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Helen Gahagan Douglas (1900-1980) Actress Turned Congressperson

Helen Gahagan Douglas (1900-1980) Actress Turned Congressperson

Helen Gahagan Douglas was born in 1900 and was raised in a well-to-do family in Brooklyn, New York. She was not a serious student but loved acting, and by the age of 22 she had been cast in a lead role on Broadway.  She never returned to Barnard College where she had been a student.

Douglas began focusing seriously on singing opera; she went to Europe for several years where she could appear with opera companies and deepen her study.  In 1930 her father became very ill, and she returned to New York to be near her family. She also returned to Broadway where she was cast in a play opposite Melvyn Douglas (the stage name for Melvyn Hesselberg); several months later they were married.

The couple took two trips that profoundly affected Helen.  In 1937 Helen returned to Europe for a concert tour but Melvyn was not invited to parties held for her because of anti-Semitism.  (Melvyn’s father was Jewish and his mother was Protestant.)  Helen canceled her commitment for the following year and did not return because of the anti-Semitism.

Bound for California

Melvyn and Helen wanted to explore movie careers so they drove across the country to settle in Los Angeles.   Along the way they witnessed the plight of migrant workers.  The collapse of the economy in 1929 followed by the drought of the ‘30s meant there was no type of work for these people. Helen was very upset about what she observed and began to take an interest in politics.

Once in Los Angeles, Melvyn pursued a film career, and while Helen appeared in one science fiction movie, she soon turned to political causes.  In 1939 and 1940 she became a member of the national advisory committee of the Works Progress Administration and served on the State committee of the National Youth Administration. She traveled frequently to the White House to meet with Eleanor Roosevelt, and they became good friends.

In 1940, she became California Democratic national committeewoman—a post she held until 1944 when she ran for Congress and was elected as the representative of California’s Fourteenth District in the U.S. House of Representatives.  She was one of nine women in the House at that time.  She was successfully reelected to this position in 1946 and 1948 and used her star power and comfort at speaking before large crowds to advocate for labor rights, food subsidies, unemployment insurance for returning GIs, a revitalized farm security program, and income-based taxation for farmers and small business owners.

When asked about a woman’s place in Congress, Douglas replied, “Politics is a job that needs doing—by anyone who is interested enough to train for it and work at it. It’s like housekeeping; someone has to do it. Whether the job is done by men or women is not important—only whether the job is done well or badly.”

During a period when the Jim Crow laws still applied in the nation’s capital, Helen Douglas used her outsider status to challenge prevailing racial attitudes. The first white Representative with African-Americans on her staff, she also sought to desegregate Capitol restaurants. Douglas also attacked the practice of poll taxes, which effectively prevented many southern African Americans from voting, and she urged passage of anti-lynching legislation

She and Melvyn remained married but they lived separate lives for a time, and during her time in Washington, D.C. she had a relatively well-known love affair with Lyndon B. Johnson.

Ran for Senate

In 1950, she opposed Richard M. Nixon in the general election for the U.S. Senate, and it became quite a nasty campaign on both sides.  Nixon accused Douglas of Communist leanings because of her liberal record and her opposition to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. Nixon’s term for her was the “Pink Lady.”  He also made vaguely anti-Semitic comments referring to her as Mrs. Hesselberg (Melvyn Douglas’ real last name).

Douglas referred to Nixon as “Tricky Dick,” a term that his enemies continued to use against him for the rest of his time in political office.  However, Nixon easily won the election.

Douglas had hoped for a political appointment in the Truman administration but the campaign had been too damaging, and no politician could risk association with her during the years that HUAC was active.  Though Douglas never entered the political fray again, she remained a tireless public speaker and activist.

She later returned to the theater and performed in two Broadway plays and authored a book about her friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt.

After her death from cancer in June of 1980, Senator Alan Cranston of California eulogized her on the floor of the Senate, 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.”




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