Rogers, Edith Nourse (1881–1960)
Rogers, Edith Nourse (1881–1960)
U.S. congressional representative (1925–60) who served the longest span of any woman and gained a national reputation advancing the cause of the American veteran. Born Edith Francis Nourse on March 19, 1881, in Saco, Maine; died on September 10, 1960, in Boston, Massachusetts; daughter of Franklin D. Nourse (a mill manufacturer) and Edith Frances (Riversmith) Nourse; attended Rogers Hall, Lowell, Massachusetts, and Madame Julien's, Neuilly, France; married John Jacob Rogers (a lawyer and U.S. congressional representative), in 1907.
When, in 1925, the 5th Congressional District of Massachusetts elected a vivacious, slightly plump woman in her mid-40s as its congressional representative, many lawmakers predicted that her legislative career would be brief indeed. At the time, she was only the sixth woman ever to have even been elected to the House of Representatives; none of her female predecessors had yet made a major mark there. Indeed, she herself planned to stay in the House of Representatives only a few years. Who would have thought that Edith Nourse Rogers would remain some 35 years, thereby establishing a record for the longest span of service ever held by a woman? And who would have thought that Rogers, who was never in the limelight, would become extremely influential behind the scenes, playing the leading role in the creation of both the Women's Army Corps, commonly known as the WACs, and the GI Bill of Rights?
On March 19, 1881, Edith Frances Nourse was born in Saco, Maine, a mill and shipping town about 15 miles south of Portland. A descendant of 17th-century Puritans, she could trace her ancestors to Priscilla Alden , the subject of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "The Courtship of Miles Standish," and to Rebecca Nurse (or Nourse), hanged as a witch in Salem in 1692. Franklin Nourse, her Harvard-educated father, managed a large textile mill that inadvertently served as her private playground. Her mother Edith Riversmith Nourse engaged in volunteer work among the town's poor.
When Edith was 14, the Nourse family moved to Lowell, Massachusetts, long a textile town and located 25 miles from downtown Boston. There Franklin became mill agent for the city's second largest cotton firm. No longer educated by a private tutor, young Edith attended Lowell's Rogers Hall, a small private girls' school, from which she graduated in 1899. She completed her education at Madame Julien's, a finishing school in Neuilly, near Paris, France. Upon returning home, she lived a life typical of many upper-class young women, participating in Lowell's social, welfare, and Episcopal church activities while attending luncheon and theater parties in Boston.
In the fall of 1907, Edith Nourse married John Jacob Rogers, a graduate of Harvard University and its law school. Practicing law in Lowell with his brother-in-law, John Rogers ran for Congress in 1911 as a regular Republican. Defeating candidates from the Progressive (Bull Moose), Democratic, and Socialist parties, he began a string of six straight victories. Upon arriving in Washington, D.C., Edith Nourse Rogers first lived the life of a socialite, in the process showing a flair for entertaining that she never lost.
Edith Rogers' life changed both markedly and permanently when she went to Europe in 1917. She accompanied her husband, who was part of a delegation of the House Foreign Affairs Committee involved in a "secret" unofficial mission to Britain. With the United States a full-scale belligerent in World War I, Edith threw herself into war work, taking the first step in what would be a veritable career of aiding American service personnel. As a member of a Red Cross party, she accompanied her husband to battle zones, in the process becoming so familiar with base and field hospitals that she left Europe as something of a national expert. As part of the Women's Overseas Service League, she held the status of inspector. One could find her at the early morning shift at the YMCA Eagle Hut in London or, wearing her Red Cross garb, caring for wounded doughboys in France. Upon returning home in early 1918, she became Washington's first "Gray Lady," a term used for dedicated war volunteers sporting gray uniforms. While John served briefly in the field artillery, Edith worked at Washington's Walter Reed military hospital, where she became known as the soldiers' "angel of mercy" and where she remained until 1922. Even after the armistice, she and her husband went back to Europe, there to visit hospitals and ambulance stations in England and France.
Still a member of Congress, John Rogers became a charter member of the American Legion; Edith Rogers joined its auxiliary. In 1922, President Warren G. Harding named Edith his personal representative in charge of assistance for disabled veterans, an appointment renewed by presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. Her salary: $1.00 per year. Her task: inspecting veterans' hospitals. Crisscrossing the nation, often by plane, she visited every military hospital in the nation, often popping up unexpectedly. When the patients expressed any complaints, she took them personally to the White House. A number of reforms resulted. By now she was recognized as a national authority on such matters.
Edith Rogers' first foray into national politics began rather innocuously. In 1924, she served as a presidential elector for her husband's district. As secretary of all the electors, she was the first woman ever to deliver the official tally to the president of the Senate. That year her husband, who had reached the peak of his career, came down with Hodgkin's disease, dying in March 1925. With the backing of ex-military personnel, business leaders, and party stalwarts, Edith Nourse Rogers, the name she henceforth always used, ran for her husband's seat. That June, she won the Republican primary in an exceedingly low turnout, but receiving over 80% of the votes cast. Later that month, she won the special election, defeating former Democratic governor Eugene N. Foss by well over a two-to-one ratio.
In this 1925 race, and in 18 succeeding ones, Edith Nourse Rogers had one clear advantage: the 5th Congressional District was solidly Republican. At the same time, it was an extremely diverse region, including the industrial city of Lowell and such historical villages as Lexington and Concord. Suburbs impinged upon both farm and factory, and old-stock Yankees intermingled with foreign-born laborers.
For years, [Edith] Rogers has been the conscience of the Veterans' Administration, and God knows that bureaucratic behemoth needs one.
—Robert S. Allen and William V. Shannon
Even during the New Deal, Rogers remained popular in Middlesex County, her political base. From the early 1940s on, she never had to confront a primary contest. In three campaigns, she met with no Democratic opponent. When the national Democratic Party won landslide victories, she still could receive 60% of her district's vote. By 1938, she was the only Republican woman in the House. She was not afraid to oppose New Deal legislation, so much so that in the early 1940s the liberal New Republic gave her a 90% negative rating on domestic policy.
As always the cause of ex-military personnel was her top priority. No veteran's problem was too trivial to demand her full attention and in this sense her constituency was always a national one. Within five years after entering Congress, she was able to secure a $15 million appropriation to build a nationwide network of veterans' hospitals. She guided the bill through the House over the opposition of the committee's chair.
When, however, the controversial bonus issue arose in 1932, she backed President Hoover in opposing the bill. World War I veterans were demanding an advance payment of $2.4 billion, a sum that would have hopelessly strained a federal budget already unbalanced and produced rampant inflation. On June 15, the House passed the bill 209 to 176, but the Senate balked. The issue was a highly emotional one, as veterans (called the Bonus Army) camping on the outskirts of Washington were forcibly removed by federal troops.
In 1933, Rogers was one of the first in Congress to speak against Hitler's treatment of the Jews, writing an article in the black journal Crisis that July. In a bipartisan effort to aid victims of Nazi terror, in February 1939 she and Senator Robert F. Wagner (Dem.-N.Y.) introduced identical bills to permit, over a single two-year period, 20,000 refugee children from Germany to enter the United States. This proposal marked the first major attempt to liberalize the immigration act of 1924. It originated in the efforts of the Non-Sectarian Committee for German Refugee Children, an effort launched in 1938 by Dr. Marion Kenworthy , director of the Department of Mental Hygiene of the New York School of Social Work. The committee was backed by leading social workers, jurists, labor leaders, educators, and clergy and was headed by Clarence E. Pickett, executive secretary of the American Friends Service Committee. Although the bill provided that the refugees needed sponsors, so as not to become a public charge, patriotic and veterans groups, including Rogers' frequent backer, the American Legion, opposed the law. Nativism, anti-Semitism, and economic insecurity were obvious factors in its defeat. Foes saw the children's bill as a first step in opening the nation's door, resulting in a veritable flood of refugees. The State Department also opposed the measure, arguing that any move to change immigration laws would result in more restrictions, not less. President Franklin Roosevelt felt himself in no position to back legislation that would inevitably lead to controversy. He had recently faced major defeats in his efforts to "purge" his party of anti-New Deal Democrats. Furthermore, the Republicans had made significant gains in the elections of 1938. Once war broke out in 1939, making emigration from Nazi-occupied areas even more difficult, the question became moot. The bill never reached the floors of Congress.
Such sympathy for refugees did not prevent Rogers from frequently voicing isolationist sentiments. In 1936, she declared that "our own troubles are so numerous and so difficult that we have neither the time or inclination to meddle in the affairs of others." Never again, she continued, would the United States "pull the chestnuts out of the fire for some other nation." In the fall of 1939, she opposed Roosevelt's proposal of cash-and-carry, whereby belligerents, primarily the Allies, could receive arms provided they avoid taking out loans and transported the goods themselves. In March 1941, she voted against the lend-lease act, asking, "Would not this bill tie our destiny to that of the European war leaders whose actions we are unable to control practically for all time …?" Once the Western powers fought to mutual exhaustion, she warned, the Soviets would attempt to communize the world. Rogers, however, was not a rigid isolationist. Before World War II, she favored the fortification of Guam. In 1940, she voted for the selective service act and a year later she supported extending the service terms of the draftees. In the fall of 1941, she backed FDR's request for arming American merchant ships and permitting them to enter belligerent ports, a measure that passed Congress less than a month before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
During World War II, Rogers' knowledge of the armed forces—and her political clout—was invaluable both to the military and to the Roosevelt administration. On May 28, 1941, she first introduced a bill to create a Women's Auxiliary Army Corps. She modeled her proposal upon the British Auxiliary Territory Service, which she had observed firsthand during World War I. The bill provided that WAACs (or WACs, for in 1943 the "Auxiliary" was dropped) wear an Army uniform, receive pay on a scale similar to that of the regular Army, and live in barracks under Army discipline.
In Congress, Rogers' proposal led to a spirited floor fight. What would happen, asked critics, when young females were officially employed at the rough, all-male domain of army camps? Besides, who would do the nation's washing and mending? In 1942, it took pressure from George C. Marshall himself to secure passage of the bill. As chief of staff, Marshall realized that in America's women there existed a large pool of already trained personnel, already more competent in the desk jobs for which male personnel would have yet to be schooled. In time, Congress authorized the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service), the Army Air Corps WASPS (Women's Auxiliary Service Pilots), the Coast Guard SPARS (from the service's Latin motto Semper Paratus), and the Marine Corps Women's Reserve. In all, some 350,000 women donned uniforms.
As in World War I, Rogers inspected hospitals overseas. In the course of a visit to Italy, she was subject to German fire. By now, she had became so popular with troops that a small group of soldiers in the South Pacific adopted the middle-aged congresswoman as their company's pinup girl.
In 1944, Congress passed the GI Bill of Rights. As Rogers was crucial to its crafting, President Roosevelt appropriately presented her with the signature pen. Spearheaded by the American Legion and passed unanimously by Congress, the GI Bill offered veterans aid in purchasing housing, loans to start businesses, and monthly stipends to help meet education costs. A veteran could have up to $500 a year for college tuition and books and at least $50 for living expenses. By 1956, when the programs ended, close to 8 million veterans, about 50% of those who had served, had received benefits: 2.2 million attended colleges, 3.5 enrolled in technical schools, and 700,000 received agricultural instruction.
Little wonder that when the war ended in the summer of 1945, Rogers was preeminent in veterans' matters. In 1947, when the Republicans took over Congress, she became chair of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee. She later sponsored the Korean Veterans Benefits bill, a permanent Nurse Corps in the Veterans Administration, and legislation to support the development of prosthetic appliances and automobiles for amputees. Wrote the political columnists Robert S. Allen and William V. Shannon, "Servicemen, whether they fought at San Juan Hill, Château-Thierry, Guadalcanal, or in the Bulge, know she is one
politician who can be depended on." She was seen, quite correctly, as the GIs' representative, a powerful voice on behalf of those individuals invariably frustrated with the inefficiency that accompanies huge bureaucracies, particularly one whose growth was as astronomical as the VA. Over half of the 1,242 bills she introduced during her career dealt with military matters.
Until the early 1950s, Rogers strongly supported the bipartisan foreign policy articulated by Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg (Rep.-Mich.). She backed the United Nations, Truman's 1947 bill aiding Greece and Turkey, and the European Recovery Program, popularly known as the Marshall Plan. In 1950–51, during what was called the Great Debate over America's global role, she opposed such party leaders as Herbert Hoover and Senator Robert A. Taft (Rep.-Ohio) by endorsing the sending of American forces to Europe. In 1952, she supported Universal Military Training.
By the mid-'50s, however, a more strident form of nationalism surfaced. Rogers not only supported the House Committee on Un-American Activities; she also backed the investigations of Senator Joseph McCarthy (Rep.-Wis.), even contributing to a memorial volume upon his death. In 1953, she called upon the U.S. to withdraw its support from the UN. In fact, if member nations admitted Communist China, the U.S. should expel the organization from American soil. A year later, however, when Vice President Richard Nixon suggested sending U.S. troops to Indochina, Rogers contended that the area was a singularly bad place in which to fight a war.
Rogers' intense activity on behalf of the veteran never caused her to neglect her constituency. She secured lucrative "pork barrel" projects for her district, including funds for improvement and flood control for the Merrimack River Basin. She was credited with having brought to Massachusetts more than $1 billion worth of civil and military manufacturing contracts. She was so adamant on behalf of her area's textile industry that author Hope Chamberlin writes, "It seemed to some of her colleagues that she extolled the versatile virtues of cotton morning, noon, and night. On occasion she even forsook her modish ensembles for cotton dresses and urged all congressmen to wear cotton suits." She fought high textile tariffs and was a particularly strong opponent of Secretary of State Cordell Hull's reciprocal trade treaties.
At one point Rogers attacked a trade treaty with Czechoslovakia. Her district contained the heart of the nation's shoe industry, which feared Czech competition. When a Czech shoe manufacturer sought to establish schools in the U.S., she presented proof that such schools were in reality factories, where the "student" wage could "wreck the higher-paid, unionized domestic shoe industry." When she received a letter warning her to "keep your mouth shut or else," she was provided with police protection.
In 1949, a 67-year-old Rogers faced the threat of scandal. The wife of one of her longtime staff members, naval Captain Harold A. Latta Lawrence, named her as correspondent in a contested divorce case, alleging a "close and intimate relationship" for 20 years. The congresswoman and the captain vehemently denied the charge. Rogers emerged unscathed, for several months later a district court judge ordered all reference to her removed from the record. Lawrence remained as her aide, continuing to manage her political campaigns, becoming coexecutor of her estate, and even inheriting her house in Saco.
Politically, the 1950s saw Rogers as solidly entrenched as ever. When, late in the decade, the Democratically controlled Massachusetts legislature sought to "carve up" her district, House majority leader John W. McCormick, himself from South Boston, prevented the move. At the same time, she was declining both physically and mentally. In 1955, her attendance in the House started dropping, and she was giving signs that she felt "persecuted" by the House Republican leadership. By 1960, she was only supporting her party on one-third of all roll-calls. Yet, when she died of a heart attack on September 10, 1960, Rogers was preparing for her 19th election campaign. She had entered Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital under the assumed name of Edith White so as to avoid jeopardizing her chances in the forthcoming race. The Boston Globe commented simply, "Whoever is chosen to succeed her, it will probably be a long time before the position she occupied will, in the larger sense, be filled."
Chamberlain, Hope. A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress. Praeger, 1973.
Schuck, Victoria. "Edith Nourse Rogers," in Barbara Sicherman and Carol Hurd Green, eds., Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980, pp. 587–589.
Wyman, David S. Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis, 1938–1941. University of Massachusetts Press, 1968.
The Edith Nourse Rogers Papers are in the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Justus D. Doenecke , Professor of History, New College of the University of South Florida