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Helen Gahagan

Helen Gahagan Douglas
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from California's 14th district
In office
January 3, 1945 – January 3, 1951
Preceded by Thomas F. Ford
Succeeded by Samuel W. Yorty
Personal details
Born Helen Gahagan
(1900-11-25)November 25, 1900
Boonton, New Jersey, USA
Died June 28, 1980(1980-06-28) (aged 79)
New York City, New York, USA
Nationality American
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Melvyn Douglas (1931-1980)
Relations Illeana Douglas (step-granddaughter)
Children Mary Helen Douglas (daughter) Peter Gahagan Douglas (son)
Alma mater Barnard College
Occupation Actress and politician

Helen Gahagan Douglas (November 25, 1900 – June 28, 1980) was an American actress and politician. She was the third woman and first Democratic woman elected to Congress from California; her election made California one of the first two states (Illinois was the other state) to elect female members to the House from both parties.

Early life and acting career

Gahagan was born in Boonton, New Jersey of Scotch-Irish descent. Her father was Walter H. Gahagan, an engineer who owned a construction business in Brooklyn and a shipyard in Arverne, Queens; her mother had been a schoolteacher.[1] She was reared Episcopalian.[2][3]

She graduated from the Berkeley Institute in 1920, and from Barnard College in 1924. Gahagan became a well-known star on Broadway in the 1920s. In 1931, she married actor Melvyn Douglas. Gahagan starred in only one Hollywood movie, She in 1935, playing Hash-a-Motep, queen of a lost city. The movie, based on H. Rider Haggard's novel of the same name, is perhaps best known for popularizing a phrase from the novel, "She who must be obeyed." Her character and costuming in She served as the inspiration for the appearance of the Evil Queen in Walt Disney's 1937 animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.[4]

Political career

In the 1940s, Gahagan Douglas entered politics. She was elected to the United States House of Representatives from California's 14th congressional district as a Democrat in 1944, and served three full terms as "a principled advocate of women's rights, civil liberties and world disarmament."[5] During this time she openly had an enduring love affair with then Congressman (and afterwards U.S. President) Lyndon B. Johnson.[6] Mrs. Douglas was mentioned in the song "George Murphy" by satirist Tom Lehrer. The song begins, "Hollywood's often tried to mix-show business with politics-from Helen Gahagan-to Ronald Reagan ..."

Appointments and activities

"Democratic National committeewoman for California from 1940 to 1944; vice chairwoman of the Democratic State central committee and chairman of the women’s division from 1940 to 1944; member of the national advisory committee of the Bioguide Congress

1950 campaign

In 1950, Gahagan Douglas ran for the United States Senate even though the incumbent Democrat Sheridan H. Downey was seeking a third term. William Malone, the Democratic state chairman in California, had advised Douglas to wait until 1952 to run for the Senate, rather than split the party in a fight with Downey. Gahagan Douglas, however, told Malone that Downey had neglected veterans and small growers and must be unseated. Downey withdrew from the race in the primary campaign and supported a third candidate, Manchester Boddy, the owner and publisher of the Los Angeles Daily News. When Gahagan Douglas defeated Boddy for the nomination, Downey endorsed the Republican U.S. Representative Richard M. Nixon.[8] Nixon's fellow Congressman John F. Kennedy quietly donated money to Nixon's campaign against Gahagan Douglas.[9]

In the race against Nixon, Gahagan Douglas was subject to a smear campaign. Alluding to her alleged "Red" sympathies, Nixon hinted that she was a fellow traveler, citing as evidence the correlation of her votes with those of a far-left member of Congress. Boddy had referred to her as "the Pink Lady" and said that she was "pink right down to her underwear." Nixon reprised this line of attack during the general election. His campaign manager, Murray Chotiner, even had flyers printed up on sheets of pink paper, to underline the point.

Gahagan Douglas, in return, popularized a nickname for Nixon which became one of the most enduring nicknames in American politics: "Tricky Dick." Nonetheless, Nixon won the election, with over 59 percent of the vote. Gahagan Douglas' political career hence came to an end. The conservative Democrat Samuel W. Yorty (later a Republican convert) succeeded her in Congress.

Later life and death

It was rumored that Douglas would be given a political appointment in the Truman administration, but the Nixon-Douglas race had made such an appointment too controversial for the President.[10] According to Democratic National Committee vice-chair India Edwards, a Douglas supporter, the former congresswoman could not have been appointed dogcatcher.[11] In 1952, she returned to acting, and eight years later campaigned for John F. Kennedy, who ran successfully against Nixon in the 1960 presidential race.[10] She also campaigned for George McGovern in his unsuccessful bid to prevent Nixon's 1972 reelection, and called for Nixon's ouster from office during the Watergate scandal.[12]

At its 1979 commencement ceremonies, Barnard College awarded Gahagan Douglas its highest honor, the Barnard Medal of Distinction.

She died on June 28, 1980, at the age of seventy-nine, from breast and lung cancer. Senator Alan Cranston of California eulogized her on the floor of the Senate, on August 5, 1980, saying: "I believe Helen Gahagan Douglas was one of the grandest, most eloquent, deepest thinking people we have had in American politics. She stands among the best of our 20th century leaders, rivaling even Eleanor Roosevelt in stature, compassion and simple greatness."[13]


Further reading

  • Mitchell, Greg.Tricky Dick & the Pink Lady: Richard Nixon vs Helen Gahagan Douglas-Sexual Politics & the Red Scare, 1950,(1998)
  • Scobie, Ingrid Winther. Center Stage: Helen Gahagan Douglas, (1995), by a history professor
  • Van Ingen, Linda, “‘If We Can Nominate Her, She is a Cinch to Elect’: Helen Gahagan Douglas and the Gendered Politics of Accommodation, 1940–1944,” Journal of Women’s History, 24 (Fall 2012), 140–63.

Primary sources

  • Douglas, Helen Gahagan. A Full Life (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1982), autobiography

External links

California portal
Biography portal
  • Women in Congress
  • Biographical Sketch of Helen Gahagan Douglas at the Carl Albert Center of the University of Oklahoma
  • Internet Movie Database
  • Find a Grave
Preceded by
Thomas F. Ford
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from California's 14th congressional district

Succeeded by
Samuel W. Yorty
Party political offices
Preceded by
Will Rogers, Jr.
Democratic nominee for U.S. Senator from California
(Class 3)

Succeeded by
Richard Richards

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