Surprisingly little has been written about the significant achievements of Caroline O’Day, a pioneer congresswoman who served as a member of the House of Representatives from 1935 to 1943. When she was elected as a representative-at-large from New York in 1934 she was already sixty-five and had not previously run for public office. Nevertheless, she quickly established a reputation for effectiveness in her new legislative role as a supporter of social welfare measures who had a strong commitment to pacifism.
Early in her first term, a headline in the New York Times announced: “Victory for Mrs. O’Day—House Adopts Her Plan to Stay Deportations Temporarily.” The article went on to describe passage of her proposed resolution to liberalize the immigration rules as Caroline O’Day’s “first major legislative victory.” For a freshman legislator it was undoubtedly a satisfying personal and political achievement.
The Times editors may have given the voting result special coverage because Caroline O’Day was one of just eight women then serving in Congress (six in the House and two in the Senate). She was also the first woman to represent a large constituency, winning a statewide race to fill one of the two at-large seats that existed before New York was redistricted. It was then less than twenty years since Jeannette Rankin of Montana had become the first female member of Congress, and it was still a male-dominated institution. Therefore, when a woman (she was addressed by her colleagues as “the Gentlewoman from New York”) showed signs of political leadership, it was treated as a newsworthy event.
This was, however, just one of the many times that Caroline O’Day received favorable press coverage during her four terms in Congress. As early as January 25, 1935, a Washington Post story noted that “The curious who come to the House galleries these days ask first to see Representative Caroline O’Day of New York…. After the opening day’s session, Mrs. O’Day spoke right out and said her impression of the House was one of ‘total confusion.’ She said she always thought men kept better order.”
An article in the Saturday Evening Post in 1937 said approvingly that she “makes up in hard work and graciousness what she lacks in drama, and … on all occasions can be counted on as a sure-fire liberal.” Time magazine, which described her the same year as “a tall, blue-eyed Episcopal socialite,” noted also that, “No rabid feminist, she smoothes ruffled Congressmen by such disarming statements as: ‘But I don’t know a thing about economics!’ “
Although she was already a highly regarded civic and social welfare leader by the time she first ran for Congress in 1934, her political success and media appeal were enhanced by her close personal association with Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Despite widespread criticism, the first lady took the unprecedented step of actively campaigning for her longtime friend while also acting as chair of her finance committee. Mrs. Roosevelt declared in one speech that “I am supporting her because of her personal qualifications, because I know she can work with little friction when she is working for an objective, and because she is not seeking the office for personal advantage.”
In the most eloquent of her endorsements, she told an audience: “I volunteered to do this because for thirteen years I worked under Mrs. O’Day in New York State, and together we practically organized the Women’s Division of the Democratic State Committee. I think Mrs. O’Day represents in herself the real reason why most women enter politics, which is in order to achieve changes in our social organization, which they become convinced can be reached only through government.”
Eleanor Roosevelt’s active support was certainly an important factor in Caroline O’Day’s winning the 1934 election by a wide margin over her Republican rival. Commenting on the outcome to reporters, Mrs. O’Day quipped: “The upstate newspapers said that Mrs. Roosevelt spoke for me because I was too dumb to speak for myself. I resent very much that Mrs. Roosevelt would speak for a dumb-bell.” It is worth noting, however, that she won reelection in 1936 over the same opponent with an even larger plurality and without Eleanor Roosevelt taking the stump on her behalf.
The real key to her political success, however, was that President Roosevelt and national Democratic Party leaders like James A. (“Jim”) Farley wanted her as part of their team of loyalists in Congress. She won their backing largely because of her demonstrated skill for getting out the vote, especially in the heavily Republican counties of upstate New York. Her ready endorsement of most New Deal programs triggered frequent Republican charges that she would be merely a “yes-woman” for the Roosevelt administration. Nevertheless, she made it clear that she strongly favored American neutrality and would not compromise her pacifist principles, which had led her to oppose the nation’s entry into World War I.
Her lifetime commitment to pacifism may well have been rooted in her childhood experience, growing up in a war-torn southern state shortly after the Civil War. Born Caroline Love Goodwin in 1869 on a plantation near Perry, Georgia, she was one of four daughters of Sidney and Elia Goodwin. Her father and other members of her family were Confederate army veterans, including her maternal grandfather, Eli Warren, who had served as a general in the Georgia militia. A great uncle, Peter Love, was a congressman from Georgia (1859–61) and a member of the congressional Committee of Thirty-Three that tried unsuccessfully on the eve of the Civil War to broker last-minute compromise proposals.
Despite the economic hardships that were widespread in Georgia during the Reconstruction period, her father’s business success allowed Caroline and her sisters to attend the Lucy Cobb Institute, a prominent secondary school for girls in Athens, Georgia, founded in 1859. Under the enlightened direction of its principal, Mildred Rutherford, the school flourished, and by 1883 it had eighty-two boarders and more than two hundred day students from Athens, home of the University of Georgia.
By that time, the Goodwin family had moved from rural Perry to the much more cosmopolitan city of Savannah, where, among its cultural attractions, the first art museum in the southeast was opened in 1886. That same year, Caroline graduated from Lucy Cobb, completing her academic studies. Possessing artistic talent and an independent spirit, she moved to New York City and became an art student at Cooper Union. Like a number of promising American artists of that period, she then moved to Paris to continue her studies. Her long-time friend, Marion Dickerman, describing Caroline O’Day’s life as an artist, said in her oral history: “Whistler at one point was her teacher, and it was from him that she caught her love of etching. She often said that the brightest period of her life as an art student was centered around his studio.”
As one art critic observed: “Late 19th-century Paris was the capital of the Western art world, and Americans flocked there to study, exhibit in the competitive annual Paris Salon, and make their name.” In both 1899 and 1900, Caroline Goodwin (not yet O’Day) succeeded in having her work shown at the Salon, a major exhibition of contemporary art held annually in Paris by members of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. The catalogue for the 1899 Salon listed her as a student of Raphael Collin, a noted French Academic painter, and showed that she had a painting and two drawings in the exhibition.
Unfortunately, little is known about the eight years she spent in Europe as a student and artist, mainly in Paris but also in Holland and Germany. In addition to selling some of her art, she helped to support herself by working commercially as a fashion illustrator for the New York Herald newspaper and various magazines. Her interest in fashion continued throughout her life. Marion Dickerman speculated that “Perhaps it was the Whistler influence that dictated her method of dress. She always wore black and white, invariably with a hat as an effective frame for her intelligent face.”
While living in Europe, she met Daniel O’Day, an American businessman whose father was an associate of John D. Rockefeller in the Standard Oil Company. At the time she was already over thirty, well beyond the age when most women were first married, but she was enjoying her independence and was very involved in the stimulating life of what the French called La Belle Époque. After Mr. O’Day proposed, he had to make several trips to Europe before he finally persuaded her to abandon her artistic career and return with him to New York, where they were married in 1902.
A few years after their marriage, Daniel and Caroline O’Day moved to Rye, New York, a residential community about twenty-five miles north of New York City in Westchester County. In 1871 a local historian, Charles W. Baird, had written that “Rye … has become the home of many families who have been drawn hither by the beauty and healthfulness of the spot and its proximity to New York.” It was in that setting that Caroline O’Day settled down to raise three children (Elia, Daniel, and Charles) in the newly built home that she named “Sunbright” after her family’s plantation in Georgia.
Even after the enactment of a federal income tax in 1913, the O’Day family had ample resources to support a comfortable lifestyle in Rye. Daniel O’Day, who, like his father before him, had been an officer of the Standard Oil Company, was later an independent investor with large petroleum interests. It is likely that he had also inherited substantial assets from his father, also named Daniel O’Day, who had risen to a senior position in Standard Oil.
In Titan, his biography of John D. Rockefeller, Ron Chernow describes the senior O’Day as “one of the most colorful figures in Standard history…. Born in County Clare, O’Day was a profane, two-fisted Irishman who tempered ruthless tactics with wit and charm. He inspired loyalty among subordinates and raw terror among adversaries. On his forehead, O’Day bore a scar from an old Oil Creek brawl that was a constant reminder of his bare-knuckled approach to business.”
Much less is known about the younger Daniel O’Day, but it appears that he avoided the pressured corporate life that brought power and success to his father. Although he was not politically active, he did become an enthusiastic advocate of women’s suffrage. According to a New York Times article in 1940, reporting on Caroline O’Day’s election to a third term, “It was not until the later stages of the struggle for suffrage that Mrs. O’Day’s political career might be said to have been launched. Although sympathetic, she was not active until her husband, the late Daniel O’Day, turned to her from the curbstone where both of them were watching a parade of suffragettes and asked why she was not among them.”
After her husband’s sudden death in 1916, Mrs. O’Day began actively working on behalf of the suffrage movement in New York, which achieved voting rights for women in 1917, three years before passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. However, she saw her efforts on behalf of pacifism frustrated in April of that year when President Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against imperial Germany. After the country entered the war, she continued to hold pacifist meetings at her home in Rye, even though participants at the gatherings were regularly put under surveillance by federal agents.
During the war she became increasingly involved in a number of social welfare groups, including the New York affiliate of the National Consumers League and the Women’s Trade Union League. While the latter focused more on organizing women into trade unions, both organizations sought to improve the wages and working conditions for women and children. Through these and other organizations, she came in contact with many of the leading female reformers of the day. Lillian Wald, one of the most prominent leaders, invited Mrs. O’Day to join the board of the Henry Street Settlement, which she had founded on New York’s Lower East Side.
Along with many of the same women, she joined the League of Women Voters and through the League began her political work in Westchester County. She also helped to establish the Women’s Division of the New York Democratic Committee, which gradually gained influence in the party as it developed support for Democratic candidates from the newly enfranchised women voters. Later she said that she felt the Republican Party was not close enough to the people while the Socialist Party’s policies were “too radical for the general welfare of the people.”
The historian Susan Ware noted that, “The Women’s Division of the Democratic State Committee attracted an outstanding group of former suffragists determined to prove that women could play vital roles in public life. One of the most dynamic was Nancy Cook, who, along with her friend, Marion Dickerman, got Eleanor Roosevelt involved in women’s Democratic politics.” It was through that connection also that Caroline O’Day and Eleanor Roosevelt were introduced, a meeting which led to a long-lasting bond among the four women that spanned political, business, and personal interests.
Recognizing her talents, the party leaders named Caroline O’Day as head of the Women’s Division in 1923, succeeding Harriet May Mills, and as vice chairman of the Democratic State Committee. It was a remarkable achievement for her to rise so far through the party ranks in such a short period of time. Armed with the new strength of women in the party, she succeeded the next year in defeating a move by some of the men to displace her from her leadership position.
In a 1926 speech to the League of Women Voters, Eleanor Roosevelt stated that the election of Caroline O’Day to one of the leadership positions broke down the last major barrier against women in the party. Still, two years later, Mrs. O’Day wrote in a letter to then governor Roosevelt: “We very much want to become an integral part of the State Committee, but you will find there is much prejudice to overcome among the older men before that can be accomplished.”
Along with her female colleagues, she visited each of the New York State counties to increase the participation of women in the Democratic organization. In her oral history, Frances Perkins, Roosevelt’s secretary of labor and the first female cabinet officer, recalled: “This women’s caravan was a very wonderful campaign device. I don’t know who invented it, but Agnes Leach, Caroline O’Day, Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman and a lot of other people operated it. Mrs. Roosevelt was interested in it, and I think went out with it sometimes.”
The women would pull into small towns, hand out literature, and make speeches in the public square, if there was one. For Mrs. O’Day, it provided valuable campaign experience as well as important political contacts for her future statewide races. Whenever she went on these tours, she rode in her Packard automobile driven by her chauffeur, Patrick O’Keefe. On one trip, accompanied by Marion Dickerman, they arrived in a town where they knew none of the local party leaders. According to Miss Dickerman, O’Keefe visited one of the local barbershops in this Republican stronghold and came back with the name of a “good Democrat” to contact.
When she was not leading a Democratic caravan around the state, Caroline O’Day could often be found in Albany promoting the agenda of the Women’s Division and lobbying on behalf of Governor Alfred E. Smith’s proposed reforms. Because of her record of public service, Governor Smith appointed her in 1923 to the New York State Board of Charities (later renamed the State Board of Social Welfare), a position she held until she was elected to Congress in 1934.
Her political stature increased further in 1924 when she was made a delegate-at-large to the Democratic National Convention and elected chairman of the New York State delegation. It was the first time a woman had received such an honor from either major party and, according to a New York Times account, her selection came as a surprise to many of the delegates. When the Democrats nominated John W. Davis rather than Al Smith for president, however, Caroline O’Day backed the more liberal Robert M. La Follette, a Wisconsin senator, who was the candidate of the Progressive Party.
It was an early indication of her independent streak, but she maintained her party loyalty by actively supporting the successful campaign of Al Smith for reelection as governor of New York. The following year, she urged women in the state, regardless of party, to back assembly candidates who supported Smith’s welfare program. Calling U.S. senator James W. Wadsworth the “new boss” of the Republican Party in New York, she claimed that he was out to “kill all the measures for which Governor Smith stands.”
Although she was very involved in the world of party politics, Caroline O’Day devoted a great real of her time, talent, and funds to the Val-Kill Partnership, a non-profit organization that she founded with Eleanor Roosevelt, Marion Dickerman, and Nancy Cook in the mid-1920s. As one of its first ventures, in 1925, the four women started a monthly journal, the Women’s Democratic News, which was edited in its early years by Eleanor Roosevelt. Beginning in 1928, however, Caroline O’Day was officially listed as editor as well as president of the publication.
In the November 1925 edition of the publication, she wrote: “We will let you in to the secret of The Cottage. When politics is through with us we are retiring to this charming retreat that is now rearing its stone walls against the cedars of a Dutchess County hillside. Here we mean to embark on an absolutely new enterprise….”
That enterprise was a furniture-making business called Val-Kill Industries, near the Roosevelt family home in Hyde Park, which included a small factory and furniture shop. Located behind the cottage that Eleanor Roosevelt shared with Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman, the shop sold reproductions of early American furniture and provided seasonal work for residents of the surrounding rural area.
Demand for period furniture declined during the Depression, and the factory was closed in 1936. Thereafter, Eleanor Roosevelt’s relations with Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman deteriorated to the point that the partnership was dissolved in late 1938. Writing about the Val-Kill partnership in her biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, Blanche Wiesen Cook commented: “Although Caroline O’Day’s precise role in these enterprises remains unclear, and she never lived at the cottage, she was associated with and financially contributed to every aspect of the partnership, and was personally closest to Marion Dickerman.”
Her participation in the Val-Kill partnership and frequent visits to Hyde Park strengthened her personal ties not only to Eleanor but also to FDR. When Al Smith ran unsuccessfully for the presidency in 1928, Roosevelt scored an upset victory in the race to succeed him as New York’s governor. Early in his first term, he appointed Frances Perkins as the state’s industrial commissioner. In her oral history, Perkins recalled that FDR had consulted his wife as well as Nancy Cook and Caroline O’Day before making the appointment, noting that, “These were the women he saw all the time. He didn’t have to go out on the highways and byways.”
Another talented addition to the team of women was Mary (Molly) Dewson, who was recruited by Eleanor Roosevelt to work for the New York State Women’s Democratic Committee when FDR ran for reelection in 1930. According to Dewson’s biographer, Susan Ware, “Eleanor and Caroline O’Day planned strategy and tactics, and Nancy Cook ran the office.” Molly Dewson’s role was to expand the enlistment of women in the Democratic Party. Later, she used the same skills at the national level to build a strong coalition of women voters in support of FDR’s 1932 and 1936 presidential campaigns.
Susan Ware has also identified a unique set of circumstances which came together in the 1930s that made possible substantial political and economic gains for women: “Most important were the emergency nature of the New Deal, the contributions of Eleanor Roosevelt, Frances Perkins, and Molly Dewson, women’s social welfare expertise, and women’s larger role in the Democratic party.” However, Ware also notes: “While unprecedented numbers of women served in appointive office in the 1930s, the decade saw a decline from the 1920s in the number of women elected to public office.”
In view of those facts, Caroline O’Day’s success in winning four terms as a representative-at-large from New York is all the more impressive. In 1934 she was elected by a plurality of 500,000, and in 1936 won by a margin of 900,000 over the same opponent. The plurality slipped to 600,000 in 1938, and in 1940 she still managed to win by 200,000 votes, even though she was too ill to campaign. Marion Dickerman wrote that she was “a natural campaigner … admired by men and liked by women … never domineering, she won her points by persuasion and the presentation of facts.”
Her campaign materials in 1934 laid out her “progressive platform,” which included: higher standards for wage earners; adequate relief at lowest cost to the taxpayer; a sound and enlightened fiscal policy; friendly foreign relations cemented by closer trade ties and wider opportunities for women in government. As qualifications for her candidacy as a “progressive,” she emphasized her work with social welfare agencies and trade union organizations as well as her commitment to the cause of peace. However, she also identified herself as a “keen business woman,” citing her many years of service as a director of the Rye (New York) Trust Company.
In Susan Ware’s opinion, Caroline O’Day and Mary T. Norton (a representative from New Jersey) were “the most prominent Democratic women holding elective office in the 1930s.” Mrs. Norton, who served in Congress from 1925 to 1951, was the first woman to chair a major committee (Committee on Labor), and Mrs. O’Day was the second (Committee on Election of President, Vice President and Representatives).
Although Caroline O’Day was not a member of the Labor Committee, she worked closely with Mary Norton on a number of labor reforms, especially the child labor protections of the Walsh-Healy Government Contracts Act (1936) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938). She also was a co-sponsor with Senator Robert Wagner (Democrat from New York) of what was originally known as the Wagner-O’Day Act (1938). Now known as the Javits-Wagner-O’Day program, it provides employment opportunities in the manufacture and delivery of goods and services to the federal government for individuals who are blind or have other severe disabilities.
The same concerns for protecting the rights of disadvantaged people guided her work on the House Immigration Committee. In addition to sponsoring the legislation (mentioned above) which stayed the deportation of seven thousand illegal aliens, she also strongly opposed the move, headed by Congressman Dies of Texas, for a law to deport “undesirable aliens.” Signing the minority report, she stated that the legislation would put America on a par with communist and fascist countries in “blotting out civil liberty.”
On labor and immigration issues Caroline O’Day often worked closely with Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, with whom she and her daughter, Elia, once shared a Washington house. In her oral history, Miss Perkins related how Mrs. O’Day had introduced her to a friend who was a senior official in the Veterans Employment Service. The introduction proved to be very valuable to Frances Perkins, who said of Caroline O’Day: “She was the kind of woman who, if anybody knew her, they were her friend. She was a loyal friend.”
During most of Caroline O’Day’s years in Congress, she and Eleanor Roosevelt shared many of the same goals and priorities. In 1937 the first lady worked behind the scenes in support of Walter White of the N.A.A.C.P and others who were lobbying for a federal anti-lynching law. According to her biographer, Blanche Wiesen Cook, “she particularly hailed Caroline O’Day’s courageous political speech [in Congress], given as a woman born and brought up in Georgia. Like ER, who in 1934 connected international and domestic race violence, O’Day declared that with Japanese atrocities in China and Hitler’s repeated boast that he treated Jews in Germany better than Negroes were treated in the United States, worldwide floodlights were cast upon the American lynchings.”
The House passed the bill by a wide margin, but it was effectively killed in the Senate by a long filibuster. Not willing to risk defeat of his New Deal priorities, FDR remained silent on the anti-lynching bill throughout the debates. Eleanor Roosevelt and Caroline O’Day antagonized a number of Southern congressional leaders in actively supporting the losing cause. Later, however, they both played key roles in an important gain for race relations, when Marian Anderson gave her historic concert at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
The site had been chosen because of its symbolic significance and because use of Constitution Hall had been denied by the D.A.R., an action that caused Eleanor Roosevelt to announce her resignation from the organization in “My Day,” her syndicated newspaper column. Because of her record on race relations, Caroline O’Day was asked to chair a sponsoring committee for the event. As the great singer made her way to the microphone that memorable Easter morning in 1939, Caroline O’Day was by her side.
In 1939 Eleanor Roosevelt and Caroline O’Day were also allied in an effort to expand the quota for Jewish refugees seeking a haven from Nazi Germany. Mrs. Roosevelt argued for the increase privately with FDR and officials at the State Department, while Mrs. O’Day joined a bipartisan move to achieve a compromise. As the vote drew near, FDR received a memo from his aide, “Pa” Watson, advising him: “Caroline O’Day asked me … if you would give her an expression of your views on the bill providing for 20,000 refugee children being allowed into America regardless of the quota system.” As he had done with the anti-lynching effort, FDR took the course of least political risk, and, without his support, the bill failed.
The fall of France in 1940 and the battle of Britain renewed the movement to evacuate refugee children from Europe. Opponents cited the risk that a ship carrying refugee children might be sunk by a German torpedo, thereby driving the U.S. into the war. With Caroline O’Day acting as the principal sponsor in the House, an amendment to the Neutrality Act was finally passed that resulted in a limited evacuation of children on unarmed and unescorted American ships. Mrs. O’Day succeeded in gaining FDR’s support for the bill by assuring him that the administration would not be blamed in case of a sinking.
Although Caroline O’Day made clear her strong opposition to the “merciless persecution of the Jews” by the Nazi government, she was not willing to support FDR’s plans for increased U.S involvement in the growing international conflict. In 1935 she was the toastmaster at a dinner honoring the life and work of the social welfare leader Jane Addams. The event also launched a campaign by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), of which she was a vice chairman, to obtain fifty million signatures worldwide to a “Peoples’ Mandate to Governments” to end war. Speaking at a 1936 meeting of the WILPF in New York, she said: “It is incredible that nations of the world not yet emerged from the aftermath of the World War should be preparing for another with almost fiendish eagerness….”
Three years later, her strong pacifist convictions caused her to oppose FDR’s attempt to repeal the arms embargo of the Neutrality Act. Shortly before a vote on the issue, FDR invited Caroline O’Day to dine at the White House. They were joined by their mutual friend Marion Dickerman, who later recalled that Mrs. O’Day argued that passage of the bill would increase the likelihood of American involvement in the war. According to Miss Dickerman, “They talked and talked and talked. FDR became heated, snappish. Caroline never lost her calm nor her firmness.”
Despite FDR’s efforts to change her mind, she voted with House Republicans, and the arms embargo was maintained by the narrow margin of 159 to 157. On July 1, 1939, FDR wrote a letter to her saying: “I know you always want me to be frank with you, and I honestly believe that the vote last night was a stimulus to war and that if the result had been different, it would have been a definite encouragement to peace.”
In the early 1930s, Eleanor Roosevelt held some of the same anti-war views as Caroline O’Day, whose strong commitment to pacifism did not keep the first lady from actively supporting her in 1934. During one campaign speech, Mrs. O’Day said: “I would support [FDR’s] measures in anything except war. If that came, I think I would just kiss my children good-bye and start off for Leavenworth.” In 1936 she headed a delegation from the People’s Mandate Committee when it called on FDR to lodge a protest against the administration’s requests for larger military appropriations.
Although some problems may have existed between Eleanor Roosevelt and Caroline O’Day over the latter’s strong pacifist views, the first lady went out of her way to endorse her candidacy for reelection in 1938. In one of her “My Day” columns she wrote: “The two women I know best in my own party, Caroline O’Day of New York and Nan Wood Honeyman of Oregon, seem to stand out because of their interest in social questions….” Even after Mrs. O’Day opposed the selective service bill in 1940, Eleanor Roosevelt still included positive comments about her in a Good Housekeeping article, but also wrote that “she has fixed ideas on the subject of war that nothing could change.”
The relationship between the two women also survived a brief conflict that arose in August 1939 regarding Mrs. O’Day’s role in overseeing the Women’s Division of the New York State Democratic Party. Mrs. Roosevelt said in a letter to Mrs. O’Day that the New York group’s cooperation with the National Committee “for a long time has been half-hearted and there is a general feeling that New York State is not on its toes.” Caroline O’Day responded: “Perhaps you have been even more out of touch with the state than I realized and do not know all that has been done.” Mrs. O’Day ended her letter: “After my last two years in Congress I have no delusions as to the difficulties that lie ahead in 1940.”
Despite some frictions that had developed between her and both of the Roosevelts, she was encouraged by the administration to run for a fourth congressional term in 1940. Remarkably, she won by a comfortable margin even though she was too ill (apparently the effects of a stroke) to appear in public during the campaign or even to vote. While still convalescing in June 1941, she broke her hip in a fall at her Rye home. Nevertheless, she managed to make her position known on key legislative measures. In November 1941, Mrs. O’Day opposed changes to the Neutrality Act that permitted American merchant ships to be armed and to enter combat zones, but the bill was passed. The New York Times reported that “Three Republican women legislators called out ‘No,’ and Mrs. Caroline O’Day, absent this term because of ill health, was paired against the bill.”
When Congress met on December 8, 1941, to vote on the War Resolutions, her illness again kept her from attending the session, but her views were recorded a few days later in the Congressional Record: “Had I been here I would have voted ‘aye.’ As an ardent worker for peace these past 25 years it is not easy for me to cast such a vote, whole heartedly as I agree in the steps taken…. In the peace that must inevitably follow today’s tragic present America has a role to play. We, all of us, must dedicate ourselves to the high resolve that she will play it worthily.”
Although her continuing illness kept her from returning to Washington, she was able to handle some of her House duties with the aid of her office staff and by arranging to be paired on votes whenever possible. She tried several times to resign from Congress, but was persuaded by Jim Farley to complete her term. Farley, who remained head of the New York State Democratic Committee after he left the Roosevelt administration, aimed to avoid the costs of a special statewide election and the risk that a Republican would win the seat.
She spent the declining months of her congressional career at her home in Rye with members of her family nearby. Still able, despite her infirmities, to write letters to her friends and colleagues, she wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt in October 1942 that “Among the most precious [memories] are my friendship with you and Franklin and the work we did in the state.”
On January 4, 1943, one day after her fourth term ended, Caroline O’Day died at her home. An editorial in the Washington Post on January 6, 1943, recalled: “Her femininity was the delight of the House. Her well-groomed appearance, her beautiful speaking voice, her sense of humor, and her engaging manner—they all captivated Congress.”
In a note of condolence, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to Elia O’Day: “Your mother and I have been friends for a long time…. Her high ideals and integrity were an inspiration to all who knew her or felt her influence, and her generosity touched many people and many causes in which she believed. Her passing is a loss not only to her family but to the world, especially at this time when women like your mother are needed to fight for justice.”
The pride Caroline O’Day took in her role as the “Gentlewoman from New York” was eloquently expressed in a speech she gave to the National Democratic Club shortly after she entered Congress: “I know one member of Congress whose heart sings for happiness when she sees the great, white dome of the Capitol standing out against the blue of Washington skies, and she says to herself—’my people have chosen me to represent them here—God grant me wisdom and strength that I may keep faith with them.’ “
1.ï¿½New York Times, Aug. 24, 1935.
2.ï¿½ The five other women in the House were Isabella S. Greenway (D-AZ), Virginia E. Jenckes (D-IN), Florence P. Kahn (R-CA), Maria T. Norton (D-NJ), and Edith N. Rogers (R-MA). The two in the Senate were Hattie W. Caraway (D-AR) and Rose M. Long (D-LA). Mrs. O’Day explained that the term “gentlewoman” was the “quaint, mid-Victorian way in which they are addressed in the House and designated in the [Congressional] Record” in a speech at the National Democratic Club on February 23, 1935, published as “The Congresswoman” in Vital Speeches of the Day, March 11, 1935.
3.ï¿½Saturday Evening Post, May 22, 1937; Time magazine, July 5, 1937.
4.ï¿½New York Times, Oct. 26, 1934.
5.ï¿½New York Times, Oct. 16, 1934.
6.ï¿½New York Times, Nov. 7, 1934.
7.ï¿½New York Times, Oct. 29, 1934.
8.ï¿½ Although Caroline O’Day’s birth date is still shown in her official congressional biography as June 22, 1875, the correct date, as confirmed by her grandson Daniel O’Day, Jr., was June 22, 1869. Two especially valuable references are those written by her good friend, Marion Dickerman, in Notable American Women, vol. 2 (1971) and by Martha H. Swain in American National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2000).
9.ï¿½Athens (Ga.) Banner-Herald, June 20, 2000.
10.ï¿½ Marion Dickerman, reminiscences, Columbia University Oral History.
11.ï¿½ Lois Marie Fink, American Art at Nineteenth-Century Paris Salons (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
12.ï¿½ Marion Dickerman, reminiscences.
13.ï¿½ Charles W. Baird, History of Rye, 1660–1870 (Harrison, N.Y.: Harbor Hill Books, 1974)..
14.ï¿½ Ron Chernow, Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (New York: Random House, 1998).
15.ï¿½New York Times, Nov. 6, 1940.
16.ï¿½ Marion Dickerman, reminiscences.
17.ï¿½ Susan Ware, Partner and I: Molly Dewson, Feminism and New Deal Politics (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987).
18.ï¿½ Caroline O’Day to FDR, December 14, 1928.
19.ï¿½ Frances Perkins, interview in “Notable New Yorkers,” Columbia University Oral History.
20.ï¿½ Marion Dickerman, reminiscences.
21.ï¿½New York Times, July 15, 1925.
22.ï¿½ Blanche Wiesen Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt, vol. 1:, 1884–1933 (New York: Viking, 1992).
23.ï¿½ Ware, Partner and I.
24.ï¿½ Ware, Holding Their Own: American Women in the 1930s (Boston, Mass.: Twayne Publishers, 1982).
25.ï¿½ Marion Dickerman, reminiscences.
26.ï¿½ Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, Hyde Park, N.Y.
27.ï¿½ Ware, Beyond Suffrage, Women in the New Deal (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981).
28.ï¿½ O’Day, “Should Congress Pass the Dies Bill to Deport alien Fascists and Communists?” Vital Speeches of the Day, March 11, 1935.
29.ï¿½ Perkins, interview, Oral History.
30.ï¿½ Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt, vol. 2, 1933–1938 (New York: Viking, 1999).
31.ï¿½ Kenneth Robert Janken, The Biography of Walter White, Mr. NAACP (New York: The New Press, 2001); Walter Francis White, A Man Called White (New York: Arno Press, 1969). It has been suggested that Mrs. O’Day, despite her Southern origins, developed an antipathy toward racial discrimination during her years in Paris. Hope Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress (New York: Praeger, 1973).
32.ï¿½ Henry L. Feingold, The Roosevelt Administration and the Holocaust, 1938–1945 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1970).
33.ï¿½New York Times, Sept. 7, 1935, and Sept. 22, 1936. See also Caroline O’Day’s article, “Women versus Fascism,” in the Congressional Bulletin, March 3, 1939.
34.ï¿½ Kenneth S. Davis, Invincible Summer: An Intimate Portrait of the Roosevelts, Based on the Recollections of Marion Dickerman (New York: Atheneum, 1974).
35.ï¿½ Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library.
36.ï¿½New York Times, Oct. 29, 1934, and March 13, 1936.
37.ï¿½ “My Day,” Oct. 26, 1938, and Good Housekeeping, Jan. 1940.
38.ï¿½ Eleanor Roosevelt to Caroline O’Day, August 24, 1939, and Caroline O’Day to Eleanor Roosevelt, August 31, 1939, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library.
39.ï¿½New York Times, Nov. 14, 1941. Voting “pairs” are informal agreements by which a House member who is absent during a vote on the House floor arranges with a member on the opposite side of a specific question who is present to announce they are forming a “pair.” This allows the absent member to have recorded how she would have voted if she had been present. Congressional Research Service, the Library of Congress.
40.ï¿½Congressional Record Appendix, Dec. 11, 1941.
41.ï¿½ Caroline O’Day to Eleanor Roosevelt, October 12, 1942, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library.
42.ï¿½ Eleanor Roosevelt to Elia O’Day, January 4, 1943, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library.
43.ï¿½ Caroline O’Day, “The Congresswoman.” Useful biographical information is contained in the obituaries published in the New York Times, Herald Tribune, and Washington Post on January 5, 1943 and the Rye (N.Y.) Chronicle on January 8, 1943.
By Paul DeForest Hicks