...in 1960, Representative Edith Nourse Rogers died of a heart attack in a Boston hospital, just three days before the end of her nineteenth campaign. The longest-serving woman in congressional history, she was first elected in 1927 to fill the seat occupied by her late husband. For the next 35 years, she represented her hometown of Lowell and the rest of the Massachusetts Fifth District, making veterans' rights her highest priority. The fearlessness that she showed as an amateur pilot in the era of unsteady biplanes served her well on the House floor. She was an outspoken opponent of totalitarianism, denouncing Hitler's treatment of the Jews as early as 1933, and an early advocate of the Equal Rights Amendment.
In the late summer of 1960, as she approached the end of another re-election campaign, 80-year-old Edith Nourse Rogers seemed politically invincible. But her popularity with voters could not save her from the effects of age. Failing health forced her to check into a hospital. She used the name "Edith White" to avoid endangering her campaign, but three days before the primary, she died of a heart attack.
Edith Nourse was born in 1881 in Saco, Maine, the only daughter of a well-to-do family. Her Harvard-educated father, Franklin T. Nourse, managed a large textile mill. In 1895 the family moved to Lowell, where Edith attended a small private girls' school. Her parents had the means to send her to a finishing school in Paris and then on a European tour. On her return to Lowell, she quickly became a popular socialite. A "tearing beauty," she was also charming, bright, and hardworking.
At the age of 26, Edith Nourse married John Jacob Rogers, a well-connected Lowell lawyer with political ambitions. In 1912 five years into their marriage, he won election to Congress. He would represent the Fifth District for the next 13 years.
Settled in Washington, Edith gracefully fulfilled the traditional role of a politician's wife. Her life changed in 1917 when she accompanied her husband and other members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on a fact-finding mission to Britain and France. What she saw on the front and in the field hospitals moved her deeply. When she returned to Washington, she volunteered for the Red Cross and began working seven days a week at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
In 1922 President Warren Harding named her Inspector of Veterans' Hospitals at a token salary of $1 a year. Both of the next two presidents would renew the appointment. As she visited veterans' hospitals around the country, Edith Nourse Rogers became knowledgeable and passionate about veterans' medical needs. She could be a harsh critic, at one point complaining that the Agriculture Department spent more money on pigs than the government did on ill and injured veterans.
In 1924, at the peak of his career, John Rogers was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. He died in 1925. The couple had no children, and family and political supporters urged Mrs. Rogers to run for his seat. She hesitated and then agreed, believing that her husband would wish her to carry on his work. A special election was held. When she won with 72 percent of the vote, becoming only the sixth woman elected to Congress, she hoped everyone would "forget as soon as possible that she was a woman." A Republican, she would win every one of the next 18 elections, even during the Democratic landslides of the New Deal.
During her career in the House, Edith Nourse Rogers served many years on the Civil Service and Foreign Affairs Committees. She sponsored bills to establish the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, expand the Nurses Corps in the Veterans Administration, and provide benefits for veterans of the Korean War. She is credited with having brought more than a billion dollars worth of contracts to Massachusetts. But her proudest accomplishment came in 1944, when she was one of the principal authors and sponsors of the historic GI Bill, which changed the lives of so many veterans and re-shaped the American economy.
She was an inspiration for many of the women who followed her into Congress. Massachusetts Representative Margaret Heckler explained, "Since [Rogers] was a woman in Congress, I didn't have to plow that ground. She made it possible for me to run." Her femininity was never in doubt she always wore a corsage of orchids and gardenias; nor was her determination. She adopted the military motto: "Fight hard, fight fair, and persevere."
The Boston Globe, January 10, 1999 and November 10, 2002.
Notable American Women: The Modern Period (Harvard University Press, 1980).