The number of women serving in the US Senate today remains disturbingly small, but at least there are more than a handful, and several exert real power. This was hardly the case just a few years ago. And, further back, In 1950, only three women had ever served in that boys’ club, and mainly as appointees filling out their husband’s term.
That year, near the height of anti-Comnmunist hysteria America, a race in California might have started to change all that.
Helen Gahagan Douglas, an intelligent, attractive former actress and liberal activist—and three-term Democratic congresswoman from Los Angeles—ran for an open Senate seat. Her opponent: a young Republican named Richard Milhous Nixon. It was the campaign that would earn him a nickname that stuck: Tricky Dick. His team would call her the Pink Lady. I wrote about the campaign a few years ago in a Random House book, Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady. It probed the contest in the context of the Red Scare but also, as the subtitle had it, “Sexual Politics.” Indeed, Douglas would become a feminist icon in the 1970s.
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Two Hollywood screenwriters, former members of the Communist Party, flew east to face imprisonment for contempt of Congress. Seventy-three professors at the University of California fought dismissal for failing to sign a loyalty oath. The owner of KFI, a radio and television station in Los Angeles, ordered his 200 employees to endorse a similar oath. Only one KFI worker, a registered Republican, refused on principle, denouncing not only her boss but coworkers who “chose to see no further than today’s loaf of bread.” The mayor of Los Angeles, meanwhile, called on all citizens to notify the police of any neighbors they considered politically tainted.
In this atmosphere of vigilance and fear, Californians went to the polls on June 6, 1950, to nominate two candidates for the US Senate, setting the stage for a sensational election contest that fall.
As polls opened on primary day, political “dopesters” went “stir-crazy” trying to predict the results, the Hollywood Reporter observed. With California’s population surging it was impossible to predict how the new arrivals would vote. At midafternoon, Helen Gahagan Douglas, the Democratic front-runner in the Senate race, received a telegram from actress Greta Garbo that read, “Helen—Tonight or Never. God bless you.”
Garbo must have sensed her friend’s need for a boost on primary day, for the campaign had been painful and exhausting. The outgoing Democratic senator, Sheridan Downey, had announced that Douglas did not have “the fundamental ability and qualifications” to replace him and accused her of giving “comfort to Soviet tyranny.” Privately, an associate had advised Downey that Douglas was “a self-seeking, highly perfumed, smelly old girl,” adding, “I don’t believe in sending women to the House of Representatives or to the US Senate either. “A San Jose newspaper reported that if not exactly Red, she was “decidedly pink.” Westbrook Pegler, the syndicated columnist, cataloged her female deficiencies: her inattention to serious duties and her willingness to be nothing more than a “fluttering satellite” of the far left wing of her party. On top of that, fraternity boys at the University of Southern California had sprayed seltzer at her during a campus rally.