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.
Perhaps the most distasteful personal attack, however came from the state’s leading political writer. Kyle Palmer of the Los Angeles Times had criticized her Democratic rival, Manchester Boddy, for running a colorless campaign with “too much dignity” but advised that he “might still defeat the lady if he tried—in a political sense, of course—to slap her around a bit.” And so as the race tightened, Boddy charged that a “subversive clique of red hots” was attempting to take over the Democratic Party, and he accused Douglas of harboring “communist sympathies.”
But it was the newspaper he published, the Los Angeles Daily News, that first put into print a new nickname for Helen Douglas. “The Pink Lady,” the Daily News called her.
Through it all, Douglas had remained confident, and with some cause. She was intelligent, articulate and attractive, one of only nine female members of Congress, the best-dressed woman in public life (according to the Fashion Academy in New York) and the first prominent actor to run for high office. “I know I am going to win,” she informed a national Democratic leader. Most of the party leaders in California, however, opposed her. They didn’t like the idea of having a woman in the Senate “with whom they can’t make deals,” she charged. “In the House it is all right since it is like having a feather stuck in your hat, but it is not all right in the Senate.” She had fought back, campaigning furiously, barnstorming by helicopter—the first time this had been done outside Texas. An editorial cartoon portrayed her in a football helmet, stiff-arming male politicians. Another, under the title if a body meets a boddy, pictured Douglas and Boddy blocking each other’s path, with the caption “Coming through the rye, should the Body or the Boddy let the other by?”
Tall and stately, Douglas was the number-one glamour girl of the Democratic Party, a writer for a New York newspaper observed. On the campaign trail, however, she had little time for “feminine necessities” such as getting her hair and nails done, according to the reporter, and she had already put on ten pounds, munching on candy bars to keep up her energy and consuming cakes baked for afternoon teas. Another writer observed that a woman running for the Senate has problems that never bother a “baldheaded candidate.” A man goes straight to bed at night after a final speech, but a woman “has to get a shampoo at midnight. She has to go to bed with her head in a towel to dry while she sleeps.” Douglas also had to contend with the demands of two children at home. “But mother!” her 11-year-old daughter, Mary Helen, had recently implored. “Why must you work so hard? Why can’t you stay home and go swimming with me?”
When Douglas visited Santa Clara, a local columnist revealed that she had arrived for a campaign appearance right on time, “sufficiently remarkable in any woman.” She looked young for her age, which was 49, and the former opera diva and Hollywood star did it without the usual artifice of makeup, retouched hair, or “trick millinery.” From this, the columnist concluded that she was interested “in persuading the minds of her audience, not in charming them off their feet.” Still, the political attacks on the candidate grew harsher, and she was too busy defending herself from attacks by Democrats to go after her likely Republican opponent, Congressman Richard M. Nixon. Yet she told her San Diego organizer, “You know, what happens to me personally isn’t very important. But that pipsqueak [Nixon] has his eye on the white House and if he ever gets there, God help us all.”
Close to primary day, Douglas assured her mentor, Eleanor Roosevelt, that Boddy’s Red-baiting was so excessive “it helped us.” In San Francisco near the end, she led a march of women carrying grocery baskets up Market Street to protest the high cost of living. A local newspaper published a photo of a radiant Douglas surrounded by the huge crowd under the headline NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF A——. Over the radio, Douglas confidently proclaimed, “Money alone never has won and never will win an election.”
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As they visited friends on primary day, Representative Richard Nixon and his pretty wife, Pat, radiated happiness and confidence. Dick Nixon appeared certain to win more than 90 percent of the Republican vote, and Manchester Boddy had already bloodied the likely Democratic winner. Nixon knew that his campaign against Helen Douglas would be well managed and well financed, and the most grueling period was already past: his travels up and down this cruelly distended state in a yellow wood-paneled station wagon, journeying 15,000 miles to deliver more than 600 speeches in fifty counties. And that was for a one-sided primary contest. The rest of the campaign would be a war; it would be for all the marbles; it would pit him against a strong, worthy, but highly vulnerable candidate (a woman, no less)—meaning, in political terms, it would be challenging, fascinating, possibly even fun. “There is only one way we can win,” Nixon had vowed. “We must put on a fighting, rocking, socking campaign.”
“Mrs. Douglas takes wholeheartedly after the Administration’s program,” Richard Nixon remarked on primary day, “one hundred percent plus, including such things as socialized medicine.” That evening, Nixon and his family checked the early returns at City Hall in downtown Los Angeles, then celebrated at election headquarters on the second floor of the Garland Building over on West Ninth Street. His vote of more than 740,000 exceeded even his high expectations as his two minor GOP challengers mustered less than 35,000 between them. More significant, however, was Nixon’s tally in the Democratic column: more than 300,000 votes. This suggested that his attacks on Truman and other Democrats as unwitting allies of the Soviets had paid off and should be pressed even more intensely in coming months.
“I welcome Mrs. Douglas as an opponent,” Nixon announced. “It won’t be a campaign of personalities but of issues.” Douglas would have to reveal where she stood on those issues, “or,” he added ominously, “I’ll do it for her.”
Most of Nixon’s advisers felt that Douglas would be a formidable foe; she was as brave and as energetic as their man, with twice the charisma. For the record, Nixon concurred, calling her “a colorful, aggressive, vote-getting candidate” who had long been underrated by the “wise boys” of politics. But privately, he and campaign strategist Murray Chotiner felt otherwise. If Senator Downey had run for re-election, the outcome, they believed, would have hinged on farm issues, not on the Communist threat. But that all changed with Downey out. Nixon and Chotiner wanted Helen Douglas to win the nomination because her liberal politics played into the freedom-versus-socialism theme they had already decided would dominate the campaign. “There’s no use trying to talk about anything else,” Nixon told his Northern California chairman, “because it’s all the people want to hear about.” This was sure to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
During their travels across the state that spring, Nixon and Douglas had rarely crossed paths. Douglas, aware of her rival’s talent as a debater, avoided joint meetings. One day, however, they appeared separately in a small town in the north. Nixon’s aide Bill Arnold went out to hear what she was saying, came back, and reported to his boss. This was during a phase when Douglas, angered by Nixon’s gibes, sometimes lost her composure and referred to him as a “peewee” who, like Joe McCarthy, was trying to get people so scared of communism they would be afraid to turn off the lights at night.
When he heard what she had said, Nixon muttered, “Why, I’ll castrate her!” That would be literally impossible, Arnold pointed out. “I don’t care,” Nixon responded, “I’ll do it anyway!”
As a woman, Helen Douglas was particularly vulnerable to charges that she lacked the toughness to oppose the Communists. But Chotiner reminded his candidate, “You can’t get into a name-calling contest with a woman. The cost in votes would be prohibitive.” Still, Nixon would later admit that Douglas’s emergence on the Democratic side “brightened my prospects considerably.”
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On primary night, Helen Douglas, dressed in a simple black dress—but still movie-star radiant—joined her mostly female staffers at her Los Angeles headquarters. She had won a solid victory, defeating Boddy by a two-to-one margin and rolling up more than 150,000 votes in the GOP primary. Her supporters, true believers, responded with whoops and hugs, as if she had already won the election. She asked much, sometimes too much, of her aides, but they remained devoted to her. Some of them felt that the voters (particularly women) admired what Douglas stood for, and she was a fabulously vibrant campaigner, so there was no way she could lose. Red-baiting had ultimately failed Boddy, so Nixon would not dare revive it. (Note: Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady probes the full trauma of the "Red Scare" period.)
Before returning to the home she shared with her children and husband in the hills high above Los Angeles, she stopped at several local campaign headquarters. Paul Ziffren, the well-known attorney and one of her chief fundraisers, finally drove her home, and Douglas, all business, asked him to make sure to thank Eleanor Roosevelt and others for their help.
Unlike many of her supporters, Douglas knew she was far from a shoo-in. Simple arithmetic told her that Nixon’s combined vote in the GOP and the Democratic primaries exceeded 1 million, whereas hers did not quite reach 900,000. This in itself was not fatal, for the Democratic turnout would likely soar in November. But there was something more troubling. For nearly four years, she had observed her colleague Richard Nixon at close range in Congress, and she knew him to be smart, dynamic, daring, a formidable speaker—and out to win at almost any cost. A reporter for a Democratic paper called him “Whittier’s tall, dark and handsome gift to the Republican party.” Now she had received a letter from a member of Students for Douglas at the University of California at Berkeley. Nixon had spoken at Sather Gate, and the student was surprised to hear him give a “magnificent” speech. “He is one of the cleverest speakers I have ever heard,” he warned.
The letter was remarkably astute. Douglas, in reply, told the student that his report corroborated what she had heard from others. “I think you are quite right,” she observed, “and will act accordingly.” As Helen Douglas retired on primary night, she knew that if she let her gifted opponent call the shots in this campaign she had no chance of becoming just the fourth woman ever elected to the US Senate.
Greg Mitchell’s Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady, a New York Times "Notable Book," has just been published in a new edition (and also as an e-book).. His other books on key American campaigns include The Campaign of the Century (Upton Sinclair, 1934) and Why Obama Won. More recently, he has written books about Bradley Manning, Beethoven and the Hiroshima & Nagasaki “Cover-up.” He can be reached at epic1934 @ aol.com.