Catherine May was the first woman elected to Congress from Washington state and one of the few women of her generation to win national office without first being appointed to replace a husband. A conservative Republican from Yakima, she represented her district for 18 years, first in the state legislature and then, beginning in 1958, in Congress. She was in many ways a study in the contradictions of her time. She championed equal rights for women yet took pains to distance herself from the women's liberation movement. She adopted the persona of a chatty housewife even though she was a working mother who rarely spent time at home and for years she and her husband maintained separate households. She succeeded in a man's world by cloaking herself in diffidence. Her constituents indicated their approval by re-electing her to Congress by ever-increasing margins throughout the 1960s. Finally, in 1970, she lost a bid for a seventh term, swept aside by social and political changes that shredded the conventions of earlier eras.
"Catherine the Brave"
Catherine Dean Barnes was born on May 18, 1914, in Yakima, the second child of Charles H. Barnes, a merchant and real-estate broker, and Pauline Van Loon Barnes, a member of a long-established Eastern Washington family. She had a quick, nimble mind that made her a family favorite from an early age. She was still in grammar school when she won a silver dollar from her grandmother as a reward for memorizing the Bill of Rights and the preamble to the United States Constitution. She was athletic, outgoing, and fearless. Her friends called her "Catherine the Brave."
She grew up in comfortable circumstances in Yakima. Her father’s business interests included a women’s clothing store, the Barnes-Woodlin Fine Ladies Apparel Store. However, the family’s fortunes declined during the Depression of the 1930s. Her father lost most of his holdings. With the businesses went her mother’s hopes of sending Catherine to a prestigious Eastern university. Instead, after graduating from Yakima High School in 1932, she enrolled in Yakima Valley Junior College. She transferred to the University of Washington in Seattle two years later, majoring in English with a minor in drama. She graduated in 1936, and then stayed on campus another year to earn a teaching certificate.
A child of politically conservative parents, she committed one act of political apostasy during her college years, voting for a Democrat -- the incumbent president Franklin D. Roosevelt -- in 1936. She never again strayed from the Republican path.
Catherine Barnes taught English at Chehalis High School for three years, with a brief but pivotal interruption to study speech at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, in 1939. That experience gave her the training to segue into a career in radio broadcasting. Radio, in turn, provided the launching pad for her political career.
She began working as a women’s editor and broadcaster for radio station KMO in Tacoma in 1941. She received no salary, only a commission based on the number of ads she sold for an afternoon radio show aimed at housewives. She proved to be adept both at selling advertising and at telling women how to be better homemakers -- even though she had neither a husband nor children at the time. "I told women how to raise their children and how to cook and all those things," she recalled, with some amusement. "I knew as much as you could put in your left ear" (Yakima Herald-Republic, 1999).
She met her first husband, James O. May, in late 1942. He was an Army staff sergeant, based at Fort Lewis. The two married on January 18, 1943. They moved to New Jersey the following year, when he was transferred to Fort Dix. She found work as a writer and assistant commentator for the National Broadcasting Company in New York City. Her assignments included the first Betty Crocker radio show, which she produced in 1945.
James May was discharged from the U.S. Army in 1946, and the couple settled in Yakima, with their infant son, James (nicknamed "Jamie") Jr. A daughter, Melinda, was born in 1950.
In Yakima, James May joined his father-in-law’s real-estate firm. Catherine went to work for KIT radio, the most powerful broadcasting station in Yakima. She produced a daily show aimed at women. According to writer Patricia Pidcock, the show broke new ground. In addition to the usual array of recipes, household tips, social events, and other conventional topics for women’s programs, May introduced hard news. She assumed, correctly, that what interested her would interest other women. The show was a local hit. May continued to produce and host it for more than a decade, leaving only after winning her campaign for Congress.
James and Catherine May joined the Yakima Young Republicans Club in early 1952, reportedly at the urging of her father, who regretted not having entered the political arena himself. James was promptly elected president. So-called "Old Guard Republicans" in Washington state at that time supported presidential candidate Robert Taft, an Ohio senator known as "Mr. Republican." Younger Republicans, like the Mays, preferred the more moderate Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969). The couple helped recruit Eisenhower supporters to precinct caucuses in Yakima county. Eisenhower easily swept the county that year.
The success of her first foray into politics whetted Catherine’s appetite for more. She readily agreed when her husband suggested she run for a seat in the state House of Representatives. James, who was uncomfortable with public speaking, recognized that his gregarious wife was a natural campaigner. She loved "pressing the flesh." Her membership in a well-established Yakima family and her large constituency of female radio listeners were among her other political attributes.
To the surprise of the local "Old Guard" leadership, the "short, chubby, talkative housewife" won the Republican primary in September 1952 (Pidcock, 6). Since Yakima had not sent a Democrat to the legislature for nearly 20 years, her general election victory, two months later, was almost anticlimactic. She was one of nine women elected to the 99-member state House of Representatives that year. She was re-elected, with only token Democratic opposition, in 1954 and 1956.
On the campaign trail, May assiduously protected her image as an ordinary housewife in a traditional family, a mother of two who "merely extended her domesticity over the airwaves" for a half an hour every day (Pidcock, 32). In fact, producing her radio program and selling advertisements for it took up most of her time. Her daughter, Melinda, recalled one "photo op" when May was shown in an apron serving eggs to her two children. "I was allergic to eggs," she said. "I had never had an egg in my life" -- and her mother was rarely in an apron (Yakima Herald-Republic, 1999).
As a legislator, May supported her party on virtually every issue. She opposed state financing of education on the grounds that it would lead to socialism; supported policies that favored private power companies over public utilities; and voted with the Republican majority to cut state welfare payments. Her major legislative accomplishment was the sponsorship of a 1955 bill that became the legal foundation for public television in the state. She moderated some of her positions on education during her third term, endorsing one bill to exempt local school districts from state and county taxes and another to make it easier for them to pass levies. She also voted to relax several so-called "blue laws," including one restricting the sale of alcoholic beverages to women. On most fiscal matters, however, she remained staunchly conservative.
Mrs. May Goes to Washington
May decided to launch a campaign for the Fourth District Congressional seat in 1958 after the eight-term Republican incumbent, Otis H. "Hal" Holmes (1902-1977), announced his retirement. She again surprised local party leaders by handily winning the Republican primary. However, in contrast to her legislative campaigns -- where the contest was pretty much settled in the primary -- she faced an uphill battle in the general election.
Her Democratic opponent was Frank LeRoux of Walla Walla, a wealthy wheat farmer and businessman who had nearly unseated Holmes two years earlier. LeRoux had the advantages of personal wealth, prominence in agriculture, and considerable support from Senator Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989) and the Democratic party leadership. He also enjoyed name recognition throughout the sprawling Fourth District as a result of his 1956 campaign.
The district at that time was the largest in the state, encompassing 12 southeastern counties. May was little known outside her home county, Yakima. The State Republican Central Committee considered her "a lost cause" and did not support her financially. The Yakima Women’s Republic Club raised a little money for her by selling 1,588 cans of pudding for $1 each. LeRoux had the funds to buy billboards to reach the district’s widely disbursed electorate. May printed handbills instead, which she distributed personally door-to-door. She challenged LeRoux to a debate, daring him to "Come out from behind those billboards" (Women in Congress website). He declined. Unable to afford motels, she slept in the homes of local Republicans when she barnstormed in the far corners of the district.
LeRoux was well known but not widely liked. He seemed stiff and cold; May, in contrast, projected warmth and affability. She won support in the largely non-union Fourth District by endorsing a right-to-work initiative to ban union membership as a condition for employment. She appealed to farmers by pledging to advocate the continuation of farm price supports. She ended up outpolling LeRoux by 54 percent (66,544 votes) to 46 percent (56,308 votes), in a major political upset. "I became a candidate myself more or less through a series of fortuitous circumstances," she said later, "and, frankly, no one was more surprised than I when I won my race for Congress" (May to Gillette, Digital Collection).
Then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) was among the first who greeted her when she arrived in Washington, D.C., in mid-December 1958. Rep. Thomas M. Pelly (1902-1973), a veteran Congressman from the First District, escorted her to the White House for a perfunctory introduction to President Eisenhower. Admittedly star-struck, May sent her family, friends, and office staff a four-page, blow-by-blow description of her brief meeting with the president. It was a thrill, she said, to hear "that magic phrase, ‘Mr. President is ready to see you now, Mrs. May’ " (May to All, Digital Collection).
Congresswoman May positioned herself well to serve her district. After several weeks of hard lobbying, she won a coveted seat on the House Agriculture Committee, an important assignment for a representative from a rural area. She was the first Washingtonian to serve on that committee, a position she held throughout her tenure in Congress. Later, she also was assigned to the House-Senate Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. She had long sought a seat on that panel because of its significance to the Hanford Nuclear Power Plant in Eastern Washington.
As she had in the legislature, May established a record in Congress as a moderate who generally backed her party. Much of her legislative agenda focused on the interests of farmers and livestock producers. She championed efforts to impose special fees on imported sugar and to establish higher quotas for domestic sugar. Both measures favored domestic sugar-beet production, a key agricultural industry in Eastern Washington. She also resisted efforts to improve conditions for migrant workers. Farmers in her district had come to depend on an annual infusion of cheap labor from Mexico, a practice that grew out of manpower shortages during World War II. May led the opposition to regulations that would have required employers to provide better housing and higher wages for migrant "braceros."
May also consistently defended farm price supports, despite opposition from those who thought the program was simply welfare for farmers. Under agricultural programs established during the 1930s, the federal government guaranteed farmers certain prices for their commodities and bought up surpluses that couldn’t be sold on the open market. One of the most pressing issues in Congress during May’s first term was the question of what to do with those surpluses. They were so large and storage so limited that at one point, 43 "Liberty ships" (decommissioned World War II vessels) were filled with 100 million bushels of wheat and anchored a mile offshore in Puget Sound near Budd Inlet -- the ships serving as floating silos.
May supported the Food for Peace program, under which surplus food was given to poor nations as a hedge against communism. In this, she stood in opposition to the powerful American Farm Bureau Federation, which insisted the food should be sold, not given away. May also favored the free distribution of government commodities to poor people in the United States. She initially objected to a plan, proposed by House Democrats, to further reduce surpluses through a food stamp program. However, she later became one of that program’s strongest advocates.
Focus on Hanford
Another legislative focus for May was the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, near the Tri-Cities. She played a key role in gaining congressional approval for construction of a generator to convert waste heat from Hanford’s nuclear reactors into steam for the production of electricity. The project put 500 people to work. May was acclaimed for her success in bringing jobs to the area, and coasted to re-election in 1964 with a 65 percent margin of victory.
The Hanford site at its peak included nine production reactors, five chemical separations plants, a large nuclear laboratory, and related facilities. However, both the Johnson and the Nixon administrations took steps to curtail operations at Hanford. President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) decommissioned three reactors and one of the chemical separations plants in mid-1965. Nixon ordered additional closures after his election in 1968. By the time May received her appointment to the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, in July 1969, only three of the nine reactors at Hanford were still in operation.
May strongly objected to a decision by the Nixon administration in early 1970 to shut down two of the remaining reactors. She twice wrote to the White House, asking Nixon (by then an old friend) to reconsider, to no avail. The reactors were closed in July. The next month, the Senate threatened to cut funds for the only remaining reactor at Hanford. May’s failure to preserve operations at the Hanford site cost her dearly when she faced re-election in November 1970.
Girls in the Boys’ Club
Catherine Dean May entered Congress in 1959 as one of 15 women in the 437-member House of Representatives. The traditions of the male-dominated institution ran deep: women were denied access to the House gym; had very limited access to the House pool (because some congressmen liked to swim au naturel and didn’t want women around); and were excluded from all-male social clubs, such as the Marching and Chowder Society, where much of the real business of Congress was conducted. Even the balcony behind the Speaker’s office was off limits to women.
May, like most members of her generation of congresswomen, accepted these restrictions with a smile and a shrug. By the time she left Congress, in 1970, a new, less compliant generation had begun to move in. "The arrival of personalities like Shirley Chisholm (elected in 1968) and Bella Abzug (1970) on the congressional scene shook our august body to its foundations," May recalled in an oral history interview. "Shirley and Bella were not what the male members of Congress had come to expect from a female colleague. They got just as demanding and as noisy and as difficult as men did!" May’s approach, in contrast, was "gentle, reasonable, and non-threatening" (Pidcock, 190).
Only once did May break character and publicly demand better treatment. In 1967, she, Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii), and Charlotte Reid (R-Illinois), showed up, gym bags in hand, to participate in an exercise class at the House gymnasium. They were turned away. House officials said male representatives would be uncomfortable exercising with women. They grudgingly agreed to provide more "women only" hours at the pool instead. May seemed satisfied with the outcome but discomfited by the attention. She said press accounts of the protest were "distorted," and insisted she did not feel discriminated against. As she put it in a letter to one young correspondent, "it is my view that congresswomen are not denied, substantially, the privileges and rights accorded their male counterparts in Congress" (May to Altepeter, Digital Collection). Even so, she confessed in another letter, some of the rules were "irritating" (May to Dillinger, Digital Collection).
Feminism Sotto Voce
Although May never identified herself with what she disdainfully called "Women’s Lib," she was a strong supporter of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and other legislative measures to promote equality for women. She co-sponsored the ERA in each new session of Congress between 1959, when she arrived, and 1970, when she left. (Congress finally approved the ERA in 1972, but it failed to win ratification by the necessary number of states.) She also co-sponsored the bill that President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) signed into law as the Equal Pay Act of 1963. And she helped add sex discrimination to the civil rights bill of 1964. When the bill passed, it made sexual as well as racial discrimination illegal and punishable in federal courts.
May also pushed to increase the number of women in top governmental positions. In a speech commemorating woman suffrage in 1961, she reminded President Kennedy, "with a delicate sense of needling," that of 300 high-level appointments he had made in eight months in office, only 20 had gone to women (Address to House). After Nixon became president, she admonished him, too, about the absence of women on important federal commissions. Asked at one point if a woman could be president, she replied: "I think the person best qualified for the position should be president, no matter whether the person is a man or a woman" (May to Shearer, Digital Collection).
She gave her most forceful defense of equal rights for women in a letter to the editor of Family Weekly in July 1970. "It is way past time for action to protect women’s legal rights as citizens and human beings, to eliminate discrimination against women, to recognize women’s ability to contribute to the economic, social and political life of this Nation," she wrote. "The history of this Nation ... could not have been written without the contributions of women" (May to Fitzgibbon, Digital Collection). Her words might have reflected frustration over the continuing failure of the ERA -- or her feelings on the eve of her divorce from her husband, James, after six years of legal separation.
Tumultuous Last Term
May won re-election in 1968 by a margin of 66 percent, but increasingly found herself under attack from both the left and the right. The moderate ground she had occupied for so long was eroding under the pressure of anti-war demonstrations, civil rights marches, urban riots, and demands for change from various disparate and cacophonous groups.
Much of the conflict centered on the war in Vietnam. May had been a fervent anti-Communist from her earliest days in politics. She once suggested that members of the American Communist Party be denied the right to vote. In a speech to the Yakima Kiwanis Club in November 1965, she associated communism with the "epidemic of civil disobedience in this country" (Pidcock, 222). When representatives of the Soviet Union inquired about the possibility of bidding on the installation of electric turbines at Grand Coulee Dam in 1967, May fired off a vehement protest to President Johnson. "I do not want a hammer and sickle attached to any project in my state," she thundered (Special Report, July 1967). She was convinced that in Vietnam, the United States was defending democracy against "naked Communism aggression."
Her confidence in the purpose and outcome of the war was shaken by the Tet offensive in January 1968, when the Communist government of North Vietnam launched a massive invasion of South Vietnam. For years, May and other supporters of the war had assumed that North Vietnam was on the verge of collapse. She was further troubled by what she saw in 1969 when, while on a trade mission to Japan, she took a side trip to Vietnam. She visited a burn hospital in Saigon and also spent time with her 23-year-old son, Jamie, who was stationed in a Marine camp in Da Nang. "For the first time," writes Patricia Pidcock, "she understood the grotesque human price of the Vietnam War" (226).
Meanwhile, the right-wing John Birch Society was blaming May for problems ranging from the closure of Hanford’s nuclear reactors to an epidemic of arson in the Columbia Basin. The Birchers accused her of having become too "liberal," as evidenced, in part, by her vote in favor of a bill to limit sales of mail-order guns. Her close alliance with the Nixon administration, on the other hand, cost her support from the left.
Her feelings about seeking election to a seventh term in 1970 were mixed. As Pidcock put it, "Events and circumstances intruded on her family with special force" that year (218). Her son was with the Marines in Vietnam. Her daughter, Melinda, 18-year-old college student, was among those who were questioning the status quo in America. And her marriage had come to an end, at a time when divorce was still considered something of a handicap in public life, particularly for women.
She faced a tough challenger in 1970 in State Senator Mike McCormack (b. 1921) of Richland, a research scientist and legislative veteran. His political mentor was the formidable Senator Henry M. Jackson (1912-1983). May was not at her best. She seemed tired and distracted. She did not begin campaigning until just weeks before the election, and some of what she had to say antagonized voters. For example, she attributed student unrest to overly permissive parents; said large corporate farms were inevitable; that agriculture accounted for one-third of the nation’s pollution, and that farmers had to pay to clean it up. "May enunciated what she saw as hard realities about America, but the voters were in no mood for frankness," Pidcock concluded (249).
On election day, November 3, 1970, she received only 58,814 votes to McCormack’s 66,186. McCormack won even in May’s own Yakima County. She was the only one of Washington’s seven representatives to be defeated for re-election that year, swept aside by a wave of social and political change that gave the district to a Democrat for the first time in nearly 30 years.
May was 54 years old by then, an attractive, silver-haired woman who took defeat with style and grace. "I’m not going to run again," she told Seattle Times writer Richard W. Larsen. "There’s nothing deader than a dead politician." Larsen concluded that "no one ever went out of office more gallantly or more graciously" (The Seattle Times, 1970).
Life After Politics
The defeat ended May’s political career but not her life in public service. In December 1970, President Nixon rewarded her loyalty by naming her one of the eight original trustees of the quasi-public National Railroad Passenger Corporation (AMTRAK). He also appointed her to the U.S. International Trade Commission. She served on the commission for 10 years, as chair from 1971 to 1975 and again from 1979 through 1980 -- the first woman to hold that position.
In 1982, President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) named her special consultant to the president on the 50 States Project (an effort to convince states to remove sexist laws from their books). By that time, she had moved to Palm Desert, California, with her new husband, Donald W. Bedell, an international trade management consultant whom she had married in late November 1970. She took her husband’s last name and retained it even after that marriage, too, ended in divorce.
She died on May 28, 2004, in Rancho Mirage, California, 10 days after her 90th birthday. Survivors included her son, James C. May, of Washington, D.C., and daughter, Melinda May Mazzetti, of San Francisco.
As the first woman to represent Washington state in Congress, May proved to her fellow citizens that a woman could promote their interests, make laws, and comprehend such "non-female" topics as agricultural policy, military defense, atomic energy, and the national budget. Today (2008), Washington’s two U.S. senators and its governor are women. In her understated way, May was a role model who inspired many other women to step out of traditional gender roles, including her own daughter. "She never questioned her ability to do what she was doing," Mazzetti said. "She was the only woman like that I knew at the time" (Yakima Herald-Republic, 1999).
"My mother never considered herself a feminist," her son said of her, "but she certainly was a trailblazer" (Human Events, 2004).