Helen Gahagan was born on November 20, 1900. She grew up in a wealthy Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood. After high school, she enrolled at Barnard College, a prestigious women’s college in New York City. Within two years, she left to pursue a career on Broadway.
Helen worked with some of Broadway’s biggest producers. In 1930, she was cast in a play alongside the actor Melvyn Douglas. The two married in April 1931. Helen kept her last name. She told one reporter that she planned on being a loving wife but not a “housewife.” Helen and Melvyn relocated to California, where they pursued movie careers and had two children.
Melvyn’s career grew, but Helen struggled to find work in Hollywood. In 1938, she toured Europe singing opera. During the tour, Helen witnessed the rise of fascism. While performing in Vienna, an acquaintance tried to recruit Helen as a Nazi spy. Helen was horrified and immediately quit and returned home. A few weeks later, Hitler invaded Austria.
Deeply disturbed by her experience, Helen joined the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. She realized that political activism was a fulfilling alternative to a shrinking acting and singing career. Helen soon joined an organization that supported migrant workers in California. She toured migrant camps, raised money, attended hearings, and lobbied for better labor laws and social services.
In 1939, a mutual friend arranged for Helen and Melvyn to meet President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The couples became fast friends. When President Roosevelt was up for re-election, Helen volunteered to help. She traveled around California speaking for the campaign and was later appointed the Head of the Women’s Division of the Democratic Party in California.
In 1943, several Democratic leaders convinced Helen to run for Congress in California’s fourteenth district. Her acting skills made her natural public speaker, and her willingness to ask hard questions made her a strong advocate for others. To appeal to more conservative voters, Helen agreed to start using her husband’s last name. From then on, she was known as Helen Gahagan Douglas.
Helen focused her campaign on important issues of the day. She promoted the New Deal’s social services and Roosevelt’s leadership in World War II. But Helen’s opponents took a different approach. During both the primary and general elections, she faced criticism for being a woman, for being married to a Jewish man, and for being too idealistic. Despite these attacks, Helen won the November election by a small margin.
Helen’s district covered most of the Los Angeles area. Her constituents included some of California’s poorest and most racially diverse communities. She worked hard to prove that she—a former actress with little political experience and no college degree from a wealthy East Coast family—understood their needs.
Helen arrived in Washington, D.C., in January 1945. Melvyn was serving in the army during World War II, so Helen balanced raising two children and pursuing a new career on her own.
It is because I know what education and opportunity and the respect of the community mean in the development of human beings that I fight for them for everyone.
Experienced members of Congress expected new members to spend their first term quietly learning the job. Women members of Congress were expected to stay quiet even beyond their first term. Helen refused to accept this. She believed she was elected to fight on behalf of her constituents and the nation as a whole, so she did.
With many doors closed to her because of her gender and lack of seniority, Helen found alternative ways to influence policy. She spoke to audiences across the country, gave interviews to journalists, and published opinion pieces. She researched and spoke out about issues connected to the country’s most overlooked populations, including low-income families, Black citizens, and women. Helen also fought for stricter control of nuclear research after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan.
Helen’s views gained negative attention. The FBI opened a file on Helen. Her anti-nuclear position and belief in peace with the Soviet Union put her on a list of potentially disloyal Americans.
Helen won re-election twice. Over the course of three terms, she developed a reputation as a vocal liberal presence in Congress. She saw herself as a champion for those who did not have full citizenship. Helen did not hold a great deal of formal power, but she was popular, respected, and known as a threat to the political establishment. Helen ran for Senate in 1950 because believed she could make a bigger difference on a statewide level.
However, America in 1950 was different than wartime America, when Helen was first elected. In that single year, the Cold War gained significant momentum. America entered the Korean War and sent its first advisers to Vietnam, Senator Joseph McCarthy started hunting for communists, and ten Hollywood professionals went to prison for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Anyone who did not commit to so-called American values was seen as a threat.
Helen refused to cooperate with the HUAC and disliked anyone who served on it. She felt it was dangerous to create strict definitions for what was American or un-American. She compared anti-communism to anti-Semitism in prewar Germany and warned that such behavior led to fascism. She also encouraged international cooperation.
Helen’s Republican opponent in the Senate race was Richard Nixon. Nixon was a young California Congressman who served on HUAC and had White House aspirations.
Instead of focusing on politics, Nixon’s campaign centered on personal attacks. Helen was described as the “Pink Lady,” a term that emphasized her femininity and suggested she had ties to the Communist party. Nixon said she was “pink right down to underwear” and printed flyers on pink paper. He emphasized Helen’s connections to Hollywood glamor and suggested she was too liberal and not a serious candidate. He presented himself as an upstanding family man who supported American ideals and stability.
The Senate race was ugly and exhausting. Helen struggled to find opportunities to talk about the issues. She found it impossible to steer the conversation away from her gender and her supposed disloyalty to America. In the end, Nixon won.
Helen stepped away from formal politics after the election. She, Melvyn, and their children moved to New York City for a fresh start. Helen focused on her family and continued to volunteer for causes or candidates that she supported.
When Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968, Helen struggled to stay out of the spotlight. During the Watergate scandal, many Californians displayed a bumper sticker that read, “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Helen Gahagan Douglas.”
That same year, Helen appeared on the cover of the feminist magazine Ms. The headline read “The First to Know the Real Nixon: Helen Gahagan Douglas.” Helen supported women’s liberation and argued that the only way women could succeed was by working together. She knew that her career would have been very different if she were a man.
On June 29, 1980, Helen died of cancer.
- Adolph Hitler: German politician and leader of the Nazi Party. Chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1934, and Führer (leader) of Nazi Germany from 1934 to 1945.
- Cold War: A state of hostility between two nations that does not include open warfare. The most famous cold war was between the United States and the Soviet Union from 1945 to 1990.
- communism: A political system in which all goods and items of value are collectively owned and distributed to citizens equally.
- constituents: The people a government official represents.
- democracy: A form of government in which the people hold the power and use elections and other forms of collective action to influence policy.
- fascism: A political system that values the rights of the nation over the rights of individual citizens and is often led by a powerful and popular leader or dictator. Fascism often includes deciding who belongs in a nation by using racial or ethnic categories.
- FBI: Federal Bureau of Investigation.
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt: President of the United States from 1933 to 1945.
- House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC): A committee of the United States House of Representatives that investigated possible communist people and activities in the United States.
- migrant worker: A person who relocates often to take temporary jobs in different locations. Often associated with seasonal agricultural work.
- Nazi Party: The far-right, fascist political party in Germany from 1920 to 1945.
- How did Helen’s first career in acting connect to her second career in politics?
- What happened to Helen during her trip to Europe in 1938? How did that experience shape the rest of her life?
- Helen kept her maiden name after marrying Melvyn Douglas. Why did she change her name to Helen Gahagan Douglas later on? What does this tell you about the role of women in society and politics in the mid-twentieth century?
- What challenges did Helen face as a congressional candidate and member of Congress?
- How did Helen gain influence and power within Congress? Why is this significant?
- Why was 1950 a significant year in the Cold War? How did politics in that year reflect and inform people’s ideas of what it meant to be American?
- Why did Helen dislike the work of HUAC and speak out against anti-communist attitudes?
- What challenges did Helen face during her run for Senate?
- Why do you think Helen stepped away from politics after the 1950 Election? What does this say about the impact politics can have on a candidate?