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Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review, which has been on the web since 1995, is now published from Freeport, Maine. See main page for full contents

September 1, 2009


Sally Denton

Sam Smith, Progressive Review - Sally Denton has written an enthralling and long overdue account of Helen Gahagan Douglas, until now relegated to the character role of being Richard Nixon's first major victim. As Denton notes, it was a role that froze her "in a time and place, overshadowing not only the accomplishments and complexities of her long and fascinating life but allowing the press, her male political colleagues and rivals, and her later biographers, to define her and then dismiss her from the national stage."

Douglas was, in fact, also a Broadway and opera star, three term member of Congress, close associate and advocate of FDR, lover of LBJ, and an activist in issues ranging from housing to public education and nuclear disarmament. Her unsuccessful race for Senate against the nasty Nixon ended her political career but she remained a force for humanitarian goals the rest of her life.

Douglas was only the 33rd woman elected to the House of Representatives. In fact, if all women ever elected to the House were to sit there today, they would still be only barely a majority of its votes (53%). As it is, women hold only 17% of the seats.

As Douglas moved from a highly successful stage career to politics, she was indefatigable. In one FDR campaign she gave 250 speeches for the ticket.

Once, after watching a film at the White House, she turned to President Roosevelt with a plea for migrant children. FDR eyes filled with tears and his voice broke as he said, "Don't tell me anymore, Helen. You and Eleanor, you must stop ganging up on me." Douglas looked on Eleanor Roosevelt as her 'fairy godmother.'

Douglas' view of women was that they must be "willing to compete on an equal basis with men and expect no favors. . .They must neither ask nor give quarter."

Men in the media and politics did not treat her well. When she spoke at the 1944 Democratic convention, one correspondent called her voice "shrewish" and a politician called her a "self-seeking, highly perfumed, smelly old girl." Denton writes that she was called a "sexpot, a glamour puss, an uppity woman, and a fluttering satellite."

None of this slowed her down. She was even one of the few members of the House to vote against a permanent UnAmerican Activities Committee, that cesspool of disreputable American activities. Not surprisingly, J. Edgar Hoover had already opened a dossier on her.

The sort of things that might have made it into the file are described by Denton: "She was the first to hire a black congressional aide. . . She forced the desegregation of the House cafeteria, nominated a black man to West Point, and introduced legislation rescinding the tax exempt status of the Daughters of the American Revolution, who had refused allow black singer Marian Anderson to perform in Constitution Hall."

Her race against Nixon, writes Denton, "would go down in American history as the dirtiest ever. . . "Did you know that she's married to a Jew?" So began the telephone slander campaign against her. . . There were vague allusions to Helen as Stalin's favorite pinup girl."

The Daily News dubbed her the "pink lady." And the sexist slurs were of the same ilk, including the GOP official who wrote that Douglas was trying to convince people that "being a woman, she had a right to change her mind, and her record."

At one point the Nixon camp argued that during five years in Congress she
had "voted 353 times exactly as has Vito Marcantonio, the notorious Communist party-line congressman from New York."

Meanwhile Kyle Palmer in the LA Times called her a "a veritable political butterfly, flitting from flower to flower."

And it wasn't just the press and the Republicans. President Truman declined to endorse her and Joseph Kennedy gave $150,000 to the Republican candidate against whom, ten years later, his son John would have to run.

For Douglas, it got harder: "The worst moment, a sight I couldn't shake, was when children picked up rocks and threw them at my car, at me. I knew that in order to survive I would have to accept the rocks and the Nixon campaign, shrug them off and move on."

She lost by 700,000 votes, the largest margin of any senatorial contest in the country. And America's history was forever changed.

Reading this book, the question arose: why are such women so forgotten and ignored? You can largely blame sexism until you compare it to black history, which seems to have a done a better job of retrieving lost heroes, including many black women.

One hypothesis is that the women's movement has been of a higher economic and social order. The very term "glass ceiling," which came out of the women's movement, suggests that the oppressed must be well enough along to be looking at the ceiling and not still scrubbing floors. In fact, Nine to Five was one of the few women's groups to specifically target less educated and more lower class victims in the tradition of the civil rights movement. The best advocate of poorer women has not been the feminist movement, but ethnic civil rights organizations and labor unions.

The women's story has other gaps. When attorney Hillary Clinton entered the White House, it was given a uniqueness that only held up if one ignored Lady Bird Johnson, who had turned a $17,000 initial investment in a radio station into a $150 million business, becoming the first president's wife to be a millionaire in her own right.

Johnson also toured the south campaigning for her husband's civil rights agenda, something white women didn't do in those days, and yet history has largely hidden her.

And why so little attention to Frances Perkins, FDR's labor secretary who was a major force behind social security, unemployment insurance, child labor laws and a minimum wage?

History plays such tricks on us, which is why we are lucky to have folks like Sally Denton around to tell so well the stories it has forgotten or chosen to hide.


Blogger Aron Ranen said...

Please take a moment to check out my documentary film BLACK HAIR

It is free at youtube. 6 parts including an update from London, England.

It explores the Korean Take-over of the Black Beauty Supply and Hair biz..

The current situation makes it hard to believe that Madame C.J. Walker once ran the whole thing.

I am not a hater, I am a motivator.

Plus I am a White guy who stumbled upon this, and felt it was so wrong I had to make a film about it.

self-funded film, made from the heart.

Can it be taken back?


September 1, 2009 12:44 PM  
Blogger deborah said...

wouldn't want to give those silly ladies any idea's their dangerous, they look into another's eye's and see... another human...being!!! wanting what she wants in her home and community...peace, where's the money in that

September 2, 2009 1:09 AM  
Blogger jmc said...

Often unnoted is the fact that Nixon's actions became more and more sleazy as his career developed. His 1946 campaign against the liberal Jerry Voorhis was vicious in its tone and unmerciful in its applications. An unmistakably decent man, and an antiCommunist, Christian progressive, Voorhis laid out all the details of Nixon's campaign against him in his 'The Strange Case of Richard Milhous Nixon.'

Nixon's most successful slime crusade, however, was not for public office, but as a both a persecutor and a behind the scenes instigator in collaboration with J Edgar Hoover' in a campaign against Alger Hiss, all part of the GOP war on the New Deal.

Looking back on the Hiss case at this distance in time, the major outlines of what happened have become ever more clear: Hoover and Nixon framed Alger Hiss with the help of manufactured evidence, suborned witnesses, and fabricated testimony, most of it from the psychologically unstable fantasist, Whittaker Chambers.

The famous Woodstock typewriter in the trials was in all probability manufactured at the behest of the FBI either by former agents of British/ Canadian intelligence from the socalled Camp X [see Camp X, by David Stafford, 1986], a WW II espionage training camp 100 miles east of Toronto, or by covert Toronto associates who boasted of “being able to duplicate any typewriter in the world in three days.”

As for Hoover, long since demonstrated as having been a liar, he personally saw to it in subsequent years that several other innocent people were framed and sent to prison [cf. Joseph Salvati and Peter Limone, for example, framed in order to “protect” sources.] The argument that he was above framing Hiss thus holds no water at all.

Unfortunately for Alger Hiss, a Republican judge would not allow the typewriter to be resubmitted as new evidence in an appeals trial. Consequently, Nixon's public persona as a result of Hiss's conviction catapulted him onto the Eisenhower ticket, and ultimately into the presidency. Voorhis and the “Pink Lady” were just the beginning.
jim crawford
Westwood NJ

November 22, 2009 6:33 PM  

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