Virginia Ellis Somes Jenckes (1877-1975)
Indiana was a leader in the nineteenth-century women's rights movement, but women were not enfranchised until 1920 – when its legislature held a special session in April that allowed seven women to run for the legislature that fall. The only winner was Julia D. Reynolds Nelson of Muncie – and she filed at the very last minute, after Republicans nominated her to replace a recently deceased man.
Born in Terre Haute in 1877, Virginia Somes married corn miller Ray Greene Jenckes in 1912 and managed his 1,300-acre farm; after his 1921 death, it was her sole responsibility. She served in various agricultural organizations, and in 1928, was elected secretary of the National Rivers and Streams Congress.
A Democrat, her reputation among farmers led to her victory in the landslide election of 1932; at the nadir of the Great Depression, the traditionally Republican state of Indiana joined all but two others in voting Democratic. Her election, however, was truly extraordinary: because of re-districting, she had to defeat incumbents in both the Democratic primary and the general election. With her daughter driving the car, she traveled the rural Sixth District and rallied farm families to her side.
Congresswoman Jenckes joined other Democrats in voting to repeal Prohibition, the national ban on alcohol, and championed agricultural needs, especially flood prevention. She supported President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, but did not receive the committee assignments that best represented her constituents. Re-elected in 1934 and 1936, she became more conservative later in her tenure, emphasizing issues such as crime and communism that were not genuine problems in her district. In 1938, voters returned to the Republican they elected earlier.
Jenckes, however, moved on to international issues. While still in Congress, she had been the first female delegate to the International Parliamentary Union in Paris, and after she lost her election, she lived in Washington and worked for the Red Cross. She specialized in attempting to force Germany to pay the reparations it owed from World War I, which she intended to discourage its rearmament. By then, however, Hitler was far too strong, and World War II began less than a year after Jenckes joined the Red Cross.
She stayed with the Red Cross for two decades and made headlines again in 1956, when at age 79, she helped five Catholic priests escape the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Virginia Jenckes died back in Terre Haute in 1975, her 98th year.
Image credit: DC Public Library.