Hats off to first female Hoosier in Congress

Riding FDR’s coattails while declaring herself “my own boss,” Democrat Virginia E. Jenckes unseated a 16-year incumbent in 1932 to become the first Indiana woman to serve in Congress.

A native of Terre Haute, Jenckes began her political career at age 55 after getting a taste of politics — and liking it — lobbying for flood control in her hometown.

“Virginia Jenckes was quite a woman,” says Marylee Hagan, executive director of the Vigo County Historical Society and Museum, which maintains documents and photos of Jenckes in its archives.

Among her many achievements, Jenckes managed a farm, spearheaded a national campaign to make a navigable river corridor from Lake Erie to the Gulf of Mexico and was the first woman to serve as a delegate to the International Parliamentary Union in Paris.

Born in 1877 to Mary and James Somes, Virginia attended the public schools of Terre Haute and spent one year in college at Indiana State Normal. In 1912, she married a businessman 34 years her senior, Ray G. Jenckes, manager of the American Hominy Company mill in Terre Haute. The couple had a daughter and owned a 1,300-acre farm on the banks of the Wabash River.

When Ray Jenckes died in 1921, his wife took over management of the farm and got involved in politics, becoming an officer in the Wabash-Maumee Improvement Association.

In 1932, Jenckes ran for the U.S. House of Representatives — a daunting task after the legislature redrew district boundaries to reflect population changes from the 1930 census. In order to win the seat, Jenckes had to beat two incumbents, first in the primary and then in the general election.

She succeeded, campaigning almost entirely on two issues: federally funded flood control and repeal of Prohibition, both which she said would help farmers in her region. Boosted by Franklin Roosevelt’s landslide in the presidential race, Jenckes won the general election with 54 percent of the vote.

Although gender was rarely an issue for her, “not all went smoothly,” notes Edward K. Spann in the September 1996 Indiana Magazine of History. “On her first day in the House of Representatives, Jenckes provoked a minor crisis by wearing her favorite red hat, unwittingly violating a House rule against wearing hats.”

Her congressional biography describes numerous achievements from her three terms in the House. “One of her first House votes was to support the Cullen Beer Bill — allowing for the production, transportation and sale of the beverage — which passed by a wide margin in March 1933. She also managed to secure $18 million in funding during the following Congress for a series of flood-control projects along the Wabash River Basin.”

Like most Democrats, Jenckes supported New Deal legislation that set up work relief, farm supports, public housing and the Civilian Conservation Corps. She voted in 1935 for the Social Security Act, but when her time came to collect benefits she declined. “I think when you give dole to people you take away their self-respect,” she explained.

Growing discomfort with the scope of the New Deal cost Jenckes re-election in 1938 when she lost to Republican Noble Johnson.

In retirement, Jenckes gained national attention for helping five priests escape Hungary during a 1956 uprising. Late in life she returned to Terre Haute, where she died in 1975.

Her likeness is included in a mural of 52 influential Vigo County citizens by artist Bill Wolfe displayed in the Rotunda of the Vigo County Courthouse.

If you go

The Vigo County Courthouse is at 33 S. 3rd Street in Terre Haute.