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Affairs of (More Than) the Heart

Widows Who Succeed Their Husbands in Congress Honor Legacies While Creating Their Own

Leonard McCombe/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Then-Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers, who served 35 years in the House after her husband’s death, speaks at a House Steering Committee meeting.

The primary duties of Members of Congress filling the roles that their spouses left behind is the same as every other Member: tend to the needs of their constituents and be a legislator. 

And while the six women now in Congress who were preceded in office by their husbands share a reverence for their partners’ legislative legacies — some are involved with causes that bring attention to issues their husbands cared about deeply — they know they’ll be judged by their own records. 

After the death of Rep. Bob Matsui (D-Calif.) in 2005, Doris Matsui picked up the torch of his advocacy for establishing national monuments at the sites of Japanese-American internment camps. 

Bob Matsui was 6 months old when his family was interned at the Tule Lake camp in California.

The late Rep. Bill Emerson (R-Mo.) was active on hunger issues, and his wife, eight-term Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, now co-chairs the Hunger Caucus.

But even as the female lawmakers honor their spouses, they know it’s about much more than memory.

“It’s not about your husband; it’s about the district,” said Rep. Mary Bono Mack, a California Republican whose late husband, pop singer and restaurateur Sonny Bono, was elected to two terms in the House. 

“Sonny felt the same way,” added Bono Mack, who is now married to Rep. Connie Mack IV (R-Fla.). 

Matsui can easily rattle off many of the issues that she shared a common passion for with her husband: flood control, transportation, seniors issues, health care and trade. 

But the intersection of policy interests between Matsui and her late husband is more a consequence of serving the same district and sharing a common ideology than an explicit homage to his legislative priorities. 

“Sacramento, my district, is the hub of the region. Transportation and any kind of infrastructure, like flood protection, is definitely something I deal with and that he dealt [with]. It’s something that anyone who represents this district has to do,” she said.

The first widow to serve in Congress after her husband’s death was Rep. Mae Ella Nolan (R-Calif.). She served just one full term from 1923 to 1925, a significant contrast to the lengthier careers of today’s widows.

Nolan’s campaign pitch to voters was simple: She would be a continuation of her husband’s political conscience, with little to no deviation from his policy agenda. In both policy and personnel, Nolan maintained continuity between the political operation of her husband and her own. She kept on his secretary — her sister.  

Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University, said the political model for widow lawmakers has changed over time. 

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