presidential nomination in 1912 to his successor William Howard Taft, the McCormicks joined his breakaway Progressive "Bull Moose" Party. Medill McCormick was the Western campaign manager, while Ruth McCormick headed a group of Chicago women. Roosevelt privately considered her the more astute politician, remarking of the couple, "My money's on the mare!"
The Progressive Party was the only one to endorse woman suffrage in 1912. Although Roosevelt lost the presidential election, Medill won a seat as a Progressive in the Illinois state legislature. With Medill working with fellow Progressives who held the balance of power inside the statehouse in Springfield, Ruth McCormick joined Grace Wilbur Trout, Elizabeth Booth , and Antoinette Funk to lobby legislators outside. Together they worked to successfully pass, in 1913, the first woman suffrage bill east of the Mississippi, granting women the right to vote in presidential and municipal elections.
The year 1913 was also a significant one for the national suffrage movement. Alice Paul had persuaded the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) to allow her to reopen the Congressional Committee in Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress for a constitutional amendment granting women everywhere the right to vote. Paul had learned the strategies of civil disobedience working with suffrage advocates in England, but her use of them in the United States was unpopular with the rank and file of the suffrage movement. Ruth McCormick was chosen to replace Paul as chair of the Congressional Committee in 1914, and Paul continued to work with the smaller Congressional Union. The Congressional Union (later the Woman's Party) used controversial tactics such as holding the incumbent Democrats responsible for the passage of a suffrage amendment, campaigning against them when it did not pass, and picketing the White House. McCormick kept NAWSA on a political course, organizing grassroots support in the states and publishing a "black list" of congressional representatives opposed to a suffrage amendment, without alienating the large conservative membership.
By 1918, it seemed clear that women would soon win the vote (the 19th Amendment was ratified in August 1920), and the Republican Party, eager to attract new voters, named McCormick chair of the National Women's Executive Committee. She urged the men on the Republican National Committee to hold fast to progressive principles, which would appeal to women voters. She soon found, however, that she had no real power, and resigned at the end of 1919.
Medill had been elected, as a Republican, to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1916, and to the U.S. Senate in 1918, where he was a member of the Foreign Relations committee. A significant number of Republicans in the Senate objected to the Treaty of Versailles which President Woodrow Wilson helped negotiate at the end of World War I. Led by Henry Cabot Lodge and William Borah, the "Irreconcilables" were particularly opposed to the idea of a League of Nations, believing that it could commit the United States to unwise foreign intervention without due consultation with the Senate. This was an issue upon which Ruth McCormick's own political career would be based. Once again, she worked on the outside, together with her friend Alice Roosevelt Longworth , Theodore Roosevelt's daughter, to lobby members of the Senate.
At the 1920 Republican Convention, the party reorganized itself to include the newly enfranchised women. Eight of the 21 members of the Executive Committee were women, including Ruth McCormick, who represented the Central Division. She was wryly amused at the condescension of male colleagues who said the women would learn the political game in time: "I wonder, if they think at all, how they think we became enfranchised." She believed that women needed to be involved in political parties to effect the changes they wanted. The Woman's Party or the League of Women Voters (successor organization to NAWSA) was as dependent upon political parties as the suffrage groups had been, she argued. Because of this belief, and also to support her husband's re-election in 1924, she began to organize Republican Women's Clubs all over Illinois, with a membership by the late 1920s of over 200,000. At the Republican Convention in June, the women were given equal representation with the men, one from each state, and McCormick was elected Republican National Committeewoman for Illinois.
Despite her efforts, Medill was narrowly defeated in the primary election by Charles S. Deneen, who went on to win the general election in November. Medill's term was due to expire in March 1925. One week before that, overcome by depression, he took his life, probably with an overdose of barbiturates.
Ruth McCormick had little time to grieve in private. The year before, she had organized a Women's World's Fair in Chicago to showcase the achievements of women in the world of work. Its underlying purpose, however, was to raise money for the Republican Women's Clubs, which had not been reimbursed for campaign expenses by the national committee. The fair,
which opened just six weeks after Medill's death, succeeded in raising more than $50,000, and continued, larger every year, through the 1920s.
Ruth McCormick had managed a dairy farm in Byron, Illinois, beginning in 1913, and in 1927 she bought a newspaper in Rockford which she published until her death. These activities were not enough. She needed to redefine her political career, which had been, like that of many politically minded women of the era—including Molly Dewson, Belle Moskowitz, Eleanor Roosevelt —tied to the career of a man. She was urged to run for governor, to replace the corrupt Len Small. One supporter assured her, "I think you are the man for the job." She felt, however, that the complicated alliances of Illinois politics would make it impossible for her to win.
Instead, she decided to run for a seat as "congressman-at-large." In the early 20th century, as population grew rapidly, some states, instead of redistricting, added "congressmen-at-large," representing the whole state. Illinois had two "at large" seats. Ruth McCormick, who was an unconventional candidate in many ways, refused to repeat the old platitudes about the sacrifice she was making. "In all candor and honesty I must say that nobody asked me to run," she announced. Some were frankly appalled at the idea: one downstate farmer wrote that he would sooner vote for one of his cows than to vote for a woman for such a responsible office. Most voters saw her as an appealing alternative to politics as usual; the primary that year was termed the "pineapple primary" because grenades were thrown at the homes of other prominent politicians. She led the field of seven candidates, ahead of the runner-up by almost 100,000 votes.
Ruth McCormick was more of a politician than a legislator. Her two years in Congress were less an occasion to make laws than an opportunity to campaign. Although she seems to have been very responsive to constituent requests, she never spoke on the floor of the House at all. Instead she was thinking about a new campaign. She suspected that the 1930 census would lead to redistricting and the elimination of her seat. Information that she would run for the U.S. Senate in 1930 was leaked to the press in May 1929. The news, reported The New York Times, fell like a "bombshell" among the politicians of Illinois, now uncertain whether to support McCormick or her rival Deneen. Even though a candidate for senator would represent the same constituency as a "congressman-at-large," there was more opposition to a woman senator. There were eight women in the 435-member House of Representatives; the first, Jeannette Rankin , had been elected in 1916. The 96-member Senate was more of a men's club, arguably the most powerful in the world, and even Hiram Johnson, Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive running mate in 1912, was concerned that her victory would mean "a punch in the eye to the Senate…. [I]ts thorough breakdown and demoralization, in my opinion, will come with the admission of the other sex."
McCormick had expanded her power base among Republican women to include support from labor and the African-American community. Irene McCoy Gaines (1892–1964), a prominent organizer among black women in Chicago, criticized Deneen's record, and recommended a vote for McCormick for the Senate "because we have nobody there." McCormick chose to run against Deneen because he had voted in favor of the World Court, which she denounced as the "back door" to the League of Nations. She waged an extensive campaign, speaking in all 102 counties in Illinois, and mounting a huge grass-roots organization. She won by over 200,000 votes, a victory doubly sweet because she vanquished the man who had defeated her husband.
Her sense of triumph was short-lived, for she had to face another seasoned politician in the general election. James Hamilton Lewis had been the minority whip in the Senate during the Wilson administration, and had, coincidentally, been defeated by Medill McCormick in 1918. He supported the repeal of Prohibition, which was becoming increasingly unpopular because it had given rise to gangsters like Al Capone. Illinois was also beginning to feel the effects of the beginning of the Great Depression.
Another problem for Ruth McCormick was a Senate investigation into her campaign expenditures, which had amounted to over $250,000. Even though she showed that all of the money spent had been hers, and claimed that large expenditures were needed to offset an incumbent's advantages, it seemed extravagant to many in the face of hard times. Also, as a United Press syndicated column observed, there was unease at the thought of a woman with such economic power: "What be, if women were permitted to spend their money like that? Certainly there would be no political sanctuary for men if such carryings on were allowed." However, the backlash against the Republicans in the first election after the stock-market crash of 1929 was the most decisive factor. The 1930 returns gave the Democrats eight seats in the Senate and 51 in the House. Ruth McCormick went down in the landslide. She was never one to look back in regret. Her daughter Katrina "Triny" McCormick observed, "I saw her through many triumphs and defeats, and you could hardly tell the difference."
Also defeated was a fellow Republican congressional representative from New Mexico, Albert Simms. They were married the following year, and Ruth moved herself, her children, and her cattle out to Albuquerque to begin a new life. The 1930s were not a good time for Republicans, and although she remained modestly active, seconding the nomination of Alf Landon for president in 1936 and campaigning for him, she became involved in her new community. She founded a school for girls in 1932, the Manzano and Sandia Schools. She was active in the Little Theater, founded the Albuquerque June Music Festival in 1942, and used an annex to her house for art exhibits and lecture series. She seemed content, according to her younger daughter Ruth "Bazy" McCormick , to be a "semi-retired suburban woman."
In the summer of 1938, however, her middle child and only son, Medill, was killed mountain-climbing outside of Albuquerque at the age of 21. His body was not recovered for a week, and the search was an ordeal that tested her to the limit. The following autumn, Ruth broke her hip, and was bedridden in view of the mountain where her son had died. As she listened to the radio, she began to hear about a dynamic young man in New York, District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey. In the summer of 1939 she went to New York to meet him, and by fall, she was working as his campaign manager.
The year 1939 was an auspicious one for her to re-enter the political scene. The Republicans had made a comeback in the 1938 congressional elections, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, if he ran, would be seeking an unprecedented third term. Dewey was more charismatic than other Republican contenders, but he was young—only 37—and inexperienced. He needed a seasoned political mentor like Ruth Hanna McCormick. The principal issue was American involvement in the growing European war; McCormick and Thomas Dewey represented the widespread antiwar sentiment of that time. Once again, she ran an extensive and meticulously organized campaign, touring all over the West at the age of 60. Dewey was leading in the primaries when, on June 10, Italy entered the war on the side of the Axis powers. Dewey's youth and inexperience told against him, and the convention turned to Wendell Willkie, who was older and had more international leanings. Willkie, however, was defeated in November by Roosevelt, whom the American public preferred during the time of crisis.
Ruth returned to the West to manage a cattle and sheep ranch she had bought in southern Colorado, but continued to advise Dewey about strategy for the 1944 election. At first Dewey seemed eager for her opinions, but gradually consulted her less and less. When a reporter called her to ask the cause of the break between them, she wrote him one last letter, announcing that she would campaign for him whether he welcomed it or not: "I will always be active in party affairs…. It is my inheritance and myconviction of my participation as a citizen. It is my right and my pleasure."
Just before the election, her horse tripped when she was riding out to inspect her sheep, and she fractured her collarbone. McCormick was making a good recovery when, six weeks after the accident, she suddenly developed pancreatitis, from which she died on December 31, 1944.
At the time women entered electoral politics, Ruth Hanna McCormick was unusually well qualified to take advantage of the new opportunities, and her career illustrates the possibilities and limitations of women's expanding role. She was a leader in many fields: the suffrage movement, party politics, campaigns and elections. However, her colleague and friend Helen Bennett believed that her most important accomplishment was to draw large numbers of women into the partisan political process itself.
Miller, Kristie. Ruth Hanna McCormick: A Life in Politics 1880–1944. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1992.
Moley, Raymond. 27 Masters of Politics in a Personal Perspective. NY: Funk & Wagnalls, 1949.
Time. April 23, 1928.
Chamberlin, Hope. A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress. NY: Praeger Publishers, 1973.
Hanna-McCormick Family Papers. Manuscript Division. Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
Kristie Miller , journalist and author of Ruth Hanna McCormick: A Life in Politics 1880–1944 (University of New Mexico Press, 1992), and Ruth Hanna McCormick's granddaughter