On November 4, 1958, Yakima state legislator Catherine May (1914-2004) is elected to the United States House of Representatives, becoming the first woman to represent Washington state in Congress. One of the few women of her generation to win election to national office without first being appointed to replace a husband, May will serve 12 years in Congress before being defeated in her bid for a seventh term in 1970.
A radio broadcaster and former high-school English teacher, May entered politics in 1952, when she launched a campaign for an open seat in the state legislature. She filed at the urging of her husband, James O. May, a Yakima real-estate agent and president of the local Young Republicans Club. Although dismissed by many "Old Guard" Republicans as a long-shot, she had a number of strengths as a political candidate. She came from a prominent local family, she had developed a large constituency of listeners as the host of a popular noontime radio show aimed at women, and she proved to be a natural campaigner.
She handily won the primary, held on September 11, 1952. Since Yakima had not sent a Democrat to the legislature for two decades, her victory in the general election, two months later, was something of a formality. She was one of nine women elected to the 99-member House that year; no women were elected to the state Senate. She was re-elected, with only token opposition, in 1954 and 1956.
As a legislator, May consistently voted with the conservative wing of her party. She opposed state support of education on the grounds that it would lead to socialism; favored private for-profit power companies over public utilities; and voted to cut state welfare payments. Her major legislative accomplishment was the sponsorship of a 1955 bill that became the legal foundation for public television in the state. During her third term, she voted to relax several so-called "blue laws," including one that restricted the sale of alcoholic beverages to women. On most fiscal matters, however, she remained staunchly conservative.
Mrs. May Goes to Washington
May decided to launch a campaign for the Fourth District Congressional seat in 1958 after the Republican incumbent, Otis H. "Hal" Holmes (1902-1977), announced his retirement. The Fourth District was the largest in the state at that time, encompassing 12 southeastern counties. Despite little name recognition outside the Yakima area, May won the Republican primary by a comfortable margin. However, in contrast to her legislative campaigns -- where the contest was pretty much settled in the primary -- she faced an uphill battle in the general election.
Her opponent was Democrat Frank LeRoux, a wealthy wheat farmer and businessman from Walla Walla. LeRoux had come within a whisker of defeating Holmes two years earlier. In addition to widespread name recognition as a result of that campaign, he had considerable support from Senator Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989) and the Democratic party leadership. In contrast, the State Republican Central Committee considered May "a lost cause" and did not give her any financial support (Pidcock, 102). The Yakima Women’s Republic Club raised a little money for her by selling 1,588 cans of pudding for $1 each. Unable to afford motels, she slept in the homes of local Republicans when she campaigned in the far corners of the district.
May was articulate, personable, and accommodating. She won support in the largely non-union Fourth District by endorsing a right-to-work initiative to ban union membership as a condition for employment. She appealed to farmers by pledging to advocate the continuation of farm price supports. LeRoux was well known but not widely liked; he seemed stiff and cold. May, in contrast, projected warmth and affability. She ended up outpolling him by 54 percent (66,544 votes) to 46 percent (56,308 votes).
A Quiet Crusader
May represented the citizens of Washington state for a total of 18 years, first in the state House of Representatives and then, beginning in 1958, in Congress. Writer Patricia Pidcock credited her with proving to Washingtonians that a woman could successfully represent the interests of her constituents, make laws, and comprehend "non-female" topics such as military defense, atomic energy, and the national budget. She was the first member of Congress from Washington state to win a coveted seat on the House Agriculture Committee, a position she held throughout her tenure. She was later appointed to the joint House-Senate Atomic Energy Committee. She was also a member of the House Beauty Parlor Committee.
Although she took pains to distance herself from outspoken feminists, May was a quiet leader in the campaign to provide women with equal rights. She co-sponsored the bill that President Kennedy signed into law as the Equal Pay Act of 1963. She introduced a bill to ban sex discrimination in jury selection in 1966. She was also a co-sponsor of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), introducing it to each new session of Congress between 1959, when she arrived, and 1970, when she left. (The ERA was finally approved by Congress in 1972, but failed to win ratification by the necessary number of states.)
Congress during May’s era was firmly a men’s club. Women representatives were denied access to the House gym and the House swimming pool. They were excluded from all-male golfing parties at the Burning Tree Country Club and from the all-male meetings of the Marching and Chowder Society. Former Representative Pat Schroeder, a Democrat from Colorado who was elected to Congress in 1972, recalled that women couldn’t even go out on the balcony behind the Speaker’s office. "We had no women anywhere: no women pages, no women at the doorkeeper's office, in the parliamentarian's office, no women Capitol Police," she said in a 2008 interview with National Public Radio. "The attitude of a lot of women when I got there was, 'Aren't we lucky they let us in here?' "
May maneuvered in this environment with an approach that was "gentle, reasonable, and non-threatening" (Pidcock, 190). She forcefully disputed the assertion of writer Jack Anderson, in a cover story for Parade Magazine in 1967, that women in the House were being treated unfairly. The article "did not reflect the views of most all the other ladies about whom the article was written," she wrote, adding, "It is my view that congresswomen are not denied, substantially, the privileges and rights accorded their male counterparts in Congress" (May to Altepeter, 1967).
When she and two of her female colleagues (Patsy Mink, a Democrat from Hawaii, and Charlotte Reid, a Republican from Illinois) were turned away from the House swimming pool -- on the grounds that some of the male representatives swam nude and would not want women there -- May quietly negotiated biweekly swim hours for women only.
She and several other congresswomen tried to attach an amendment banning sex discrimination to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s civil rights bill in 1964. Their efforts failed until they enlisted the assistance of Howard W. Smith, chairman of the House Rules Committee and a determined segregationist from Virginia. They convinced Smith to allow a word change adding sex discrimination to the list of banned practices. Smith thought the change was so absurd that it would lead to an easy defeat for the bill. But it passed, making sexual as well as racial discrimination illegal and punishable in federal courts.
Political Swan Song
May coasted to re-election every two years throughout the 1960s, overwhelming her Democratic opponents with margins of 65 percent and more, even when other Republican candidates were being rejected by voters. In 1964, for example, she defeated challenger Stephen Huza, a Yakima accountant, by 93,401 votes to 49,845. The only other Republican to win a major office in Washington state that year was Daniel J. Evans (b. 1925), who was elected governor.
She remained popular in her district because of her attention to the concerns of her constituents. But as the decade came to an end, she faced growing opposition from both the left, primarily for her support of the Vietnam War; and the right, especially from the extremist John Birch Society.
May was deeply disturbed by student protests against the war, which she associated with "this disregard for law and order, this attitude of permissiveness which has become so prevalent." And yet she was horrified when one congressman suggested that demonstrators should be treated violently, even shot. She perceived herself as "a flaming moderate," caught between ultra conservatives on one side and the radical left on the other (Pidcock, 214-215).
In 1970, May faced her toughest political challenger yet: Democrat Mike McCormack (b. 1921), a Richland research scientist. He served in the Washington State House of Representatives during the 1956 and 1958 terms and then moved to the State Senate. His political mentor during the 1970 campaign was the formidable Senator Henry M. Jackson (1912-1983).
May also faced personal challenges. After years of living apart, she filed for divorce from her husband, Jim, in February 1970. Her 18-year-old daughter, Melinda, "had begun to question the status quo in America," as Pidcock put it (218). Her son, Jamie, 23, had joined the Marines and volunteered for service in Vietnam. May seemed tired and disengaged on the campaign trail. Her campaign staff was thinner and less enthusiastic than it had been in the past. Easy victories in nine elections -- going back to 1952 -- had left her overconfident.
On election day, November 3, 1970, she received only 58,814 votes to McCormack’s 66,186. McCormack won even in May’s own Yakima county.