Our first Jewish Congresswoman
Eighty-five years ago today, Florence Prag Kahn became the first Jewish woman elected to the United States Congress, and only the fifth woman to ever serve in that body.
Like most Congresswomen serving during the early twentieth-century, Kahn was elected to replace her husband, who had died only two months before. But unlike other Congressional widows, who were often considered placeholders until state party officials could find a suitable candidate to run in the regular election, Kahn held onto her seat for twelve years and forged a reputation as a powerful lawmaker and a shrewd advocate for San Francisco, her home district.
Florence Prag Kahn was a college educated former teacher and the mother of two sons. During her husband Julius Kahn's 25 years in Congress, she assisted him as his secretary and supplemented the family income by writing a political column for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Kahn was a loyal Republican. She opposed movie censorship and prohibition, and even spoke out against women's suffrage before the right was first granted in her home state of California in 1911. Like her husband, in Congress she focused her energy on military preparedness, becoming the first woman to serve on the House Military Affairs Committee. She used her position to funnel many projects to the Bay Area, introducing legislation that led to the construction of multiple air fields, the Alameda Naval Air Station, and the Bay Bridge. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the sharp-tongued daughter of former president Teddy Roosevelt and wife of the Speaker of the House Nicholas Longworth, once described Kahn as "Mrs. Kahn, shrewd, resourceful, and witty, is an all-around first-rate legislator, the equal of any man in Congress and the superior of most."
Kahn's reputation as a skilled lawmaker was only eclipsed by that of her wit. When asked why she once received twice the number of votes as her late husband, the matronly Kahn replied dryly, "Sex appeal." A line often repeated by her colleagues in the House was that "You always know how Florence Kahn is going to vote, but only God has the slightest inkling of what shes going to say." Her quips often brought her Jewish heritage to the forefront. After being accused by colleague Fiorello LaGuardia of blindly following the will of conservative Senator George Moses of New Hampshire, she joked, "Why shouldn't I choose Moses as my leader? Haven't my people been following him for ages?"
After losing her seat in 1936, Kahn returned to San Francisco, where she remained active in both Jewish and secular civic organizations until her death in 1948. No Jewish women would serve in Congress until 1970, when the legendary Bella Abzug took her seat. Kahn was a trailblazer who demonstrated that women could be just as politically skilled and powerful as men. She believed that there is no sex in citizenship and there should be none in politics, and during her time in Congress she proved just that, paving the way for future women leaders.
Emily Kadar is a National Campus Organizer at the Feminist Majority Foundation.